Author and researcher C.S. Lakshmi talks about Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women and the “Songs of Sorrow, Songs of Joy” raffle to be held in Mumbai next week to raise funds for the institution.

“When SPARROW was started in 1988…it was in my bedroom. So there was a great need to rent space. And, you know, in Mumbai, renting is very expensive.”

The voice quavers slightly as C.S. Lakshmi, (known in the world of Tamil literature as Ambai) writer and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), describes its beginnings. Dressed unostentatiously in a cobalt-blue salwar kameez, with a matching bindi and a halo of short silvery hair, Lakshmi exudes a passion for her cause. “In 1992, we organised a painting exhibition where we invited several artists. From this exhibition we raised some money… not much. It was the first time we organised an exhibition of its kind…The artists were very generous; they donated very generously.”

Need for funds

Things have come full circle; there is a need for funds once more. “Recently, in 2008, SPARROW acquired a building of its own and we have spent the entire corpus that we had. ‘Songs of Sorrow, Songs of Joy' is a charity raffle in aid of a corpus fund for SPARROW to be held on March 8. I have a friend who owns a gallery and who is also an event manager, Anupa Mehta, who conceived the idea of inviting only women painters… she contacted the artists and arranged everything. It is basically a way of artists coming together to support a women's organisation.”

The art raffle is the first step in raising a corpus of Rs.5 crores that will go towards expanding the scope of SPARROW and rid it of financial constraints to a large degree. She hopes to raise Rs.25,00,000 from this exhibition, which will showcase work by artists from all over India: paintings and intimate works of art in books.

The women's magazine, Verve, SPARROW's media and advertising partner, is a major supporter. The Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which is the oldest in Mumbai, has given a small lawn beside the gallery as exhibition space. The support from women themselves has been overwhelming. “Several powerful women like Shoba De are supporting us, and Chandra Iyengar, an IAS officer and the additional chief secretary, has also agreed to come,” Lakshmi says.

SPARROW is not your usual archive. An ordinary archive is used to consult documents. Being interested in contemporary history of women, it collects the histories and lives of women and disseminates it by holding exhibitions and posting material on their website. But, there is clarity that the lives of women do not merely become common knowledge; besides the intrusion into their lives, it is really unnecessary for this to happen. The material gathered is meant for research and education.

There is underlying matter-of-factness as Lakshmi speaks, but her eyes glitter with determination. “How do women take their decisions, even when they are professionals and engaged, both within the family and in the outside world?” And going a step further, “How does a woman travel? What does a woman do when she is low? A man can take a long walk, he can go to a bar…what can a woman do?”

These seemingly facile questions that a woman has to ceaselessly engage with seem to ricochet off the core idea that the personal is the political. SPARROW's vision is uncompromising : that only through understanding women's histories and lives, their struggles, can positive change be brought about. The circumstances under which women write are fantastic. Women explode the myth of having room of one's own in order to write's possible to sit under a tree or simply with a plank on the lap to write. These are stories that Lakshmi has heard from the women as far-flung as North-East and Maharashtra.

“When a woman makes a decision to write or paint…that is what I am interested in; whether the work of art is good or not can only be judged on the basis of the work…there is no one-to-one connection between suffering and expressing …” Statements that are almost sutra-like in their precision and conviction punctuate the conversation with C.S. Lakshmi. She tends to be understated about her own achievements; a Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University and award-winning writer of several novels and short stories in Tamil, which have been translated into English.

Personal connection

She has spoken to all the women whose lives and stories she has written about or are archived at SPARROW or been the witness to their conversations with her colleagues. The connection with writers and artists is special: “As a writer, I am interested in women's writing, and as someone who learnt music and dance I am interested in singers and dancers too … in women's expression. But due to the nature of my research, I am interested in every profession that a woman has. It is very difficult for a woman to function without compromise, maintain her self-esteem…even for the sake of a big corporate.”

There have been many moments of reflection and learning on this journey…in learning how to listen, and to respect boundaries. The monumental task of recording volumes of women's history is only possible, she feels, when there is humility, no sense of showing off.

The road ahead?

Songs of Sorrow, Songs of Joy is a charity raffle in aid of a corpus fund for SPARROW to be held on March 8, 2010. A ticket (Rs. 25000) could win you a painting by an eminent artist and the amount will be treated as a donation and qualify for income tax exemption under Sec.80G(1) of IT Act 1961. Write to or call 022-28280895/28965019/30400166 /26316911 for more details. Visit to get an idea of SPARROW's work

Some of Lakshmi's works

A Purple Sea: Short stories (East West)

Ambai: Two Novellas and a Story (Katha)

The Singer and the Song (Kali for Women)

The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai (Penguin)


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012