People's Archive of Rural India: Lifting the veil of invisibility

India's indigenous languages and ancient traditional skills are at risk of extinction, but it's not too late to save them. This is what Palagummi Sainath, the founder of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) aim to do. According to him, public institutions in India are on the decline, and the public sphere is shrinking. “The public sphere is shrinking. Every day the media, education - all these are falling more and more into the private corporate control.”

Sainath says many great museum collections are now private collections. And private collectors, who own some of the greatest artefacts, never exhibit these in public. “I think that it’s a terrible thing that your culture and your history can be privatised. It belongs to the men and women who sat and created it,” Sainath says.

"I think that it’s a terrible thing that your culture and your history can be privatised. It belongs to the men and women who sat and created it"

According to PARI, the use of libraries and museums has declined rapidly in the last 20 years. At first this was not seen as a negative - one could find the same miniature painting schools and traditional murtikar sculptures in the streets. In short, the public sphere was indeed becoming public. But these too are now disappearing.

This is how the idea of a People’s Archive of Rural India came about, to harness the power of improving internet connectivity to record the lives of India’s rural citizens. People living in rural areas make up roughly two-thirds of India’s 1.37 billion population.

The aim of the organisation is to capture the lived experiences of these people, who are often marginalised in mainstream narratives, and transform them into a living, breathing journal. In this way, the secrets of the Khalasi seamen, who have set heavy ships to sail for more than two millennia, can be preserved for posterity.

Another threatened national treasure is India's traditional rope-making economy. It now faces imminent collapse due to deforestation and the introduction of synthetic materials like nylon. ​

The Bhores are the last family in Boragaon village still hand-crafting rope. Image: Sanket Jain

Folk songs, ancient occupations like traditional storytellers, murtikar sculptors, the khattat’s calligraphy and a centuries old pottery tradition all face imminent extinction. Some of the indigenous languages spoken by minorities are also disappearing as the number of speakers dwindles slowly.

Also threatened with extinction is the peculiar job of the toddy-tapper. Toddy-tappers climb up 50 palm trees daily to get the sap they use to make palm jaggery - palm sugar - or a fermented liquor called toddy. Sainath says that in peak season these toddy-tappers climb a combined height of about 5000 metres. This, Sainath says, is a height greater than New York’s Empire State Building.

"He’s made that incision he needs to, using his sickle. By the day’s end he will make more than one. The sap he collects can either end up as pannai vellam, palm jaggery, or as the palm wine called toddy" from the Toddy tapper album. Image P. Sainath

The struggle against being forgotten

In this struggle for dignity, and in the struggle against being forgotten, memory is indeed the weapon, as celebrated South African journalist and poet Don Mattera put it.

PARI’s work is not limited to immortalising the tales of India’s forgotten freedom fighters and their fight against British colonialism. In 'Lost on the island, and then found or forgotten' they tell the stories of pilgrims that visit West Bengal and get separated from their families - or even abandoned by them. These pilgrims are often overlooked and forgotten, ending up desolate in shelters as they hope for the return of their loved ones.

An elderly woman from northern West Bengal says an emotional goodbye to volunteers who helped her find her relatives. Image: Ritayan Mukherjee

PARI also reports on climate change from the point of view of rural populations that feel the brunt of its effects. These stories are unique and captivating. They deal with the nomadic pastoral communities in the eastern Himalayas who cross-bred the yak and the highland cattle to get the more climate resilient dzomo, or tell of how rising sea temperatures and diesel pollution from big trawlers mean fishing communities now only see the fish they once used to catch on the Discovery Channel.

The risk today is that entire identities, livelihoods and, as is the case of women in India’s rural agriculture sector, the recognition of substantial contributions to the economy, will be erased.

“In India, if you say farmer we think of a man sitting with a plough or maybe on a tractor, but 60% to 65% of all labour in agriculture is done by women.” Despite this, he says the conventional societal attitude towards their contribution is very reactionary.

Women are never accepted as farmers and only seen as either the wives, daughters or sisters of farmers. “The kids I teach and the journalists I train, it’s a revelation to them how much work women do.” Sainath says because the work done by women is often unpaid, their contribution is not factored into the gross domestic product or seen as contributing to economic growth.

Another thing that must be taken into account when documenting India’s marginalised rural population is what he calls the dignity of labour. “No photograph will ever be carried on PARI if we believe it hurts the dignity of that individual,” he explains.

“No photograph will ever be carried on PARI if we believe it hurts the dignity of that individual.”

PARI’s first ever exhibition was titled 'Visible Work, Invisible Women: An Online Photo Exhibition'. In many ways, the exhibition lifts the veil that would otherwise render these people invisible. Visible Work, Invisible Women was not initially intended for an exhibition. The images are from 26 years ago when Sainath started out as a rural reporter. “I was recording what work people were doing,” he says.

Visible Work, Invisible Women: An Online Photo Exhibition. Images: P Sainath

The way he documented how these women eked out a living eventually had a bearing on his attitude on how stories about working people should be told. He says if you want to write about someone at work then you have to be with them through their entire work cycle.

“You’d see that the women in the photographs are perfectly comfortable with the camera and with me because I was staying in their huts, in their homes,” he explains. This meant that they became used to his presence and he, in turn, earned their trust. “I don’t begin an interview at point one. I have conversations that move into interviews,” he explains.

He also finds the heated debate about consent among photographers a bit trivial. “The person giving the consent often doesn't know how the picture will be used.” He says the photographer's intentions say a lot about how people are portrayed. “The intent with which you take a photograph tells me something about your content already.”

Many photographers think attaining consent is a big achievement. But do the images they take try to make the subject more understandable? Do they tell the story in their own words as far as possible? On the contrary, he says, consent is just the beginning.

“Just a beautiful photograph of a beautiful woman in a brick kiln [brickyard] doesn't tell you that woman could die young. She is breathing fine brick dust. She is working in a furnace without shoes,” he says.

"They’re not just barefoot – those are hot bricks on their heads." from Bricks, coal and stone,Visible Work, Invisible Women: An Online Photo Exhibition, Image: P Sainath

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