Thursday, February 10, 2011

Preserve 'her story' before it's lost

Preserve ‘her story’ before it’s lost
Published: Wednesday, Feb 9, 2011, 1:23 IST By Uttarika Kumaran Place: Mumbai Agency: DNA
Why is it we all know that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister, but many would struggle to remember his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit —the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post and later became governor of Maharashtra? Or the fact that RK Laxman is considered India’s greatest cartoonist, while the name of Maya Kamath barely registers? And who would’ve thought something as frivolous as rangolis could give one a glimpse into the political and social concerns of the women who drew them?
The Sound and Picture Archive for Research On Women (SPARROW) library in a non-descript building in Dahisar (East), doesn’t claim to have the answers. But in an ostensibly pluralist world, where even bringing up the gender issue is increasingly being considered myopic, it definitely raises some interesting questions.
Taking flightSet up in 1988 by Dr CS Lakshmi, Dr Neera Desai and Dr Maithreyi Krishna Raj, all pioneering figures in the field of women’s studies in India, SPARROW was an unusual name for what was, back then, an unusual endeavour. “In most of our work, we were always looking for material currently found in SPARROW but usually absent in other archives and documentation centres,” says DR CS Lakshmi, director, SPARROW.
With funding from the Dutch organisation HIVOS in 1997, the ten-year grant period that followed were the most crucial years in the growth of the archive. Today, the archive stores 5,000 books in 11 Indian languages and countless more journals, journal articles and newspaper clippings covering all areas of history and culture related to women. SPARROW’s anchor project on oral history has produced video and audio recordings of a diverse set of women, from those involved in the freedom movement, practitioners of traditional systems of medicine, artists, writers and educationists.
Losing speedToday, the library that holds this veritable treasure house of women’s histories is called Dr Neera Desai Memorial Library, named after the late Dr Neera Desai who taught an entire generation of feminists to rise above abstractions and examine their own realities.
In this spirit, SPARROW has consistently organised exhibitions, writers’ camps and cultural festivals to take the archive out of the library and into public spaces. However, over the past two years, the absence of adequate funding has meant that such activities have considerably reduced. For now, SPARROW has been able to tide over the fund crunch via donations from individual donors as well as a Charity Art Raffle organised last year.
But the atmosphere at the SPARROW office, despite many leaving for better-paying jobs, remains upbeat. And although the immaculately kept library finds few visitors, except for researchers and stray students, the team, buried deep in newspapers, women’s magazines, audio tapes and transcripts, keeps the archiving mission going on full steam.
Malsawmi Jacob, a Mizo poet and writer, and currently editor at SPARROW, claims the best thing about her work is that it gives her a window into so many different lives. Speaking as an employee, however, Jacob admits times have been tough. “Several people have left since they haven’t had a rise in salary in the past four years. I myself have had to take up a part-time position here,” she says.
The sky’s the limit“The function of an archive is to retrieve marginal histories,” explains Dr Lakshmi. As a case in point, she talks of the 1998 SPARROW publication on Sakhubai, a tribal woman and member of Kashtakari Sanghatana, an organisation in Maharashtra that saves tribal communities from exploitation. She adds, “Sakhubai will never be part of any textbook. That’s why I strongly feel that if you want to change the education system, change the material that people can have access to.”
With this in mind, SPARROW has also taken up ‘Women in Science’, a project commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, to document the achievements of 20 Indian women scientists. “We will also publish a small booklet about these scientists, aimed at young girls who are on the verge of making a career choice,” says Dr Lakshmi.
However, SPARROW’s primary concern is to generate enough funds to become self-sufficient. “For an archive like ours, we need commerce. Otherwise we are project-dependent and at the mercy of funding agencies. If we have an adequate corpus, we won’t need to compromise,” says Dr Lakshmi.
Giving wings to SPARROWSPARROW recently launched A Sky to Fly, an initiative to find 2,000 supporters to contribute Rs2,500 annually for the next four years. This amount will translate into archival activities, publications, outreach projects and infrastructural expenses for SPARROW.
To donate, email or visit
Source: DNA dated 09/02/2011

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