Engendering History: Roundtable featuring Dr. S. Anandhi

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The July 11th edition of our Women’s History Roundtable Series featured Dr. S. Anandhi from the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The title of her talk was ‘Engendering History: Experiences of Writing Nonbrahmin Women’s History.’

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Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was absorbing and thought-provoking. It served as a wonderful, brief introduction to historiography and the various debates and perspectives that have shaped it over time. Yet, it was not pedantic or jargon-loaded and we were all able to follow along easily.

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Anandhi said even archives were now far more democratic in what they included. She introduced us to the evolution of ‘oral history’ as a practice and its emergence as an important historical source. She pointed out that conventional history does not bypass archives as its primary source.

The question of people’s agency is a core one that has prompted this exploration of new tools, borrowed from elsewhere. Historians relied on archives which maintained official documents, but they do not map individual or community agency. For that, oral history and life-stories are the main resource. Historians have to figure out how to use them, how to find a teleological narrative in stories that may not be recalled in a linear fashion. Moreover, life-stories tend to be located in the domestic sphere, which while important, may not offer much help in terms of making a connection to public events.

She pointed out from her own research experience that women’s experiences–private and public, good and bad–did find a place in some old newspapers but not in others. Literature, diaries and newspaper contributions were alternative resources she used.

In the course of her talk, Anandhi mentioned work by a number of leading historians, expanding Prajnya’s reading list manifold. (FYI: We maintain an Amazon wishlist dedicated to this Initiative, and if you are a resident Indian citizen, you can make a contribution to our library!) 

The discussion centered around the limits of oral history and interdisciplinarity. How can you use oral history for periods where nobody is alive any more? How can oral history fill in all perspectives? We also pondered the balance between borrowing tools from other disciplines and adopting a vague research design that met no discipline’s rigourous standards. Anandhi stressed the importance of casting the research question, based on disciplinary knowledge and from within the interests of a discipline.

This was an excellent presentation and the post here does not begin to do it justice. The talk was so interesting, our notes are sketchy! We hope that Dr. Anandhi will find Prajnya’s projects interesting enough to take a leading role in shaping them and holding their outcomes to the highest professional standards.

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