Recently, when I was asked to look at an oral history project, the first thing I did was to check what the term meant in the contemporary context. I learnt that oral history is "the study of historical information about persons, families, events, cultures and institutions, using audio tapes and videotapes to interview people who knew or had observed them first-hand".
"Oral history" sounds stylishly modern, but of course we know that pre-historical, pre-literate societies passed down their history by word-of-mouth narratives, folk songs, chants. Ancient historians openly admit that eyewitness reports from soldiers, sailors and travellers were vital sources of information.
And what are myths but orally transmitted versions of actual happenings in some dim past — misted over with retellings through the millennia?We know how many modern writers — light and heavyweight — base their stories on multiple interviews.
True, Mario Puzo, whose The Godfather brings the mafia to life, did declare that he never knew a single honest-to-God gangster. But could Arthur Hailey have written his Airport or Hotel without talking to people in those workplaces? Didn't VS Naipaul arrive at insights by talking to a whole range of people when he wrote India: A Wounded Civilization?
A BBC docu filmmaker once said that he starts shooting only after extensive oral interviews, to get a feel for the subject. And of course, documentaries themselves use a range of voices — of the people involved in the living experience of the subject. But it is fascinating to find out just how many fiction films about war, holocaust and revolution, are based on documentary footage, recording interviews with perpetrators, victims and survivors. We ask: is oral history reliable?
How precisely can you recall something that happened 50 years ago? Well, that is not the only problem. Don't different people who lived through an event, say, the Emergency (1975-77), give you varying, contrastive, even contradictory versions of the same happening? But these flaws can be strengths too — oral history can provide plural perspectives beyond the conventional, and make room for voices muffled by the mainstream.
After all, alternative accounts add layers, and we finally end up with a multidimensional understanding of the subject. We also see — as we cannot do with a mere list of facts — how something like the Emergency affected individuals in their daily lives. Listen to first-hand accounts of the Partition and you will see that these personal recollections do not deal with facts alone, but steep those facts in emotion.
Oral history helps us to relive the Partition in its context and ambience, as an experience.A modern definition has it that oral sources offer subjective evidence. "They tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did…" This can lead to rediscovery, reassessment — a revitalizing process in itself.
I remember two amazing stories I worked on based entirely on oral sources. The first was in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, where, inspired by a fictional character in a textbook prescribed by the National Literacy Mission, Dalit women launched an anti-arrack agitation (1990). The second was a series of interactions with Muslim women in villages close to Lucknow, keeping body and soul together with meagre earnings through chikan embroidery.
Their passionate outbursts made me realize that oral sources are the lifeblood of writing, and journalism is not just about the big political happening or the big business scene, but about recording the lives of people who live in the dark without allowing their hopes to get snuffed out.
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature