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Between Memory and History:

Oral History and the framing of institutional narratives

Dr. Indira Chowdhury

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Date: 3rd September, 2013

Venue: Visitors Centre, CSMVS Museum, M G Road, Fort, Mumbai 400 001

Timing: 6.00 pm


The Speaker

Dr. Indira Chowdhury heads the Centre for Public History at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore. Formerly professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, she has a PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her book, The Frail Hero and Virile History, (Oxford University Press, 1998) was awarded the Tagore Prize in 2001. She set up the archives of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai; the Naandi Foundation and Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, both in Hyderabad. More recently, her team has set up the Archives of IIM Calcutta. In 2006, Indira founded one of the earliest archival consultancy services in India called Archival Resources for Contemporary History (ARCH). From 2010 ARCH found a new home in Srishti and is now called ARCH@Srishti. Her book, A Masterful Spirit: Homi Bhabha 1909-1966 (Penguin) was released by APJ Abdul Kalam in June 2010. She was awarded the New India Fellowship to write an institutional history of TIFR.

Synopsis of the talk

Inadequate archival resources with which to understand the history of postcolonial institutions in India, has often been lamented by scholars. In India, therefore, archival oral history serves a compensatory purpose, becoming sometimes the main resource with which to understand the evolution of institutions. This talk offers reflections on the nature of archival oral histories as resources for understanding institutional life. The talk will present a comparative study of the uses of archival oral histories within two major institutions in postcolonial India the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. The first, an institute of basic sciences set up as a public-private partnership model in 1945, which subsequently became a state-supported institution; and the second, an institution set up with state support in collaboration with MIT and supported by the Ford Foundation. This talk will raise following questions: What do people reveal about their experiences when the narratives are framed institutionally? What role do institutions conceptualized, built and supported by the state, play in generating narratives that seep into individual memory? What ideas of self and professional identity come into play when those who work within these institutions record their experiences? And finally, what kind of interpretative framework would allow us to look at the dissonances within such collections and enable us to move away from the kind of institutional narcissism that Mary Douglas, the anthropologist, observes as an inevitable part of institutional narratives.


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