The purpose of SPARROW is... to inspire people to find sustenance in the stories of women who have lived before them and women who live and work amidst them.
— Annual Report, SPARROW, 2003-04
C.S. LAKSHMI of the Mumbai-based Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) is distinguished by unusual personal qualities. She was in town for the recent release of The World of Maya, a SPARROW trust publication in tribute to the late political cartoonist, Maya Kamath. Originally set up in her bedroom in 1988, its founder-trustee and director Lakshmi took time off to cue us into the archive's work. Such as conscience-stirring workshops for college-goers following the 1992 Mumbai riots.
That's besides documentation of women's studies pioneers such as Dr. Vina Mazumdar and Dr. Neera Desai, legendary writer Mahasweta Devi, theatre activist Mangai and lawyer-activist Flavia Agnes under the Global Feminism Project. Or photographic records of Women and Work in Chennai (including a fishmonger and an idli vendor). Even a book on three generations of women in a Kodava family. Or a tongue-in-cheek, insight-bright media watch on underwear advertising in print — and its impact on customer identity!
"At this point, I see myself as a feminist who has lived without compromise," declares Lakshmi, who holds a Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University on US policy towards 1956 Hungarian refugees from communism. "I've never compromised where my writing in Tamil (as Ambai) is concerned. Nor about funds for SPARROW (mainly from the Dutch agency Hivos since 1997). That's because all our trustees — Dr. Neera Desai, Dr. Maithreyi Krishna Raj, Dr. Divya Pandey and Dr. Roshan G. Shahani — are committed to women's studies and issues."
How did SPARROW, now housed in 2000 sq. ft. of temporary rented space, come into being? While studying women writers in popular Tamil journals in the 1970s, Lakshmi met a generation from the 1930s-50s. "My constant query was: where does their mental and physical space for expression come from? You get amazing answers to that," stresses Lakshmi. "I admired their principles, even when we didn't see eye to eye."
That's when she chose to further research women through non-traditional source materials — such as diaries, letters, even oral history — in a trust initiated with personal funds. "These were considered soft materials, unlike official documents," asserts Lakshmi, still engaged in an illustrated social history of women in Tamil Nadu.
A painting exhibition in 1992 was SPARROW's first major fund-raiser, enabling the archive to shift to a small Juhu room with a part-time librarian. "But when the Mumbai riots happened, we were totally shattered," Lakshmi recalls. "That's when we decided to have a five-day workshop on communal harmony for college students. We showed them films from the Partition onwards. Many participants were attending without telling their parents. We realised how much more we needed to do."
That experience led to oral history student workshops on Dalit life, even tribal struggles. And visual history ones on traditional sculpture or classical dance. Even film-based sessions on popular movies or filmi geet. Transcript-based booklets emerged from each of SPARROW's 14 workshops.
What fans the sparkling-at-60 fire within Lakshmi? Perhaps her nationalistic, Gandhian overview from a post-independence generation. Or could it be her avatar as the lauded Tamil fiction writer Ambai, which first bloomed at 16? Her short stories focus on relationships, brilliantly observed, wryly commented on, totally contemporary. This characterises the Sirakukal Muriyum and Vittin Mulaiyil Oru Camaiyalarai collections, some rendered into English as A Purple Sea. But Lakshmi is equally celebrated for her 1984 critical work, The Face Behind the Mask, a study of women's images in modern Tamil fiction.
"To me, a feminist is a woman who leads a non-degraded life," Lakshmi concludes. "That is every woman's right." To the SPARROW trustees, their work no longer signifies a commonplace bird. Instead, it could be a viable cry in the wilderness.
(The Hindu Metroplus, Bangalore, 2005)