Course trains students to use oral history to understand the past

For 28-year-old Chanakya Vyas, his grandmother’s stories about her childhood were more than just bedtime stories. With roots in Zanzibar, East Africa, Mr. Vyas has been trying to piece together his family’s history. One step towards accomplishing this is the oral history course being offered by the Centre for Public History, Bangalore.

Mr. Vyas is one of the 15 participants at the first such course offered by the institute, and the first of its kind in India.

What is oral history?

“Oral history is an interdisciplinary subject that can be used as a method to understand the past,” says Indira Chowdhury, director, Centre for Public History. It can be used to create an archive of cultural history.

“We concentrate on that part of life history that intersects with world history,” she explains. The memories that people choose to reveal says a lot about the milieu to which they belonged, making oral history key to understanding history, she adds.

Aarthi Ajit, senior curator at the centre, who is one of the facilitators of the course, says: “While oral history is being practised by many in India, there has been no attempt to make a cohesive programme that will educate the practitioners on its theory, methodology and practice.”

“My father was 10 when my family had to move back to India in 1966 because of ethnic cleansing in Zanzibar. Some of my relatives still live there. A few faded photos and my grandmother’s tales initiated my project to trace my family’s history,” says Mr. Vyas who began his ambitious project in 2011.

To him and his family, the ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Indians from Zanzibar is much like the Partition. “I am attempting to understand the larger picture of the situation back then, and this course has been greatly helpful in putting things in perspective and learning the basics of recording interviews and editing files.”

A theatre artiste in Bangalore, he intends to visit Zanzibar too and develop a theatre performance based on his family history.

What next?

Ms. Chowdhury could not be happier about her first batch. “We recently completed the oral history project on IIM-Calcutta and among us, we have participants who are working on institutional history, community history and even family history.”

The application of oral history depends on the vision. Rina George of Christian Medical College, Vellore, wants to record the history of the medical college and inspire medical students. “I started working on my project just a few months ago and began with interviewing some of the retired college staff, including a 100-year-old nurse. But I am glad I have not done too many interviews because I am now learning how to frame questions and the ethical and legal aspects surrounding collecting oral history.”

Lost generation

Stressing the importance of oral history, Ms. Chowdhury says, “A lot has happened in India since Independence and there is no way of understanding that unless we speak to people who have experienced it. And we have already lost one generation.”

The one-week course was launched on May 6. The next one is scheduled for July. The Centre for Public History, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, can be contacted at cph@srishti.ac.in