When she was doing research on women writers in Tamil in the 1980s, she was speaking to many older writers and realised “how little we knew about the context in which women write. Later when I took up a project to do an illustrated social history of women in Tamil Nadu illustrated with dialogues, speeches, photographs, diary entries, autobiographical notes, stories and letters, I spoke to many women and understood how much of history has been silenced. There were others who felt the same.” Thus was born SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women; http://www.sparrowonline.org), set up in 1988 to archive women's history, says C.S. Lakshmi, who has been an independent researcher in Women's Studies for the past nearly 40 years and one of the founder trustees of SPARROW (the others being the late Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishna Raj).
She has also been writing from the age of 16 under the pseudonym Ambai and is a well-known writer in Tamil. Her stories have been translated in two volumes entitled A Purple Sea and In a Forest, A Deer . The latter shared the Hutch-Crossword award for translated fiction in 2007. She was awarded the Lifetime Literary Achievement Award of Tamil Literary Garden, University of Toronto, Canada for the year 2008. She lives in Mumbai with her filmmaker friend Vishnu Mathur, who also happens to be her husband, in a small third-floor flat with a view of the sea, along with her 15-year-old foster daughter Khintu and her two little brothers Krishna and Sonu who brighten up her life.
SPARROW, she says, is a women's archives with oral history as its anchor project and with visual and print material which document women's lives and history. It is SPARROW's belief that “recording, reviewing, recollecting and reflecting on women's history and life and communicating this information in various ways is an important activity in development and that positive change is possible with knowledge and awareness of women's lives, history and struggles for self-respect and dignity”. We were very clear, she says, that if contemporary history is not documented and archived, it will be lost forever. Ask her in what ways is archiving/recording contemporary women's experience can be an agent for change and she says, “The process of archiving/recording women's history is a process of learning and understanding. Such an understanding can change attitudes and perspectives. Change can happen only when we understand why change is needed and what kind of change is needed.”
Such a mammoth endeavour is necessarily a complex and challenging one. How does SPARROW go about it and what resources are available to it to do justice to such a vast enterprise? Anything one takes up, she responds, can be a mammoth task if one thinks so. “Even answering these questions can be a mammoth task if one feels so. Nothing can be started if one decides that the task is mammoth and it cannot be taken up. In a diverse country like India, archiving women's history is definitely a mammoth task. But it is not impossible if you have a blueprint and a plan. We have an oral history project that covers several themes and areas. We also do digital video documentation. Apart from this, we have a print collection of books, journals, journal articles, print visuals, newspaper cuttings in eight different languages. We have a large visual collection of photographs, posters of the women's movement, film posters and documentaries and films on and by women. We have a building of our own to house this collection and we have friends who support our work. We are not high on funds because archiving is not seen as a part of development but we have lasted for 23 years and I am sure we are here to stay. May be those who read this will be tempted to contribute towards our activities!”
SPARROW has also collaborated with other institutions to document history as it happens in everyday life. It was part of the Global Feminisms project “a collaborative project with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan, to document women's activism and scholarship. We chose 10 women from different areas of work and location in India and produced 10 digital documentaries. Apart from India three other countries that participated in the project were the US, Poland and China.”
Given the cultural diversity of the country and the range of women's experiences, in what ways does SPARROW make sure that its range is inclusive and representative of the different kinds of women's experiences/expressions? The very idea of archiving women's history, she says, is to make sure that there is no monolithic, single tale. “This is possible if one becomes humble enough to realise that there is no one ‘telling' of women's history. Like my friend A.K. Ramanujan used to say about folk stories, women's history also has many ‘tellings'. Once you know that, one's effort will always be to cover many regions, many cultures and many ways of living. SPARROW has made an attempt to be as inclusive as possible.”
From the beginning she has managed to balance well her creative and research endeavours. One is curious how different, if at all, her concerns as Ambai are from C.S. Lakshmi, the researcher and historian. Not much she says. “The concerns of Ambai and C.S. Lakshmi are very similar except that Ambai writes fiction and does it in Tamil, the language she loves, and C.S. Lakshmi does her research writing in English, a language she is still to master.” Is she working on any new work currently? “I am working on a new short story collection which hopefully Kalachuvadu, my publisher, will like and publish. A novel is also somewhere deep in my mind but it is yet to take shape,” she says.
So what lies ahead for SPARROW? “We have very ambitious plans for the future,” she says, “and are hoping funds will come through for this. Our challenge is only in terms of funds and not in terms of the work we do.”