Voices from The Cell

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Pramod Kumar Srivastava, a professor of history at Lucknow University, lectures on a variety of subjects — "feudalism in Europe", "western democracies", "the contribution of Kanpur to the Kanpur Conspiracy case" and "the relationship between the US and the Philippines" — the topic of his PhD thesis.

Pramod Kumar Srivastava, a professor of history at Lucknow University, lectures on a variety of subjects — "feudalism in Europe", "western democracies", "the contribution of Kanpur to the Kanpur Conspiracy case" and "the relationship between the US and the Philippines" — the topic of his PhD thesis. But what excites him the most these days is the idea of historical texts and photographs being supplemented by voices. Audio is low-cost and low-maintenance, devoid of visual distractions, can be accessed on the internet, and can tell the story of both participants and witnesses of historical events. Oral history can do things in a way images and words can't, thinks Srivastava. "Capturing all views — of those seeing or actively participating in an event — and keeping them for posterity has immense potential," he says. Along with other "like-minded" people, Srivastava will formally register the "Oral History Association of India" in January next year. The association plans to use the "power of the spoken word" to supplement our knowledge and understanding of historical events.

Srivastava chanced upon the idea of oral history when he was working on India's militant freedom movements — an important but neglected stream of the independence struggle. In the idolisation of non-violence, Indians, he believes, don't know much about the militant movements. So threatened was the Empire by militant ideas that they banished the leaders of such movements to faraway Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at the Cellular Jail, or Kala Paani.

Between 1987 and 1996, Srivastava interviewed some 20 militant freedom fighters who were sent to Kala Paani. He now plans to make those 25 hours of recorded conversations available on the internet, with financial assistance from the Indian Council of Historical Research, Delhi, and the Martyrs Memorial and Freedom Struggle Research Centre, Lucknow, founded by the late Shiv Verma, a former associate of Bhagat Singh, and former inmate of Cellular Jail for the second Lahore Conspiracy Case. That, he hopes, will help bring to light the lesser-known stories of how the fighters, who've all passed away, spent their lives in matchbox cubicles under immense hardships.

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