SPARROW'S Flight to Success

The story of SPARROW is all about dreams taking wings and turning real with time. For founder trustees - Dr C S Lakshmi, Dr Neera Desai and Dr Maithreyi Krishna Raj - the setting up of the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) exemplifies that dreams are not mere aspirations, they also define a person's sense of purpose in making a difference.

In 1978, when Lakshmi, also a distinguished Tamil fiction writer under the pseudonym Ambai, came to Mumbai with a background of research in women's studies, she met Desai and Raj, both pioneers in the field. A very warm friendship developed between the three women, who often discussed the need to set up women's archives. But as Lakshmi says, it took them 10 years to register the  organization for they were caught up with their own research. However, the necessity for such archives constantly figured in their conversation whenever they met.

The concept of archiving women's history in India is still a relatively unfamiliar territory, unlike the West where there are a number of archives to complement extensive research that document the lives and contribution of women in society. Lakshmi and her friends recognized a decade ago that oral history could be used as an important source material for research. "There was a need for a very different kind of archives for India as there was so much history that was still to be written."

Thus SPARROW was created with the belief that better understanding about the lives of women; their history and their Endeavour for dignity would eventually bring about the much-needed change in society.

So, what began as a distant vision slowly unraveled into a necessary reality of documenting the story of Indian women by combining the work of archives, a forum and a networking agency. The organization aimed to be a unique national archive for women with print, oral history and pictorial material.

The toughest part of SPARROW's birth (in 1988) was the financial constraints as women's archives did not exactly fit into the agenda of the government or funding agencies. At the same time, it was difficult to find a team that would help in building these archives. Lakshmi says: "In India, only those who don't get admission in any course opt for the librarian's course. So motivating girls who had no interest in the beginning to commit themselves to the cause of women's archives was very tough and often heart-breaking."

The initial funding for SPARROW came from individual donations for feminist calendars and diaries that both Lakshmi and Raj were involved in and were brought out under the banner of a feminist group Reaching Out. Today, SPARROW is being funded for their main projects by HIVOS, a Dutch INGO and
supported by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust for their infrastructure expenses.

The perseverance to succeed has paid off, with SPARROW having a capable team in place to help in building a comprehensive archive. Normally archives are uninteresting places where people go to consult material. SPARROW offers new methods of communication like films, sound material, publications, website and many different kinds of networking projects which aim at making women's history and the history of women not an exclusive domain of scholars, but a part of understanding the process of development from different perspectives. Thus, the archives created by SPARROW are more vibrant and communicative than just a collection centre of documents.

However, a humble budget that varies every year has made it difficult for SPARROW to find a permanent location for its various projects. After the earlier rented space of 500 sq ft and having shifted several times over the years, SPARROW now occupies a 2,000 sq ft rented office space with some 20 professionals involved in its archiving work.

Over the years, it has painstakingly created a sizeable collection ranging from 410 documentaries in seven languages, 429 popular films in six languages, 3,035 books in 12 languages, 3,440 journal articles in seven languages and 7,009 newspaper clippings in eight languages. This meticulous archiving is admirable as it preserves the past, acknowledges the present and looks forward to a more promising future.

SPARROW has initiated a number of projects, including Oral History Recording Programme (OHRP). The different language coordinators identify the stories worth exploring and then SPARROW does the basic research before recording the history in audio cassettes and later converting them into CDs. The OHRP includes history of the feminist movement, Ambedkar movement and experiences of Dalit women, communalism, violence and human rights.

In the last few years, SPARROW has also published a number of reports and translations as part of its written history project. So far, SPARROW has published 14 booklets like `Standing on her own feet' by Kala Shahani, `Colors Of Tradition' by Neela and `Menaka's Daughter' by Damayanti Joshi to name a few. The latest is `The World of Maya', a book of cartoons by the late Maya Kamath with more than a 1,000 cartoons.

The archives are meant for individual researchers, students, women's organizations, media people, and communicators. Their archival material is also taken into the public sphere through various innovative methods like exhibitions, multi-media installations, publications and so on. The recordings and publications are available to the public at an affordable cost and the revenue generated from it helps to further fund SPARROW's archival work.

Lakshmi recalls: "It was very difficult to get good professional translators and also editors who had time to spare." Also, it is not easy to find distributors for language publications and SPARROW is still struggling with the distribution for some of the translated books, especially Bengali, Telugu and Gujarati. SPARROW also holds a number of interactive workshops with students from various schools and colleges, covering a wide range of issues pertaining to women and their lives.

In the future, SPARROW plans to set up a gallery for exhibiting paintings, photographs, visuals, art and craft work. It is working on building a `museum of women's history' and plans to reconstruct events in women's history through film strips and electronic images. There are also plans for an auditorium, an e-newsletter and an FM radio station. Lakshmi envisions a future where "archived materials would be brought through imaginative ways to the public sphere and interactive spaces".

(SPARROW can be contacted at - B - 32, Jeet Nagar, J.P.Road, Versova, Mumbai - 400 061. Phone: 28245958, 28268575, 26328143, e-mail:


More by :  Fatima Chowdhury

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