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Third Biennial Conference of Oral History Association of India (OHAI): A Brief Report

Submitted by Debarati Chakraborty (OHAI Executive Committee, 2017-2018).

The Oral History Association of India (OHAI) held its third annual conference on Public Memory and Oral History in association with Gauhati University Guwahati, Assam (India) from 13 to 14 November 2017. No annual conference was held in 2016 as OHAI collaborated with IOHA to hold the IOHA conference at Bengaluru in July that year.

This conference focused on ways in which individuals and societies choose to remember, or forget, moments and events in history through ‘sites’ of public memory and how highly contested memory can be accessed through oral history. The two day conference received an overwhelming response from the students and researchers, and in order to accommodate the deserving papers, the organizers had to schedule parallel sessions on both days. There were about 96 participants, largest since OHAI began organizing conferences in 2013.

The conference was inaugurated on November 13, 2017 by Dr. Mridul Hazarika, The Honourable Vice Chancellor of Gauhati University. The inaugural session was presided by Professor Meeta Deka, President of Oral History Association of India (2016-2017). The keynote address was delivered by renowned oral historian Professor Alessandro Portelli on ‘What We Learned: Oral History as Dialogue’, where he discussed the power balance between the interviewer and the interviewee, how the presence of the interviewer challenges the interviewee, and how whatever the interviewee says challenges the interviewer in return. Since the purpose of a dialogue is “speaking across”, observed Portelli, “what we don’t have in common is what we have to learn” and “we don’t give voice, we receive voice”. Portelli further stated that an oral historian “…navigate(s) the no man’s land between facts and history”. The session ended with some clippings from the film Little Big Man (1970).

The chair and discussant of the Opening Plenary was Professor Indira Chowdhury, and the theme was ‘Heritage, Identity and Community’. The plenary included Professor Alessandro Portelli and Professor Surajit Sarkar. The session witnessed a lively and enriching discussion about how displacement creates and recreates identities, the notion of hospitality, what one remembers and what one pass on, among other relevant issues. Questions revolving around what is heritage, what are the agencies that protects the heritage, who is the heritage for, why are we protecting it, are people ready for the protected heritage, notions of “intangible heritage” and a discussion around the idea of truth and accuracy and the contribution of historiography to oral history.

The parallel sessions on Day 1 addressed ‘Documenting Oral History’, ‘Oral History and Cultural Heritage’ (which was further divided into two sessions), ‘Memory, Partition and Migration’ and ‘Oral History and Public Events’ and scholars discussed, debated and deliberated on memory and methodological concerns, oral traditions in various communities of India, and the Partition and ensuing displacement.  It was followed by a cultural programme on local history where the audience enjoyed traditional puppet performance Tejimola, based on an Assamese folk tale. It was followed by a documentary film Friends of Kaziranga which showcased the animals of the Kaziranga National Park during a monsoon flood and tireless efforts of the guards to protect them. The highlight of the evening was a stunning performance of Bihu, a folk dance of Assam, by the students of Gauhati University and local dancers.

The papers of the parallel sessions on Day 2 encompassed a wide variety of themes like ‘Public Memory, Media and Verbal Arts’, ‘Memory, Nation and Identity’, ‘Memory, Urban Spaces and Cultures’, ‘Environment, Natural Disaster and Public Narratives’ and ‘Voices of Collective Remembering’. The sessions were followed by a BBC presentation on the “Queen of Elephants” Parbati Barua, the only female mahout (elephant tamer) in the world. The audience was given an opportunity to listen to Parbati Barua’s life story and her experiences of taming and training elephants.

The second Plenary Session focused on a discussion of ‘Public Memory and Oral History’, with Professor P.K. Srivastava, Professor Sheila Bora, Professor Manorama Sharma and Professor Fleur D’ Souza with Alessandro Portelli as chair. The session dealt with the dialectics of collective knowledge, oral history as a tool for gender history and the ways in which oral history can be used as a pedagogical tool.

The closing plenary was titled ‘Commemoration and the Remembered Past: History, Landscape and Community’ by Professor Indira Chowdhury with Professor P.K. Srivastava in the chair. The lecture concentrated on how the Partition of India affected the lives of families – the speaker’s own as well as the resettled refugee community in Pachannagram, Kolkata. The next conference will be held in Delhi in December 2018.

OHAI 2017 Inaugural Session
OHAI 2017 Inaugural Session
Details of the photograph from left to right:
Professor Rajib Handique, Dr. Rena Laisram, Professor Paromita Das, Professor Alessandro Portelli, Dr. Mridul Hazarika, Professor P. K. Srivastava, Professor Meeta Deka and Professor Indira Chowdhury (in front of the lectern).