Travails of a Woman Documentation person
Personal is Political
-A well known feminist slogan
Well behaved women rarely makes history
-Eleanor Roosevelt to Marlyn Monroe
It was Mary Wollstonecraft’s first defiant moment in 1792 with the publication of ‘Vindication of Rights of Woman’ that we came across a documented history of Woman’s writing in a journal writing format, and which looked upon women as a political subject. As some of the students of women studies must be reading works of Virginia Woolf to theorists like Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, Uma Chakravarti, Urvashi Butalia etc. While the writing of these women varied from personal accounts in journal formats to work of fictions, they all found space via libraries, book shops etc. to enter popular cultural imagination. Although books and articles on the history of women have appeared throughout the ages, the practice of creating special collections and archives for women is a relatively recent phenomenon, not quite a century old. It is only in the last few years that historians have become aware that there was a pattern to the establishment of women’s archives in India. This is where I would like to emphasize on the need for archiving and having women archivists. While, we might do formal style of academic writing and documentation but need for archiving and documentation remains quintessential because if we don’t archive now the future generations would not have enough material to look upon to understand their history and source the struggles of the previous generations. I also see that there is a need to broaden and expand the material that is archived because sometimes so much material circulate in a public domain that they don’t end up in an archive.
I don’t know how many of you have ever been to an archive for research purposes but if you visit Delhi and you end up going to National Archives or for that matter Teen Murti Museum, you would realize that the books or audiovisual records that land up in those shelves are actually the staple of what many mainstream historians or students might deem as something of historical importance or official document of historical value. The documents at times available in these archives at times are so exclusive that they largely forego experiences of women as well as marginalized sections of the society. So, these stories of the margins are somehow never find space in official, public, mainstream, institutional space in which memories is being kept and at times hand woven for the coming generations.
So, one can see that the way we have learned to look at both politics and history is too much with the lens of public space which can be extremely exclusionary. So, how does one feature in history or make sure that one’s heritage find space in history? Even if you look at newspapers, you would notice that the newspaper would be giving you the main headlines which inturn is the index or highlight of that particular day. So, the important stories of history might feature in page 10 or buried in a page between advertisements. So, how does one tells an oppositional or alternative history? Women’s movement in India is one such oppositional or alternative movement in history, where new histories are forged. But where do we find these oppositional or alternative writing, they are usually confined to specific campaigns or fact finding reports, and at times these reports also usually get lost or buried within the archives. Even during various movements one may see generation of various pamphlets, posters distributed to the people, which eventually disappears after event is over. This why there was a constant need for archiving and documenting to create and recreate an alternative narrative.
As an archivist and documentation management person I realised the radical potential of memories of our past but also the need to preserve them for posterity, this made me start my tryst with the camera. If you are interested in photography you would realize that the presence of camera changes your perspective of how you enter a particular situation at the time, it was similar in my case as well. In 2011, I had an opportunity to work as an intern in one of the most prestigious institutions called The Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology of American Institute of Indian Studies, which had been in the field of archiving and documentation for more than 30 years now. The reason for joining such an institution worked in two fold manner firstly my need to learn the basic skills of documentation for long term preservation, and further find a collective that would work in line of archives like SPARROW (Sound and Pictures Archives on Research on Women) which had come up with alternative measures to document women’s history not only through various women’s movement but also their day to day struggles within an hetero-patriarchal setup.
The archive that I talk about or imagine for the future are not only documenting the history of woman’s movement in India but also that comprise of works of woman filmmakers, writers, voices of dalit women which at times don’t get space within the mainstream. These archives would have women working to rewrite and to co-create history and would be fully managed by them.
Though during my days of being a student of Journalism and Mass Communication I was never interested in seeing how a camera worked, I realised its importance during my stint in ARCE and later documenting movements like anti-rape movement in Delhi, queer movement in Delhi along with student movement etc.
See, with some basic training anyone can be an archivist or documentation personal, there is not always a need for aesthetically designed videos but documentation that is legible enough and can be available for the future. The objective is to never back down by criticism about your work take it constructively, keep yourself abreast with technological innovations. Imagine if you were reporting in the 70s and 80s, you would have to visit the scene of action, interview some people get back and then churn out my story. This however has changed with coming of youtube, snapchat, ustream, livestream apps etc. the technological intervention allowed me to directly post videos on facebook, twitter, myspace to get people’s attention towards issues that was at times not covered by mainstream media.
It is through series of experiences such as these along with my training as an archivist as well as someone who work within the activist circles that I realized how important it is to voice one’s opinion and to make sure that voices of woman even within the activist circle doesn’t get suppressed. I realized that it was extremely hard for me as documentation person to be taken seriously at times people don’t inform you about ongoing protests, give you misleading information.
I would emphasize on the fact that whenever you find yourself amidst a protest or incident of significant value do step out of your comfort zone. Don’t drive around, instead walk, meet people, talk to them, and ask questions, you may be surprised by the different version of the same story circulating amongst people.
Though there are women pioneers who start things, it is equally important for us in the newer generations to continue these legacies keep them alive. I wish that the different pioneering spirits that created space for us and you to be here today continue to remain alive through each of you. Let your light shine!
Ms. Priyam Ghosh
Dept. of Communication Studies