The fifth and last day of the XIXth International Oral History Conference was held on the beautiful campus of the Canadian International School, Bengaluru. Continuing on from the previous day’s discussions on the ideas of displacement and the predicament of people and their stories due to such circumstances, the day started off with a screening of Ammar Aziz’s film, “The Walnut Tree”. The documentary posits the notion of a distant homeland through the character of the old man and his family. Scenes of everyday life in a refugee camp are brought to life through oral history interviewing techniques and the skillful use of the camera. This film was made as a part of the Justice Project in South Asia and addresses the negotiations and struggles of people in conflict zones, especially internally displaced refugees within their own country, in this case those who are caught between the Pakistan Army and the Taliban. The searing narrative style of the film underlined the gravity of the situation for people who live as refugees in their own country.
Before the closing plenary could begin, a special ceremony was held to acknowledge and celebrate the student volunteers from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. As Nikhila Nanduri, one of the students volunteers remarked, “My conference has been spent in the Kolor Kode office!” These students worked tirelessly and were the bedrock on which the Conference was hinged, especially regarding the logistics of organizing an event on such a scale. They managed all events with smiles on their faces. These smiles remained intact as Dr. Indira Chowdhury called out their names and Dr. Pilar Dominguez handed out their certificates of participation to them.
The closing plenary titled “The dialogue between oral history and history: convergences and divergences” was chaired by Pilar Dominguez. The plenary saw David Beorlegui translate all the talks simultaneously into Spanish and English, as per requirement. Because of this factor, the ‘performativity’ of the closing plenary became a special event to witness. Historian Shahid Amin started the plenary with an apology and a justification. He apologized that he was “not a card holding oral historian” and wrote about histories of the unlettered. He justified his presence in this Conference by invoking the metaphor of the neighbor who overhears and most times, strains to hear! Amin invoked Portelli’s ideas of equality in the interview process while talking about his own interjections into subalternate histories. He declared definitively that the riot of the Cahuri Chaura incident in 1922 could not remain as a negative footnote. The rioters as the subjects of his inquiry informed Amin about the peasants’ understanding of nation and the nationalism they practiced. Gabriel Medrano de Luna from Mexico deliberated on testimonies in history and oral history. He went on to talk about understanding text and how oral history speaks. He also mentioned how testimonies or oral histories become embedded in larger structures. The third speaker Martha Norkunas spoke at length about gender, women and their ‘fear of public space’ and the restriction of movement. She mentioned a project that was facilitated at the Univeristy of Texas that asked the students there to design a feminist city. Martha also traversed ideas like the boundaries of power and the rules of movement in each space, migrants, refugees, micro geographies, narratives and the experience of movement, landscapes, places and the typologies of power and the contexts of space. Yogesh Raj from Nepal raised difficult questions about the structures of orality. He postulated that little attention to varied “formations of orality” i.e. positions of arriving at the positions of speech becoming ‘speaker’, ‘author’ and ‘subject’. He also enumerated different kinds of silences and the many forms of interjections, which because they are monosyllabic, cut the path of conversations short. Yogesh questioned the grammar of the narrative and asked if this kind of approach disciplines orality and therefore limits in a sense doing oral histories. The emphasis on the “episodic fragmentary speaker” attested to the complex pre-history of oral history, the locations of speech and the problematic of the “narrativization programme” which according to Yogesh is “not an innocent one” but collaborative. The idea of symbolic resources gave a new insight into interrogating the very tools of doing oral history and pointed towards the bias of oral history towards narratives. He ended his address with the loaded question of how do we approach the past, especially when faced with the inheritance of a modern historiography which seems inadequate to address these very issues. Dr. Indira Chowdhury summed it up when she asked Shahid Amin why traditional historians “suspect oral history”. She further elaborated her point by asking why the theories of oral history occupy the margins of history syllabuses in the country but there is no engagement with the practice of oral history. Amin chose to address this issue with a “muttered silence”! The plenary was followed by the general assembly of the International Oral History Association (IOHA), to elect new office bearers.
The Conference thus ended on an interrogative mode with emphasis being laid on looking within the discipline itself, towards new approaches and tools to accommodate a rapidly changing world.