A voice for history's forgotten

Our history books miss out on so much when they are not telling the story of the winner, the leader or the conqueror. A pity, since there is much to know of the life and the living of those whom legends overshadow. 

Published: 23rd September 2013 07:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd September 2013 07:53 AM   |  A+A-


Our history books miss out on so much when they are not telling the story of the winner, the leader or the conqueror. A pity, since there is much to know of the life and the living of those whom legends overshadow. 

The first-ever Winter School on Orality, Memory and Social Change in India hopes to make good some of that loss. To be held from November 6 to 15 at Centre for Public History, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, the course will 'focus on the role played by oral history in documenting social change'. The school is partnered by Instituto Italiano di Cultura, New Delhi, Trinity College, Dublin and Center for Contemporary Studies at Indian Institute of Science.

According to Indira Chowdhury, who is director, Centre for Public History, oral history is often confused with oral traditions, although they are not very far from each other. She says, "Oral history is a method but now recognised as a field. It is often confused with oral traditions or folk traditions. Recording folk songs is not oral history, but recording a folk song and then contextualising it by recording an interview with the singer is oral history."

Chowdhury strongly feels that it would be a pity not to find out more about the lives of folk artistes in the interest of recording their singing because the song is part of the intangible cultural heritage and their lives are not.  "Oral histories focus on life stories. As an oral historian, I believe that recording the voices of those who are otherwise ignored by history is important. I also feel that since institutions often do not archive their histories, oral history enables us to understand institutional life better by talking to people who have worked within the institution. It is important to remember though that oral history is not about gathering information but about uncovering what events meant to people," she says.

Voices unheard

The Winter School will address a few key questions in the field of oral history, especially its understanding, which according to Chowdhury, is a method by which spoken accounts that are offered by interviewees in response to questioning are recorded, archived and analysed. "Oral histories can be reflective, deeply involved, always subjective but valuable and irreplaceable sources. Our course will focus on orality, memory and social change and will look at understandings of social change through voices that are often not included in official histories," she says.

Growing interest

The Centre for Public History has already been involved in promoting the cause of oral history by way of certificate courses it has been offering since this year. It was in doing this that the Centre was introduced to the variety of work being done in India in the field of oral history and it felt the need to set up the school. In fact, persons, like Chowdhury, involved in conducting oral history interviews have now come together to found the Oral History Association of India.

Says Chowdhury, "In the last couple of years, in my capacity as an office bearer of the International Oral History Association (IOHA), I found that there is a great deal of interest within the international community of practitioners of oral history about Indian contributions to the field. I thought, a good way of bringing both these aspects together would be to have an international and Indian faculty teach an Advanced Course."

So there are Alessandro Portelli, Miroslav Vanek, Furrukh Khan, K. Lalita, Suroopa Mukherjee, Vrunda Pathare and Urvashi Butalia teaching this course. The students who have applied for it come from all over - Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and different parts of India.

History in the making

According to Chowdhury, most oral historians in India work independently. "There is very little training in the methodology or the theory that is given in the Universities. So our efforts would certainly fill a lacuna, " says Chowdhury, adding that the school hopes to begin academic discussions around oral history as a discipline.

"Winter schools or summer schools are common all over the world. In India, the science disciplines often conducts similar schools. We hope we will be able to find the funds to have another winter school on a different area of oral history next year."

Admissions to the winter school are still open. Those interested must write soon to For course details, go to


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