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Updated: July 5, 2013 14:56 IST

Finding wings

Akila Kannadasan
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Women power: Writer Ambai (C.S.Lakshmi) Photo: R. Shivaji Rao
The Hindu
Women power: Writer Ambai (C.S.Lakshmi) Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

As Sound & Picture ARchives for Research on Women (SPARROW) enters its 25th year, the founder-director C.S. Lakshmi (writer Ambai) takes us through its journey

Shahjehan Aapa was married off when she was 14. Her husband beat her often. She did all the housework; she even tended to the 15 buffaloes and four cows at home herself. She eventually left her in-law’s place and raised her seven sons and two daughters with the little she made with her sewing machine and work at a factory. Life went on, until one day Aapa felt the ground beneath her feet fall apart. Her older daughter was burned to death by her in-laws for want of dowry. “She was a simple, honest girl,” says Aapa, in the documentary Shahjehan Aapa. The film, made by SPARROW (Sound & Picture ARchives for Research on Women) was screened recently at Chennai Monthly Screenings in the presence of its founder-director C.S. Lakshmi, who writes under the pseudonym Ambai.

Today, Aapa fights for hundreds of women through Shakti Shalini, an NGO that helps women deal with gender-based violence. Her life is among the many that SPARROW has documented as part of its archival process.

SPARROW is a “women’s archives with a difference” — it has within its folds newspaper cartoons, oral history recordings, private papers, calendars, posters, photographs, films, books and more, all of which talk about women from various walks of life. Painstakingly put together over 25 years, SPARROW’s story is as interesting as that of its heroines’.

A major part of women’s history has gone unrecorded. “All of us know about Sarojini Naidu. But what about the lesser-known women who took part in the freedom struggle?” asks Ambai. When she started out as a research scholar, Ambai found that if she had to write a history on women, there was no reference material. She, along with Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishna Raj, the other founder-trustees of SPARROW, set out to create just that.

SPARROW was born in 1988 in Ambai’s house in Mumbai. Sourcing funds was difficult — it took over 10 years for SPARROW to get major funding for their work. But SPARROW continued to fly, despite it all.

Initially, they collected letters, diaries and speeches of women. A women’s archive did not fall under conventional developmental policies of the government, such as self-help groups and micro-financing schemes. “We were asked how it would contribute to women’s development,” says Ambai. But they persisted.

Dalit writers, theatre artists, activists, sculptors, dancers, photographers, folk artists… Ambai has met some extraordinary women along SPARROW’s journey. She has travelled deep into our country to meet women, whose stories needed to be told. There are times when she waited at her interviewee’s house for the husband to leave so that they could talk freely. “Those days, I recorded interviews in a small cassette. We would sit really close and talk to record our voices without interferences,” smiles Ambai. The practice brought them closer; what they had was a conversation, rather than an interview. SPARROW’s documentaries follow a similar format — they are conversations that are intimate.

Has Ambai observed a change in women’s lives over the years? “No,” she says. “Not much has changed. Female foeticides and rapes are still happening. Women still struggle to find toilets during bus journeys...” Women continue to fight for recognition, even within their homes. “I once saw a beautiful embroidered parrot in a room. It was done by the woman of the house — but it was hung behind a door, hidden from view.”

SPARROW has done documentaries on 25 women, including folk theatre artiste K.R. Ambika, theatre activist Mangai, photographer Homai Vyarawalla and tamasha artiste Vithabai. It has oral history recordings of the Freedom Movement, Left and other progressive movements, Ambedkar Movement and the experiences of Dalit women, environment movement and more. SPARROW holds workshops for college students where its films are screened following which discussions are encouraged.

G.V. Malathamma, theatre artiste: “On the day of the play, my husband said that you should not act. He asked, ‘Do you want your husband or the theatre?’ I said, ‘I want theatre…’ After that he never came to the theatre. Never saw me either. That was it. I was pregnant then. There was no other meeting, no other conversation… that was the end of my family life…” — An oral history recording from SPARROW

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