People Making History: A Conversation with Oral Historian Nandini Oza

Media Anthropology
9 min readDec 25, 2020

Interviews and oral histories are important methodological tools for any ethnographic or anthropological study. In this post, we talk to Nandini Oza, the President of the Oral History Association of India to draw from her extensive experience of using this in her work to understand its myriad nuances.

  1. How do you explain your work to someone unfamiliar with oral histories?

After being a full time activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) for over a decade, my focus has been to collect, chronicle, and archive the oral histories of the people’s struggle in the Narmada valley against the gigantic dam, irrigation and power project — the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). As part of this work, I have recorded the oral histories of 80 key leaders of the movement, both local as well as from outside the valley, in seven different languages and dialects. These interviews total to over four hundred hours of recordings in the digital audio format. Currently, I am engaged in bringing these oral histories out in public domain, primarily through the website https://oralhistorynarmada.in/ . One of the outcomes of this work is a book titled Ladha Narmadecha (Struggle for Narmada), based on the oral history of two senior tribal leaders of the NBA published by Rajhans Prakashan in Marathi. This is an ongoing work and more publications and interviews on the website will be out from time to time.

To complement and supplement the oral histories, I have also been collecting other archival material related to the Narmada struggle including photographs, videos, important documents, submissions etc.

2. Why are oral histories important?

Oral history is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as, “information about a historical event or period that is told to you by people who experienced it.”

I consider oral history important as it is a participatory process in the recording and study of history. Being participatory, it is rich, diverse and brings about multiple facets and perspectives of the happenings under study as told by people who have experienced it themselves. Oral history makes the study of history nuanced and also multi-dimensional. Oral history is particularly significant in countries like India where there are languages without scripts, or there are communities with low literacy rates and where there is a strong tradition particularly among rural, tribal and ethnic communities of passing history and knowledge orally. Oral history as a discipline ensures that people who are part of the history-making or are personally a witness to an important historical event are partners in the recording/study of that history.

Oral history becomes particularly important when studying the struggles of the powerless and the marginalised, because mainstream history has little place for these voices and the people’s perspective rarely gets recorded. Considering this and more, Dr. Mridul Hazarika, Vice Chancellor of Guwahati University in his address to the annual conference of Oral History Association of India (OHAI), November 2017 rightly said, “oral history will take a central position in history in the days to come. Oral history recognizes the role of those people who appear to be least significant”.

3. How does oral history specifically serve your cause?

The struggle in the Narmada valley against the mega SSP that began in 1961 when the foundation stone of the project was laid, grew into a very powerful and important movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan. For being an important people’s movement that has questioned the dominant development paradigm and has raised issues concerning human rights and environment, the NBA has been written about extensively. However it is found that much of the media reportage and other documentation focus more on the issues raised by the movement, important actions and programs of the movement, or the role of only a few well known faces of the movement. Narmada struggle as a mass movement has seen the involvement of hundreds of people, and this has been the strength of the struggle. However the people’s roles, particularly of those directly affected by the SSP in the making of the NBA have not come to the fore as much as it should. The extraordinary contribution of ordinary people, the lives and collective struggles of the communities affected by the project, the leadership they provided to the movement at every level, do not find a significant place in the documentation of the movement and its history. This is where oral history becomes significant where the documentation of the struggle and its history becomes participatory and, collective.

4. Oral histories are often looked as a lesser kind of history-writing/talking, in the mainstream discipline. How do you approach it?

It is true that oral history as a discipline is still not given the status it should, even in countries like India with vast oral traditions. But it is being increasingly noticed and is beginning to get the legitimacy it deserves. At the same time, I feel too much mainstreaming and strict formalisation of a discipline creates exclusivity and stringent specialisation difficult to follow. This could make the discipline of oral history which is essentially people’s history out of bounds for common people. The idea is to give legitimacy to this discipline while ensuring that it does not get out of bounds for people whose history it aims to record. It is important to have a balance and I believe that the oral history practitioners in India are working and moving towards this balance.

Having said this, every discipline has its strengths and limitations. But the limitations cannot be used to write off the discipline. Oral history is no exception. The need is to address the limitations and concerns and maintain the strengths of the discipline. For example, in the case of oral history, its strength is its participatory nature and equitable access to voices of the marginalised and those in the periphery of the society.

Considering the strengths of the discipline, increasingly oral history as a methodology is being adopted to record important events that have shaped our developmental, political, human rights and environmental history of the country and the post independence history. For example there are several studies and books based on oral histories and I share a few here:

  • “We Were Making History: Women in Telengana Uprising”, by Stree Shakti Sangathan.
  • “One Hundred Years — One Hundred Voices”, The Mill Workers of Girangaon, An Oral History”, by Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar.
  • “We Also Made History- Women in Ambedkarite Movement”, by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon.

There are websites that deal with the political history of South Asia through oral histories:

Besides these, some of the prominent science institutes have incorporated oral history as a methodology in archiving the history of science and knowledge of science. For example, the National Centre for Biological Science, Bengaluru has in its archives, interviews of the pioneering scientists.

Corporate India too is increasingly turning to oral history as a medium of archiving its history. For example the Godrej archive has in its collection, “Audio tapes/ DVDs of oral history recordings”. Therefore, oral history is beginning to be practiced by people from different disciplines and is increasingly getting the recognition and legitimacy it deserves.

5. We work on an anthropological method at the Collective with a decolonial perspective. We’d like to understand how oral histories can decentre colonial forms of history-making.

Two important African sayings help us understand the colonial perspective in the study of human societies and history:

“Until the lions have their own histories, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
(Chinua Achebe, Novelist)

“Until the history of Africa is told by Africans, the story of greatness will always glorify the imperialists.”
(African Saying)

Thus, as the popular saying goes, “History is often written by the victors.”

The very nature of oral history as a discipline and methodology opens up opportunities to decentre colonial forms of studies and brings in increased participation of people in studies of the human societies and history. It offers opportunity to bring the people at the centre of the study and ensure their participation in the study as partners.

6. Can you share an instance/episode with us that illustrate the incredible importance of your work?

There cannot be any one instance or episode that I, as a practitioner of oral history can narrate. This is because oral history is a rich discipline and there are several experiences that highlight the importance of the work during the course of recording the oral histories and while putting these out in public domain.

But what I have found fascinating in my work is that oral history with the advanced technology and connectivity, has made it possible for people in remote parts of the world to listen to and understand what a tribal person in the Narmada valley is saying, in Bhilali and Pawari languages that do not have a written script. They can directly listen to what the people of the Narmada Valley think about the current paradigm of development, what is their idea of development and how they struggled to sustain a way of life they lived on the banks of the River Narmada.

7. What are the things a new oral historian must keep in mind, while working on oral histories?

I do not believe in one strict structured form of the discipline and one single fit for all situations in using oral history methodology. I believe the practitioner will have to evolve her own methodology depending upon the subject, event and people she is working with. However, some form of knowledge and training in oral history methodology can go a long way in doing justice to the people’s history that the practitioner wants to work on. I say this particularly because recording oral histories of people in diverse languages, locations and situations is not easy and there may not be a second chance to record the interview unlike the possibility of going back to a library or secondary source. Knowledge of the discipline, evolving one’s own methodology and preparation, etc could help a lot in ensuring that it becomes truly a people’s history of value for the coming generation.

At the moment there are only some workshops that are conducted for such training in oral history guidelines and methodology in the Indian context. There are several websites that deal with oral history methods and tools, but such websites are more focussed on the western situations and contexts. It is important therefore to dig out relevant information and involve oneself in self learning and training before embarking on this journey. There are books available on the subject, information on types of equipment that could be used, issues concerning sound; interviewing techniques, oral history methodology guidelines, etc and this must be studied. Oral history websites and books can also help to understand different types of oral history recordings and methodologies adopted by different practitioners in different situations.

However after this kind of exposure and learning, one will have to evolve techniques and methodologies best suited to one’s work, one’s situation and the people one is engaged with.

8. Do you engage with media in your work? How do you approach working with technology?

I do work with Media so that people’s history reaches out to people more and more. Technology has helped make the work of oral history participatory and accessible.

9. Tell us a little more about Oral History Association of India (OHAI).

The Oral History Association of India (OHAI) is an association of those practicing the discipline of oral history across India with the objective of building, developing and strengthening the theory and practice of the discipline, especially in the Indian context, highlighting the unique advantages of the oral history method in the study of history, and promoting its adoption as an important and critical, indeed indispensable approach to the study of history in diverse situations in the country. Established in 2013, the OHAI organises annual conferences that has seen excellent participation of practitioners of oral history from across the globe as well as students interested in the subject. OHAI also brings out an annual newsletter and conducts workshops.

The OHAI has as its founding members Dr. Indira Chowdhury, Founder-Director of the Centre for Public History at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru; Dr Pramod Srivastava, Professor and Head of History Department at Lucknow University; Surajit Sarkar, Associate Professor at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi; Ms. Vrunda Pathare, Member, Chief Archivist, Godrej Archives; and many other esteemed practitioners of oral history. For more information, see: https://ohaindia.wordpress.com/

Nandini Oza (@OzaNandini) is an author and a former activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. During her time as an activist she has extensively documented oral histories of people associated with the movement, part of which forms the crux of her book ‘Ladha Narmadecha’ in Marathi (Rajhans Prakashan). Her previous book was ‘Whither Justice- Stories of Women in Prison’ (Rupa Publications) which was also translated to Marathi. She is currently the President of the Oral History Association of India. You can read more about her work here.

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Media Anthropology

Blog of the Media Anthropology Research Collective — South Asia