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History that flows through rivers

SRAVASTI DATTA
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Talk Historian Heather Goodall, at a recent talk organised by the Centre for Public History, spoke of how rivers have determined man’s life around them

Rivers have always been sites for stories, myths and rituals as well as political conflict. Historian Heather Goodall in her talk Geographies of Memory: Oral History and Contested Rivers in Australia , held recently and organised by the Centre for Public History, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, provided an analysis of the relation of man to rivers and the ever-changing nature of rivers.

In her talk, she focused on two case studies, one in rural Australia and the other in Sydney, where the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin and the Georges River flow, respectively. Through oral records and spatial analysis she unlocked the hidden histories of these rivers.

She first spoke on her project Talking Fish , a study on the changing nature of the rivers, fish and fishing of the Murray-Darling basin. For this project she worked in collaboration with Jodi Frawley, Scott Nichols and Liz Baker. Goodall pointed out the unpredictability of the rivers; while in some places they flow to a trickle, they overflow in others, causing floods. However, as a historian, Goodall’s interest was “not in how the river flowed, but how people relate to and perceive it.” For their research, the team accessed historical and scientific records as well as interviewed local fishermen, chronicling each of their accounts with care.

In another project, along with Denis Byrne and Allison Cadzow, Goodall studied the social and cultural history of the aboriginal people on Sydney’s Georges River, which she traced from Colonial times up to the present. They found that oral history revealed information that no other source did. In Goodall’s words “it spoke of social networks that fishing created.” The interviews also revealed the curious relationship between memory and history.

Goodall’s objectives were to focus on individual stories to encourage a non-competitive environment, and at the same time, “papered over conflicts” to avoid homogenising their findings. Being analysts, the team ensured they conducted cross-cultural research.

The talk was made more interesting by the parallels Goodall drew between Indian and Australian society. Australia, like India, was affected by Colonial rule and conflict among communities over land is an ongoing issue in Australia, just as it is in India.

Heather Goodall, professor of history at the University of Technology in Sydney, has worked extensively on indigenous people’s cultural and environmental relationships to land and water in colonial and contemporary Australia.

SRAVASTI DATTA

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