By Deepika S
We know women were part of the Indian freedom movement, and not just as followers in protests who sang songs or raised slogans. They marching in satyagrahas, flooding jails, taking up arms, running underground presses, and building themselves as leaders. Why, then, do we not see as much of them in our history books? What do we really know about the individuals who threw themselves in various ways into the movement that brought an end to colonial imperialism in India?
Prajnya Archives, an initiative of the Prajnya Resource Centre on Women in Politics and Policy, has put out a call for memories and photographs from women of the “Freedom Generation” — women across the country who were witness to India’s independence. If you were one of the women who lived through it, or have family, friends or acquaintances who did, Prajnya would like to know more. Apart from requesting photos, they ask: Where were they on that date? What were they doing? Was it significant for them, and how? Was it a difficult time? (Skip to details on how to submit to Prajnya.)
We asked Dr Swarna Rajagopalan, Managing Trustee, the Prajnya Trust, about their fascinating initiative.
How did ‘The Freedom Generation’ project come about? Was there a particular reason for the focus on this theme this year?
“The Freedom Generation” is the working title we gave to a dream oral history project we started out with when Prajnya was founded. For a variety of reasons — most of them, financial — that never quite took off as we dreamed. By “Freedom Generation” women, we meant those who had been in their teens or twenties in the 1940s, a time when the Gandhian freedom movement, Dravidian movement, Pakistan movement, INA [Indian National Army] recruitment and Partition all took place. We wanted to interview these women who had witnessed or played some part — by attending rallies or volunteering or donating or boycotting foreign goods or learning Hindi, for instance — and document history as they saw it unfold. Their experiences and stories are, to our mind, one of the missing pieces of the Indian history jigsaw puzzle.
This Archives project is a slice of that much-larger one — we are simply asking for people’s memories of 15th August, 1947. “Where were you when…?” stories, but because the Archives are a visual repository, we want photos. Now, we understand that most things were under-documented in the 1940s, especially things that involved women in the public sphere, but having unearthed some fabulous photos in the past, we wanted to try our luck. If 15th August photos don’t exist any more, we’re happy for other submissions as long as they are “public sphere” photos (not weddings or family portraits, for instance).
We launched the call on 15th August and that became the pivot, but women are welcome to add other stories to this pivotal one about the first Independence Day.
Have you received any interesting submissions yet? What are you hoping to learn from these individual stories that you’re asking people to send in?
Other calls we have issued have had a better response, and this alarms us because what it tells us is that we have already left it too late to document these stories. The women we are reaching out to would be 70 and older, and it appears as though their photos are lost already. The children and grandchildren who might take our call to them may not even realise they have stories to tell. And with that, we will have lost some really important points of view on that important date.
This is something extremely sad that we need to reflect upon. We think of history in very limited terms. But all our lives intersect with history everyday and we need to see that intersection. For women, that understanding is also a way to facilitate our own engagement with the public sphere — with matters of community importance (from garbage to water supply) or policy importance (from Income Tax to defence) or politics (voting and elections and government formation) and social movements (from environmental movements to land rights movements). When we see ourselves as part of this larger story, we realise we are as entitled to shape the story and its narration. I am a witness to hundreds of changes in my lifetime, and have been affected by scores of them, and have engaged with a few at different levels — if history is not my story, then whose story is it?
We were hoping that by asking older women to remember and share, we would inspire families to rediscover their own family members as citizens with agency. Our outreach has fallen short of the effort required.
Could you tell us a little more about Prajnya Archives, and some of its past projects?
The Prajnya Archives were set up in 2010 as a way to recover and save old photos we knew were languishing in people’s albums. Every successive generation moves to smaller living spaces and old photo albums can no longer be saved once their own passes away. Women’s photos, like their activities and achievements, take a back-seat to other family priorities. We could not risk losing this visual history.
We know that in the last century or so, women have played an active part in countless public initiatives — from social work to local issues to politics. Their public activities are diverse, ranging from protests to running underground radio stations to militancy to pamphleteering to building institutions. But we do not know anything about them. We figured that we could help gather and fill in these stories, one woman, one photo at a time.
The Archives are always open to submissions. There is a link to upload your photos at any time. It states the terms you consent to by uploading photos, and then you go on to an email form you can use.
In the past, we have done three photo-calls like this. The first was Rainmakers, which sought photos — past and present — of women doing something that defied gender stereotypes for their time and context. The second was “The First Graduate” which was a huge success, with people sending in photos of the first woman in their family to graduate. The third was about leadership and we realised that we were defining leadership much more broadly than most women did — they still think you have to be a head-girl or a CEO or a District Magistrate or a party leader, but we think women — almost all women — show leadership every single day. “The Freedom Generation” is our fourth call.
To submit your photos and stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th September.
The photo you send in should not be a recent one, though it need not have been taken in 1947. Your photo should be of high quality (at least 300 dpi), and each entry should include your name and email id, a photo of the person whose memory you are submitting, their name, year of birth, and the memory they want to share.