The History Room: Laxmi Murthy

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This edition of the History Room features Laxmi Murthy, who has been involved in the women’s movement in India for over twenty-five years.

Laxmi Murthy is the Consulting Editor of Himal Southasian, Kathmandu; as well as Director of the HRI Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. Her writings, with a focus on giving voice to issues marginalised by mainstream media, have appeared in major dailies including The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and the Indian Express. Laxmi was an editor at the Women’s Feature Service, an international news-feature agency specialising in development issues from a gender perspective and was also South Asia coordinator for the Tolerance Prize, an award for excellence in journalism instituted by the International Federation of Journalists. Recently, Laxmi and Rajashri Dasgupta have published “Our Pictures, Our Words: A Visual Journey Through the Women’s Movement,” a history of the Indian women’s movement.

Read on for the full interview!

1. You’ve been a part of the women’s movement all your life. How has the movement fared in terms of documenting its own history?

LM: The women’s movement, like all movements, has been oriented towards action, rather than recording. And this is in the nature of movements – where action is prioritized. With the NGO-isation of the movement, several mono-issue NGos (like law, environment etc), began bringing out reports of their work, but these were more to fulfil requirements of donor agencies, and contained laundry lists of “achievements”, and did not quite represent the fervour or churning that symbolized the women’s movement.

However, it is not as thought the women’s movement has not felt the need the document its experiences, and this has been done in an on-going manner. In Saheli, where I was immersed for more than 20 years of my life, “Daily Diaries” were a live record of day to day happenings, communication between members, analyses, and not least, an outlet for emotions and thoughts. Once e.mail entered the picture, much of this moved to the Internet. Sadly, the Daily Diaries, along with most of the other papers and records, were destroyed in a major fire in May 2011. This reduction to ashes, quite literally, spurred many women’s groups to hastily begin documenting their own histories.

2. What are some of the documentation projects you’ve been a part of?

LM: Since most of my adult life was spent in activism as a major focus of work, a lot of my documenting efforts are related to the women’s movement. One example is the document that was brought out to mark 25 years of Saheli‘s existence in 2006. This was no mean feat for an autonomous, non-funded group working solely on volunteer power. To re-live and document the history of one’s own group, of one’s own life, is a heady, yet fraught enterprise. Since, as is well accepted, there is no one single history. Re-interpretation of the past, subjective analyses and prioritization are hotly debated issues, and this heat and dust is reflected when activist groups attempt to narrate and publish their histories. A notable fact is that Saheli’s history has no single author or “expert” – it is the history of the group as told by its members. In that sense, collective memories are woven together to represent the past in all its diversity as well as solidarity.

3. Tell us a little about the origin and rationale for ‘Our Pictures, Our Words.’

LM: “Our Pictures, Our Words” emerged from the Poster Women project launched in 2005 by Zubaan, a feminist publishing house. The political posters of the women’s movement (1970s onward) are ephemeral in nature, since, as noted earlier, women’s groups have not prioritized documentation and cataloguing. Many posters, created at the height of euphoria, often just before a demonstration — powerful line drawings with splashes of colour — are lost forever. The idea was the collect posters from women’s organizations across the country and create a digital archive. More than 1500 posters came in, and Zubaan organized exhibitions, printed post cards and T-shirts and an online archive. The idea of a simple, easy to read book that showcased this archive, emerged two years ago, and Rajashri Dasgupta and I were commissioned to write and design the book. Rajashri and myself are both journalists, and both of us have been active in the women’s movements for close on three decades. It was this “insider-outsider” status that enabled us to get to the core of issues, yet maintain the distance you need in order to be able to write. Writing the book was a challenge: to counter the media-created notion that feminism is “boring and didactic”, while simultaneously presenting authentic narration and analyses. The design element is strong in the book, and Sarita Sunder, from the Bangalore-based design studio Trapeze, was as much part of this journey.

4. Can you tell us a little bit about HRI and the work that you do here?

LM: The Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange is an offshoot of Himal Southasian magazine published out of Kathmandu. The idea was to set up a body that could do research on a longer timeline than journalism allows – to go in-depth, and branch out and follow leads to a logical conclusion. We also wanted to create a forum for discussion and debate on issues related to Southasia (used as one word) that goes beyond lip service to the idea of regionalism, and the goody goody “hum sab bhai bhai” approach. To examine Southasianism with a critical lens, and also help create and nurture a Southasian sensibility. Right now we are working on the love legends of Punjab – both East and West, and also on networking the smaller archives in the region.

5. Can you share a glimpse into your reseach wishlist? If time and resources were abundant, what would you work on?

LM: I think I would like to document the struggles for social justice that have bubbled to the fore soon after independence of most of the countries in the region. Labour and trade union movements, environmental movements, and struggles of the marginalized. The rich tradition of songs, slogans, visual material, and of course people’s experiences. It would also be a fantastic oral history project – or many projects, actually.

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