[Reader-list] abstract

TARAN KHAN 133344 at soas.ac.uk
Sun Jan 25 23:55:02 IST 2004

Working Title
Very Progressive People: Stories of Women and Movements from 1950s Bombay

Sometime in 1950, three young men belonging to the Communist Party moved into a flat in Bombay together. Their baggage included privileged family backgrounds, a liberal arts education, literary leanings, membership of the Progressive Writers Movement. They also brought along their wives. The men- Ali Sardar Jafri, S M Mehdi and Kaifi Azmi- emerged as vigorous and prominent participants in the Urdu literary renaissance as well as the gamut of social/cultural movements that emerged in post-Independence Bombay. Their wives—Sultana, Zehra and Shaukat-- became friends, and keen observers-participants of the various initiatives (IPTA, activist journalism) their husbands’ political affiliations opened up to them. This project proposes to document their witnessing of these processes of flux and transformation-- as women, as wives and as friends. Their shared time in the “Red flat”- an experiment in community living, and a time of bonding and exploration—forms the thematic and chronological reference point for this project.

The attempt is to create a record of experience, an excavation of memory that operates at two (related) levels. One, to achieve a view of the new paradigm our protagonists found themselves in- a life of radical ideas, heady poetry and dreams as well as Spartan living –particularly as manifested in the arena of the domestic and everyday life. Second, to map the processes of change and reinvention within the women. Of interest here is their negotiation of their ‘pasts’—of being well born, conservatively reared Muslim women—in creating a delicate balance with their current bohemian reality. This includes their forays into new and hitherto taboo domains like theatre, performance and broadcasting. Our focus is thus on the journeys made by these women; equally important is their telling of these experiences-- the manner in which they perceive their own behaviour and where they locate (their) ‘revolutions'. The city of Bombay provides the backdrop, and also the context in which these processes are played out. The urban experience of buses, cramped living space and immigrant dilemmas is central to the protagonists’ narratives and forms a thread of enquiry in the project. 

The central objective of this project is thus to achieve an understanding of the experience of being a woman- and particular kind of woman, in that particular milieu. It aims at a documentation of narratives of the mundane—anecdotes and observations from everyday routines—that provide a view of a critical but understudied period of social/cultural transformation, seen through the lens of gender and memory. The end result will thus be a record, incorporating various levels of narration. 

 One, the spoken word. Audio recordings of the protagonists recounting events and experiences—a telling of their lives, as seen by them. 
 Two, the visual. Still photographs and slides of the women and the spaces they occupy now—in their homes and in the public domain. These will be layered with reproductions of photographs from the 1950’s from their own collections.
  Three, text. This will include excerpts from letters and journals, notes to each other or themselves.

An important consideration that will shape the end product is to allow for a relatively undirected telling of the stories. While author intervention is to an extent inevitable in such a project, my concern is to break with the trend in dealing with Muslim women of producing victimologies or apologies on behalf of this ‘constituency’. The attempt will be to allow a conversation between women who lived through a particular period in the past and their audience in the present, along themes of identity, freedom and communal divides that have tremendous resonance for women (particularly Muslim women) today.

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