Voices from the countryside

Rural India's diversity is well known. Yet the fact that more than 833 million people live in India's villages, speak over 780 languages, and use 86 different scripts should make us pause to consider the cultural vastness of an India we urbanites know so little about. As the Magsaysay award winner and India's best-known rural journalist, P. Sainath, has emphasized, media attention in India is almost exclusively focused on its metro cities.

By Jael Silliman
  • Published 12.11.16
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Rural India's diversity is well known. Yet the fact that more than 833 million people live in India's villages, speak over 780 languages, and use 86 different scripts should make us pause to consider the cultural vastness of an India we urbanites know so little about. As the Magsaysay award winner and India's best-known rural journalist, P. Sainath, has emphasized, media attention in India is almost exclusively focused on its metro cities.

A report of the Center for Media Studies analysed the Hindi and English newspapers of six major metro cities, along with prime time news coverage and noted that over 60 per cent of cover page news is devoted to New Delhi, with Mumbai garnering attention because of public interest in Bollywood and Dalal Street. Calcutta receives less attention than does Chennai, as the latter is a far larger information technology hub. The 35 other tier two and three cities get yet less coverage; indeed, over 40 other Indian towns and cities - each with a population of over one million - are barely noticed by the media.

When stories about rural areas are featured, their content is rarely about rural people. The 'countryside' is covered when there is a large-scale catastrophe; even then, the event is grossly under-reported. It is also written about during the elections, when the rural vote is considered important in terms of a party's winning or losing seats. For the most part, it seems, we know little of and care less about rural people, their lives, and the challenges they face.

An ambitious effort, the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI - https://ruralindiaonline.org/), was launched in December 2014. It has built a "fantastic, dedicated platform to capture the most complex place on Earth". PARI allows us to hear directly from rural people about the many facets of their lives - their languages, their culture, work, traditions, access to schools, hospitals and other facilities, and the skills they possess - many of which are rapidly disappearing. PARI is unlike the ethnographical or anthropological accounts we have learned from so far; the visitor to this digital archive sees rural people and often hears directly from them about their lives in their own idiom and language. The site also has information about rural India from others engaged with this sector.

PARI is an independent entity and does not rely on corporate or governmental support. Over 1,700 volunteers across the nation - photographers, techies, journalists, academics and translators - have come forward to create this platform. Through its photos, narratives, film, and audio materials, we hear rural people speak about various aspects of their lives. Their narratives are supplemented by selected secondary sources about rural India. For instance, with a click of the mouse, one can read the government's national food security bill of 2013 or a report on mining in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh by the Panos Institute.

This technically sophisticated platform enables one to gain insights into the collective experiences of rural people without collapsing the individual experience. For example, the diversity of India is captured in the section titled "Faces". Students of journalism and mass communication at Santiniketan have contributed some of the most arresting photos to this section, which seeks to facially map India. Thus, the engaged viewer can experience the archive at the individual and community levels to visualize the broad contours of the diversity of rural India.

There are photo essays about a plethora of interesting subjects such as the devotion and painful perforation of the Bauris of Purulia during the Gajan festival. Madhabi Maity writes about and has incredible photos of this particular form of Shiva worship. She explains how these "despised and discriminated-against" members of a lower caste earn social respect by displaying their ability to endure unimaginable pain through body piercings during devotional services.

One can view video clips or the 'talking albums' of a diverse, multilingual array of rural people. There are several films and articles on weaving; the documentary, Weaves of Maheshwar, received a national film award this year. There is a film on the potters of Bankura at https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/baked-earth/, where we meet Buddhadeb Kumbhakar, a third-generation potter from Panchmura. We get a sense of the time and skill it takes to make the famous terracotta horses that are marketed in Calcutta. Some of PARI's articles have been translated into 10 languages. Its being multi-authored encourages this site's viewers to engage with a very complex reality. Another moving and recent report from Bengal speaks of the difficulties faced by pregnant women in accessing healthcare. It may be accessed at https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/in-emergencies-we-are-really-stranded/.

India's urban population comprised 17 per cent of the total population in 1951; this is expected to rise to 42.5 per cent of the total population by 2025. As poverty is concentrated in rural India, large numbers of its young people are moving away to the towns and cities as there are fewer employment opportunities in the countryside. Farming is also in a crisis. These shifts in population have resulted in the disappearance of many traditional skills, languages, and occupations. PARI is recording these skills and languages that are now only practised and spoken in rural India.

Over the past 50 years, 220 of India's languages have ceased to exist. Tripura's Saimar has just seven surviving speakers. Since language embodies and is a descriptor of a culture, its loss is significant on many levels. Toddy-tapping was once a regular feature of rural life, yet today in many parts of rural India, it is increasingly difficult to find a toddy-tapper. Such a man can climb up to 50 palm trees a day, each one three times during the season. Either palm jaggery or toddy is made from the sap. "In peak season, a toddy-tapper climbs a height greater than New York's Empire State Building - every single day." There are others - potters, metal workers, and other skilled craftspeople - who are also rapidly losing their livelihood.

PARI is not only archiving invaluable materials about rural India, but also developing a cadre of knowledgeable reporters who can report from rural India about its realities. This digital archive has already received some significant awards for its work, including the Praful Bidwai Memorial Award (June, 2016). PARI seeks to "continue its efforts to push the borders of digital multimedia and take journalism, arts, crafts, and literature out of the hands of corporations and hand it back to people." It will strengthen its efforts to have subalterns speak for themselves; for instance, adivasi women shoot their own videos that are posted on the site. Indeed, PARI has been described as "a Smithsonian from down up".

It has just launched "Cover Your Country", and is determined to report stories from all of India's 95 regions; the mainstream media today covers just seven or eight of these regions. Over the next five years, PARI seeks to place 100 Fellows, one in each of these regions; 12 of them are already in place. These Fellows would be representative of India's ethnic, caste, and gender composition. Each has the mandate to live in and report from the region concerned on ordinary, everyday issues for at least three months of each year. PARI's founder, Sainath, explains the magnitude of the project: "It will be the largest exercise in journalist coverage ever undertaken with data, images, and representation from every region of this country." Its sheer complexity is staggering. PARI's influence on journalism in India is a work in progress.