Memory and Orality in Contemporary Indian History
Sucheta Mahajan, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
« This presentation on extending the archive beyond its traditional avatar is intended for the researcher and enthusiast in contemporary history, those doing oral history and students and teachers offering courses in historical method. The process that is highlighted is the movement of historical study and research beyond the confines of the written archives, away from the
official records, to the village chaupals and fields of the peasants, to the offices of trade unions, to the factory canteens, to simple homes, where people gather, meet and live their lives.
I discuss one such trend, namely oral history, which had energized the field of history.
People who saw the past as dead are now discovering history to be a living thing. They are connecting with their families, their grandparents, their local temples, artefacts and more. They now see value in dusty photographs and letters that they wanted to throw away to free scarce cupboard space. The ramblings of old grandparents, to which nobody lent an ear, are now recognized as valid historical testimony and recorded, sometimes even on video. The empowerment of these forgotten men and women in this process is there for all to see.
I take a close look at two oral history initiatives to explore issues of methodology and ethics, as well as the transformative aspects of the exercise. The first is the project (of which I was a member) sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research on the history of the freedom movement, conducted by professors and researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU); and the second, testimonies of the survivors/ victims of the Partition recorded by researchers. »