Oral History Projects
FOUNDATION OF OHAI
On 19th July 2011, the Centre for Public History of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology held the first Oral History Conference in India at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru. The idea of an Oral History Association of India was first discussed at this conference which was attended by more than one hunfred fifty participants from all over India.
The Association was discussed in an e-group for a while before a group of academics, historians and oral history practitioners met on 2 June 2012 at the Centre for Public History Bangalore to initiate the foundation of OHAI – the Oral History Association of India. Participants had gathered from all over India giving the meeting an opportunity to hear some of the most experienced Oral Historians of India on issues that were close to the theory and practice of oral history. The presentations were short and done in the style of the Pecha Kucha coordinated by Indira Chowdhury. Suroopa Mukherjee, who worked on the Bhopal gas tragedy, presented on the ethics of oral history with trauma victims, Meena Menon who has used oral history to document working class movements in Mumbai, explored ‘Oral history and documentation of political events’, Rama Lakshmi, oral historian and journalist involved with the Bhopal survivor’s museum, spoke about elaborated on ‘Oral history and museums’, Vrunda Pathare, archivist and head of the Godrej Archives, discussed the ‘Challenges of corporate oral histories’ and K. Lalitha who was the first to use oral history to analyse women’s participation in the Telenghana movement, spoke on ’Memory into History’.
The OHAI will be headquartered in Bengaluru. The provisional Committee has Dr Pramod Srivastava (University of Lucknow) as President Dr Indira Chowdhury as Secretary, and film maker, Deepa Dhanraj as Treasurer. The Association is currently awaiting registration.
OHAI will hold conferences and workshops and will be actively promoting the setting of standards for oral history archives across India. OHAI will have a newsletter called OHAI-Varta (“Varta” in many Indian languages means “News”). The first all-India conference of the Association will be held in in Lucknow, India in 2013. OHAI welcomes new members.
Review of Donald A. Ritchie, The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, Oxford, (Oxford University Press, 2011)
The impressive editing and coordination work undertaken by Donald A. Ritchie for The Oxford Handbook of Oral History provides us access to an extensive and current work, which reflects the main areas of development and debates within the field of oral history in recent decades, through the work of renowned professionals working in the discipline. Undoubtedly, the ample network of collaborators in the book – forty in all – reflects well on the extensive knowledge of the subject and specialists who work on it. This is proportionate to Ritchie’s work over many years in organisations such as the Oral History Association and the International Oral History Association. Thus, Ritchie’s book is an example of both the existence of a network of plurals, including researchers from diverse backgrounds and activities throughout the world, and the transformation of a discipline, which in the past ran solely through the margins of academia, and today is widely accepted and used in fields as diverse as anthropology, history, education, medicine, or archives and libraries.
Ritchie has organised his book into six areas of work in terms of challenges faced by an oral historian. In the first part, the focus is on the encounter that occurs in the interview. Understood as an act of intersubjective communication, different authors such as Vilanova, M., Vanek, M. and Quinlan, M. K., among others, analyse the factors that affect the information transmitted in the act of interviewing, with emphasis on the distance between the interviewers and interviewees in terms of their social and cultural origins, race, gender or nationality. Next, the book addresses one of the fundamental theoretical dimensions that has developed in oral history in recent years with the help of historians such as Thompson A., Green, A. or Portelli A., among others. Here I refer to both the analysis of the nature of memory and how memories are fixed into an emotional experience that involves the whole body, and the relationship that guards the construction of individual identities as well as subjectivity. This book also analyses the relationship between individual memory and collective memory in order to discuss the difficult link established between individual agency and the power of culture. The narrative structure of memory and stories through personal experiences remembered also constitutes two central points from which we can take further the analysis of margins as well as the analysis of the individual ability of resistance to a normative and collective culture.
The third part of the book is intended to further our understanding of oral sources. To this end, Ritchie has chosen a wide range of research and analysis areas, all of which give good account of the variety of issues, topics and fields of action which utilise oral history. Various authors such as Hamilton, P., Bornat, J., Broussard, A. S. and Hutching, M., among others, present their findings on the different aspects of working with oral testimony, such as: the history of women and the development of a gender perspective; the impact of the inclusion of the race factor in the analysis of the history of the United States of America; the trace that imprints old age in memory and the importance of remembrance acquired in the later stages of life, the role of the senses in the evocative activation of memory; the study of individual shock experienced in the war and the role of collective commemorations around them; the narratives of the Holocaust and the history of the survivors. It is encouraging to note the variety of themes and objects of studies that constitute the backbone of oral history.
The fourth part of the book dives into the impact of new technologies on the practices and procedures of oral historians. At this stage, we are introduced to several works whose common point is the exploration of the limits and possibilities of digitisation and the involvement of high technology. Authors such as Boyd, D., Perks, R. or Kuhn, C. M., among others, address the problems and challenges that the advances of new technologies and development platforms – such as the internet – create for the dissemination of oral sources. This section in the book also explores the possibilities that digitisation offers archives in terms of redefining their roles and adopting a proactive stance in content dissemination.
Finally, Ritchie incorporates two topics of great interest: firstly, he delves into the legal and ethical issues affecting researchers while creating or using oral sources, and secondly, he evaluates the incorporation of oral history into education and into public presentations. Authors such as Neuenschwander, J. A., Robertson, B. M., Smith, G. and Benmayor, R., among others, discuss the creation of various oral history projects and the implementation of these learnings for use in the classroom or the dissemination of these learnings to larger audiences in museums or public institutions.
In short, we face an essential work, which provides us with an overview of the development of oral history and which, without doubt, will serve as an invaluable reference for all future research. In this regard, it should be noted that the inclusion of such important scholars in this book allows for an updated bibliographic reference with which to further deepen our study of each field of specialisation. I’m sure that this book will highlight the usefulness of the great works of different professionals.
However, I hope that someday a published work of this magnitude is capable of uniting in a common manner the many works and projects that are being undertaken beyond the border demarcated by the Anglo-Saxon historiography. The biannual oral history meetings organised by IOHA is the best forum to expand the field and find common points amongst historians coming from different backgrounds and historiographical traditions. I also hope that one of the positive consequences of this work is to stimulate discussion and development of new research that puts the issue of subjectivity in centerstage. For years now, the hermeneutic turn has demonstrated its ability to highlight the creative dimensions of the narratives of memory. To this extent, oral history has already become an indispensable tool for cultural studies, and for the development of research that delves into the complex world of contemporary identity construction from a cultural perspective.
By Miren Llona
Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea
Translation Aarthi Ajit. ([email protected])
The Quarter: A review of a documentary on the Bo-Kaap, South Africa
This is a charming documentary with a variety of oral views on the history and present of the Bo-Kaap. Bo-Kaap (“Upper-Cape”) is an area near to the CBD of Cape Town, the seat of parliament in South Africa. Traditionally the Bo-Kaap has been inhabited by so-called “Coloured” people.
In 2011 Helen Gibb submitted this documentary in five parts as an honours project at the University of Cape Town under the title “The Quarter”. With the romantic scenery of Cape Town as background, and the colourfully restored houses in the forefront, the content of the documentary is, however, not innocent. Bo-Kaap has, indeed, lost its innocence to tourism, international investors and politics.
The documentary investigates these issues of identity and community, and the loss thereof, sensitively but courageously. Part 1 consists of a variety of short interviews with inhabitants on the past of the Bo-Kaap, setting the scene for present realities that are investigated in later parts. Part 2 explores the religious identity of the Bo-Kaap, past and present. The Bo-Kaap is traditionally Muslim and its inhabitants known as the “Cape Malay”. They are descendants of slaves who were brought from Malaysia to work at the Cape when it was a Dutch colony. The commitment of the Muslims of the Bo-Kaap, and the consequences of this commitment for community life, are explored and depicted.
Part 3 takes an interesting alternative look at the political identities of this area. Historically religion and politics go hand in hand in South Africa. However, here oral testimonies are presented of politics taking the upperhand over religion as a priority commitment. Part 4 looks at the Bo-Kaap from a heritage perspective, the recognition it gets from the government as a heritage site, and the disregard it experiences from tourism from which the community gains nothing. This part also includes interviews from inhabitants of “The Kraal”, the informal settlement within the boundaries of the Bo-Kaap, where poverty reigns. Part 5 sees the influx of “outsiders” into the Bo-Kaap, with property prices soaring and people not knowing one another anymore. “People move in with money but do not understand the culture”, one of the interviewees summarises.
It is worth the time to watch this documentary of which the five parts together comprise about an hour. Technically the documentary is of a high standard, although in Part 4 the video is not always synchronised with the audio. The spirit of the area is captured well in the beautifully restored houses and the honesty of the interviewees. The realities of the squatter camp, the loss of identity and the sheer struggle for survival are exposed. Most importantly, quite a few of the objectives of oral historiography are met in this documentary. A not well-known or well-documented part of history is explored through oral interviewing and preserved in visual format, easy and pleasing to follow and enjoy. A variety of perspectives are presented, indicating the complexities of community life in a changing South Africa.
The documentary is an asset to South African history, of which a main part still remains unrecorded.
By Christina Landman
University of South Africa