Keynote Lecture | Plenary Session TFDC G.41/G.56 Plenary Lecture Theatre
Jul 04, 2023 09:30 - 11:00(Europe/London)
20230704T0930 20230704T1100 Europe/London Opening of Conference and Keynote Lecture - Indira Chowdhury: 'Memory, Orality and Learning: Reflections of an oral historian'

Memory, Orality and Learning: Reflections of an oral historian

Indira Chowdhury 

Formerly, Director, Centre for Public History, 

Srishti-Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, India

This talk offers two reflections about memory from my long years of engagement as an oral historian working specifically within cultures of orality. I have observed that within oral cultures, the singers, painters and artisans, often turn away from a recollection of their lives and draw attention to the lessons embedded in what they sing, perform or paint. The events they focus on may be based on a real event but in its presentation it is shorn of chronology or historical form, instead, they draw out the insights they have gained from the story which in turn merges with their understanding of lived experience. Within cultures of orality, memory is often 'a site of learning' distinct from forms of colonial knowledge characterised by 'intellectual parasitism'. (Dhareshwar, 2018)

The act of remembering, as Rabindranath Tagore, reminds us, is strongly visual. But pictures painted on memory's canvas are not a "faithful copy of all that is happening"; these are pictures, not history. Only parts catch the eye – others remain "out of sight in the darkness". Tagore's visual metaphor actually enables us to understand not only dimensions of orality and memory but also how memory mirrors time. 

Tagore's understanding of memory enables me to talk about my second reflection about memory within cultures of orality: there exists a form of fugitive memory that can conceal itself from public attention for an extended duration of time. Drawing on the work of postcolonial writers, I shall look at how memory of the 1857 'Sepoy Mut ...

TFDC G.41/G.56 Plenary Lecture Theatre MSA Conference Newcastle 2023 conference@memorystudiesassociation.org
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Memory, Orality and Learning: Reflections of an oral historian


Indira Chowdhury 

Formerly, Director, Centre for Public History, 

Srishti-Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, India


This talk offers two reflections about memory from my long years of engagement as an oral historian working specifically within cultures of orality. I have observed that within oral cultures, the singers, painters and artisans, often turn away from a recollection of their lives and draw attention to the lessons embedded in what they sing, perform or paint. The events they focus on may be based on a real event but in its presentation it is shorn of chronology or historical form, instead, they draw out the insights they have gained from the story which in turn merges with their understanding of lived experience. Within cultures of orality, memory is often 'a site of learning' distinct from forms of colonial knowledge characterised by 'intellectual parasitism'. (Dhareshwar, 2018)

The act of remembering, as Rabindranath Tagore, reminds us, is strongly visual. But pictures painted on memory's canvas are not a "faithful copy of all that is happening"; these are pictures, not history. Only parts catch the eye – others remain "out of sight in the darkness". Tagore's visual metaphor actually enables us to understand not only dimensions of orality and memory but also how memory mirrors time. 

Tagore's understanding of memory enables me to talk about my second reflection about memory within cultures of orality: there exists a form of fugitive memory that can conceal itself from public attention for an extended duration of time. Drawing on the work of postcolonial writers, I shall look at how memory of the 1857 'Sepoy Mutiny' based on the lived experiences of those who were participants, witnesses and survivors, was forced to conceal itself in British India and later found expression in stories and epic-like songs that were passed down. Yet, certain markers of cultural memory remain until now. Jhansi – the kingdom of the legendary Rani Lakshmibai, has not celebrated the spring festival of Holi with its usual magnificence since 16th March 1854 – the fateful day (which happened to be Holi) on which Lord Dalhousie conveyed the decision to take over the administration of Jhansi. Songs, poems and memories about the Rani of Jhansi as well as other forms of resistance to the East India Company in 1857 has lived on in numerous parts of northern India. At the time of crisis, memory, like its bearers turns fugitive. When it is safe, the fugitive comes out of hiding. Yet, fugitive memory is also 'a site of learning', it originates in an empirical event, distils the learnings from the events rather than detailing out timelines. As oral historians and memory researchers perhaps we could learn from these two important aspects of memory that disclose themselves in cultures of orality that still exist in postcolonial countries.


Dhareshwar, Vivek. "Sites of learning and intellectual parasitism: The case for new humanities." In Critical Humanities from India, pp. 72-94. Routledge India, 2018.

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