By Adity Choudhury

“To me oral tradition is as important as food and drink. While overtly it refers to all verbal art that comes into being and is transmitted without texts, it also has, in recent years, demonstrated how it encompasses myriad forms, genres, and tropes that interact with texts and other forms of communication.”

With these words, poet and folklorist Desmond Kharmawphlang, underscored the importance of oral history at the inaugural address of the workshop, titled, Stories and Life Stories: Recording, Archiving and Disseminating Oral History, organised by Northeast India Audio Visual (AV) Archive from April 3 to 5, 2023.

He spoke about the relevance of the maw (stone; also, memory) in Khasi culture, and how memory is actively connected with and through stone, alluding to the complex and elaborate megalithic structures of the community and the Khasi traditional music.

Saaz Agarwal and Indira Chowdhury, the two resource persons, stressed on different aspects of oral history archiving, spanning over a period of three days.

While Aggarwal is a Pune-based independent oral historian, writer and artist, Chowdhury is the Director of Centre for Public History, Shrishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology (Bangalore).

Participants were mostly research scholars from Manipur, Sikkim, Assam, Mizoram, including independent oral historians from New Delhi and UP.

What the workshop covered

Day one covered sessions on collecting stories of dispersed families by Aggarwal. Chowdhury spoke about the theory and practice of oral history and the art of listening as an oral historian.

Drawing chuckles from the participants, a listening exercise made them realise its role in shaping an oral historian. Most agreed with Aggarwal that active listening required the pin drop silence inside the mind.

Day two saw Chowdhury highlighting the stages in oral history archiving and the significance of transcription, summarising and translation post interview. Aggarwal spoke about piecing the past together, including the critical role language plays in archiving the past.

On the final day of the workshop, Aggarwal narrated her own journey as an oral historian. Chowdhury dwelt on interpretation and curation of oral history.

The documentary, Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dream by documentary filmmaker, Rafeeq Elias generated interest as it depicted the effects of the 1962 Indo-China War on the Indian Chinese community.

What they said

In speaking about her work, Aggarwal said, “My work specifically deals with the Sindhi community. Sindh was a province in undivided India, initially part of the Bombay presidency and then separated. Post independence, it was handed over (intact) to Pakistan. It was assumed that the non-Muslims would live there, having lived in Sindh as a well-integrated minority for centuries. Events following Partition led them to flee, living in exile.”

She reminisced about the time spent with her Sindhi grandparents in Bombay for three years. “I never even thought about them as people who lost anything. My grandfather spoke to us in English while my grandmother spoke in Hindi; with each other, they spoke in Sindhi. I found I could understand the language by the end of my stay. My regret is I could have spoken to them about their experience.”

Her conversation with her mother shaped her understanding further. “My mother told me about the martial law in Sindh and how my grandfather worked as a lawyer in a high-profile case. I started thinking about what happened in Sindh before, during and after Partition.”

Chowdhury recalled her childhood years growing up in independent India where August 15 was celebrated without understanding the nuances of what this day meant.

Her great grandfather refused to move to India and till the very end, lived in Comilla (present day Bangladesh). Through the old black-and-white photographs of her family, she raised an important point on how history is approached as a subject.

As Chowdhury got older, she observed how history “does not really include the people of India… the ones we meet everyday and who tell their stories.”

Given that people don’t find their place in the prescribed textbooks, her fascination with ordinary men and women grew.

Both resource persons presented a multi-layered perspective of archiving memory.

Aggarwal shared some interesting illustrated photographs in her curation of the Sindhi community, embedded with text. Among them, “The Spread of Sindhiworkis”, the Sindhi script, a Sindhi merchant, and people walking towards the Kalyan Railway, to name a few.

One image was particularly striking. It depicted Mahatma Gandhi being partitioned, a re-imagining of the event – an illustration by artist Subhodeep Mukherjee who works closely with Aggarwal – based on Gandhi’s 1916 visit to Sindh. He had returned to India from South Africa in 1915; the real image was taken in Karachi.

Chowdhury stressed on layers to oral history archiving, ranging from “What is History?”, “What does it mean to curate?”, “Oral History: An Instrument of Change”, and “People Without History, among others.

Let’s Meet Nihu Angami

Chowdhury returned to the North East through her presentation.

Take British sculptor and anthropologist Marguerite Milward (1873-1953) for instance. Her busts of Indian tribes were also racial profiling of the people she encountered in her expeditions; she travelled widely to find models and one of her busts was of Nihu Angami.

One of the slides shared by Chowdhury provided a glimpse of the bust. She observed that while the bust is at display at the Indian Museum, it did not include any description about him.

The oral historian researched and found about Nihu Angami’s participation in a Memorandum signed by him and 19 others that was presented to the Simon Commission from the Naga Hills, dated January 10, 1929.

The memorandum recorded, “Our country is poor and it does not pay for any administration. Therefore if it is continued to be placed under Reformed Scheme, we are afraid new and heavy taxes will have to be imposed on us, and when we cannot pay, then all lands have to be sold and in the long run we shall have no share in the land of our birth and life will not be worth living then. Though our land at present is within the British territory, Government have always recognized our private rights in it, but if we are forced to enter the council the majority of whose number is sure to belong to other districts, we also have much fear the introduction of foreign laws and customs to supersede our own customary laws which we now enjoy…”

This momentous event in history will not find mention in the NCERT history textbooks, and can be sourced through careful digging in archival records. In this context, oral history focuses on micro histories, where people become active agents of change in their respective societies.

Chowdhury, in her oral history interview with Mark Elliot, Senior Curator, Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Cambridge, recorded his understanding of the Milward heads.

They are, in Elliot’s words, seen as “straightforward illustrations of what some indigenous or Adivasi people look like” for decades.

Sharing about his research with her, he added, “My research has focused on tracing the real people that Milward chose as models, and whose faces were subsequently transformed into anthropological categories. Because these are real people and not objectifications, giving them back their identities is perhaps the most important thing any museum can do, given the extent to which the identities of so-called ‘tribal’ peoples have been threatened in both the colonial and postcolonial Indian state.”

The Importance of Archives

Over the course of three days, participants learnt about how the narrative can be a research method and the role of life stories, for example.

The latter is significant. Chowdhury quoted Cuban-American anthropologist, Ruth Behar, who said, “… a life history should allow one to see how an actor makes culturally meaningful history, how history is produced in action and in the actor’s retrospective reflections on that action.”

Her sessions covered how oral history means acquiring new skills and a shift in focus, where data and interaction work together; the research before the interview, involving conceptualisation of the project, background research, preparing the interview guide and selecting/locating interviewees; why preparation matters; and ethics and legal issues pertaining to oral history archiving.

She also stressed on proper division of larger historical events in the world with events in India and biographical events to place the individual alongside the macro histories, one usually reads. This, as she implied, placed the individual in constant negotiation with the larger historical forces at work.

For any aspiring oral historian, the six R(s) are important – research, rapport, responsibility, reflection, restraint and respect – they shape oral history archiving.

As cultures, specifically oral traditions, are on the brink of a gradual disappearance, is it not a collective responsibility to document them for future generations to know about and ponder on?

The words of Kharmawphlang come to mind. For people whose memory is connected to the maw “in the days of yore”, it has become even more critical to remember the importance of speaking to stones.

For who knows what stories remain in the maw, as it continues to whisper to those who care to listen.