Sound and vision blog

574 posts categorized "Sound and vision"

30 January 2023

Recording of the week: The role of the creator in improvised dance

This week’s selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist. 

Photograph of a dancer in motion, with a black background. Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash.

In this 1991 interview from the collection ‘ICA talks’ (C95/795), the renowned artist and dancer Trisha Brown considers the experience and exploration of gravity in her works, and discusses the role of gender in improvised partnering performances. 

Listen to Trisha Brown

Download Trisha Brown transcript

Years ago I used to practice contact improvisation, a movement technique and art dance style that originated in downtown New York in the late sixties.

The central idea of contact improvisation is around finding the body’s balance in relation to the partner by sharing weight and touch; forms and movements are thus created when the bodies meet, initiated and transformed by the music or simply by vocal instructions.

Movement awareness is intrinsically related to how much information we can gather from other people’s bodies, through the constant dialogic sharing of touch points. There are no rules, only bodies listening to each other in their search for a shared centre of gravity.

Trisha was one of these pioneering artists who explored the idea of what kind of movement can be improvised in a dance.1

An interesting point that Trisha considers is around the importance of physical strength and gender roles in this improvised dance: how much of the silent communication of movements is in fact created by the male partner?

Ultimately, it makes me wonder how much we are aware, in the process of making, of who is the final ‘creator’ of a performance.

---

[1] Nancy Stark Smith, 'Harvest: One history of contact improvisation', Contact Quarterly, The Place Issue, 32/2 (2006): https://contactquarterly.com/cq/unbound/view/harvest-a-history-of-ci#$.

27 January 2023

In the words of survivors: what was 'ordinary' about the Holocaust?

By Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

Holocaust Memorial Day graphic

Reflecting on the Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 theme of 'ordinary people', I wondered what – if anything – the word 'ordinary' meant to the people who survived the genocide. In a time that was by all accounts extra-ordinary, what value does the word 'ordinary' have in talking about it? Who do the survivors think of as 'ordinary people' in the context of their own persecution?

The British Library Sound Archive is home to more than 600 Holocaust oral testimonies. The word 'ordinary' appears with surprising frequency in them.

But interestingly, there is no consensus between them on who the 'ordinary people' are.

Some survivors identify themselves – and the Jewish people in general – as the 'ordinary people'. Ivan Cybula does so in the opening moments of his 1988 interview.

Ivan Cybula on his place of birth [BL REF C410/032]

Download Ivan Cybula transcript

For Ivan, there was nothing extraordinary about his family; they lived modest, working lives, in keeping with the lives led by many other Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The picture that Ivan paints of an 'ordinary' family in an 'ordinary' community that largely kept itself to itself sets the scene for what we know follows: a community that would be persecuted and ultimately murdered as a perceived anomaly, before Ivan had barely entered adulthood.

Other survivors draw a distinction between themselves and the non-Jewish people around them, but instead characterise non-Jewish people as 'ordinary' and themselves – or the notion of being Jewish – as some kind of other. Here, Eric Bluh talks about working in Bournemouth, England after the war. He describes his fractured relationship with an employer, who despite being Jewish themselves, did not think he lived up to the standards they expected of a Jew.

Eric Bluh on working in Bournemouth [BL REF C410/057]

Download Eric Bluh transcript

Eric describes himself as behaving ‘like an ordinary person without Jewish ways’ as a way of distinguishing himself from the Jewish stereotype, demonstrating in the process that the persistent ‘othering’ of Jewish people which had underscored the Holocaust continued into the post-war period, and beyond continental Europe..

Elsewhere, we hear survivors speak of their persecutors as 'ordinary people', making the same argument that scholars such as Christopher Browning and Hannah Arendt set out eloquently in their historical analyses: that genocides are not simply perpetrated by 'evil' people, but often ordinary people who under certain conditions are capable of making evil choices. By emphasising the ordinariness of their tormentors, the survivors challenge us to make sense of the extraordinariness of their actions. In the following clip, Naomi Blake describes the German soldiers who attempted to bury her alive as 'in normal circumstances law-abiding, good people, professional people':

Naomi Blake on digging a grave [BL REF C410/076]

Download Naomi Blake transcript

The outcome is not to absolve perpetrators of their responsibility or to underplay the severity of their crimes, but instead the opposite: to emphasise the extent to which their crimes lay beyond comprehension, yet firmly in the realm of the everyday possible.

The word 'ordinary' appears as an adjective to describe many other types of people and circumstances in survivor narratives. Heidi Fischer - who hid as a child in Hungary under Christian papers - describes sitting on a train listening to 'ordinary people - peasants and suchlike […] talking about the Jews […] in a very awfully derogative manner' (BL ref C410/088). In stark contrast, Alice Schwab speaks of 'the help, and the love, and the kindness, from ordinary people' she received after arriving in England in 1937 (BL ref C410/089).

In his 1989 interview, the interviewer asks Henry Kohn to describe 'an ordinary day' in the Czeldź ghetto (BL ref C410/002).

What does this tell us?

It tells us that the Holocaust was an event perpetrated and experienced by ordinary people. Though used in different contexts, the word almost always serves to emphasise the extremity of the situation, or the incomprehensibility of people's choices. After all, the word 'ordinary' only has meaning if the word 'extra-ordinary' can be used to describe something outside of its boundaries.

In speaking of the event in these terms, the survivors force us to see ourselves in their stories, at all stages and in all parts of the narrative. Believing ourselves to be 'ordinary people' is no longer a valid defence, a reason to believe that it couldn't happen to us or by us or under our watch. By describing those involved as ordinary - perpetrators, bystanders, and the persecuted alike - the survivors confront us with the possibility that, in fact, it could.

When asked whether he thought the history of the Holocaust ought to be shared, Michael Lee responded that the lessons must be learned precisely because of how ordinary those involved were:

Michael Lee describes experiencing antisemitism in Britain [BL REF C410/014]

Download Michael Lee transcript

Michael made these observations in an interview given in 1989. One might ask what he would think now about the parallels between the past and the present day, 34 years later.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

Madeline White is the Curator of Oral History at the British Library. She holds an MA and PhD in Holocaust Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, where she conducted extensive research into the history of archival collections of Holocaust testimony in Britain and Canada. 

 

18 January 2023

Why do hammer-headed fruit bats honk?

The Hammer-headed Fruit Bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) is the largest of the African bats. Named for its unusual appearance, this species is a classic example of sexual dimorphism at work, with males and females displaying significant differences in both size and appearance. While females are smaller and possess the familiar fruit bat face that usually generates a stream of ‘awwww!’ comments on YouTube, males elicit a completely different response. Their large mallet-like faces, flaring nostrils, flappy lips and bulging eyes, teamed with a huge wingspan of up to a metre, undoubtedly influenced the selection of ‘monstrosus’ when zoologists named the species in the 19th century.

The first scientific description of the Hammer-headed Fruit Bat was published in 1861 in volume 13 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The article’s author, the American physician and anatomist Dr. Harrison Allen, provided a highly detailed breakdown of the bat’s anatomy, including everything from dental records to the stiffness of its fur. The specimen studied by Allen had been collected by the French-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu who had been sent on an expedition to Africa by the academy in 1855. A second description was published in 1862 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, written by the Scottish naturalist and lawyer Andrew Murray. Murray only received a copy of Allen’s description after his own paper had gone to print (the journal had taken 7 months to arrive in the UK). In the postscript, Murray noted that if both were describing and naming the same species, Allen’s name of Hypsignathus monstrosus must take precedence (the name the species carries today). Their descriptions varied slightly, however Murray assumed this was due to differences in the preserved specimens being examined; Murray believed Allen was working from a dried skin whereas he had access to a specimen preserved in spirits. This enabled Murray to include a detailed illustration of the species alongside his written description.

Black and white illustration of a Hammer-headed Fruit Bat, taken from the 1862 edition of Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London

Being able to observe living individuals in their natural habitat was the next step. Field studies conducted in the 20th century revealed a surprising aspect of the bat's behaviour. During the breeding season, males were seen to congregate at dusk for an evening of intense vocal competition. A chorus of loud, monotonous honking would fill the night air as males used their calls as a way to prove their genetic fitness to nearby females looking for a mate. This recent recording of a Hammer-headed Fruit Bat lek includes the characteristic honking and was made by Michael Mills in Kumbira Forest, Angola on the 8th September 2013 (British Library reference WA 2014/001/001/431).

Hammer-headed Fruit Bat

An extremely long larynx, measuring half the length of its body cavity, is what allows males to take part in such sustained sonic battling. This gathering of displaying males in an arena-like setting, known as lek behaviour, is more commonly seen in birds. Though the mating system is also seen in mammals, only a handful of bats are known to use this process. Scientists continue to uncover previously unknown aspects of bat behaviour and so more species could be added to this list in the future. Our journey to fully understanding this complex and diverse group of mammals is far from over.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 January 2023

Recording of the week: ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ by Linton Kwesi Johnson

This week’s post comes from Daisy Chamberlain, Preservation Assistant for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Chapelton, Jamaica in 1952. His mother, Sylvena, migrated to Britain just before Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and Linton followed three years later, aged 11. His first home in the UK was in Brixton, South London, an area he described as ‘an oasis of resistance and rebellion’.

Photo of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Photo credit: Bryan Ledgard on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the following recording, Linton Kwesi Johnson recites his poem, ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ (British Library reference: C1532/14), written in memory of the Black German activist and poet, and his personal friend, May Ayim, at his birthday reception at Homerton College, Cambridge in 2012. May Ayim was the child of a German mother and a Ghanaian father, but was adopted by a white German family at a young age. She died on August 9, 1996, when she was only 36 years old.

Listen to Reggae Fi May Ayim

Download Reggae Fi May Ayim transcript

Though Linton Kwesi Johnson often works with a live band or backing track, this recitation of ‘Reggae Fi Ayim’ is performed without any music. His words have a rhythm and a musicality of their own, though, and the absence of any backing adds to the solemnity of his elegy.

From hamburg via bremen / den finally / Berlin

Ayim moved to Berlin in 1984, where the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde was working as a visiting professor in North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Ayim attended Lorde’s seminars while working on her thesis on the cultural and social history of Afro-Germans. Lorde soon became a close personal friend and mentor to Ayim, and the following year the pair co-founded the West Berlin Chapter of the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), an organisation of Black Germans campaigning against racial injustice in Germany to facilitate bonds between Afro-Germans and create new cultural practices.

Photo of May Ayim (right) with her mentor Audre Lorde (left)

Photo credit:  Dagmar Schults / CC BY-SA 4.0

Afro-german warrior woman

The relationship between Johnson and Ayim was personal – the poem reveals that the pair met at a black radical book fair. It was also political – both Johnson and Ayim used poetry as a tool for inciting political change, and as a core component of their activism. Ayim’s own poetry dealt with the themes of classism, racism and feminism, and emphasised the potential of writing to build coalitions between Black Europeans and transform their social lives. As well as this elegy for May Ayim, Johnson has written poems for Blair Peach (‘Reggae Fi Peach’), a white teacher from New Zealand killed at a protest against the National Front in Southall in 1979, and George Lindo (‘It Dread Inna Inglan’), a Black man from Bradford who was wrongfully convicted of robbery despite a lack of evidence and a strong alibi. You can browse individual recordings of these poems in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down

The opening stanza of ‘Reggae fi May Ayim’ sets the tone of the poem as a pained and emotional elegy for a close friend by highlighting the conspiracy between life and death to ‘shattah di awts most fragile diziah’ (shatter the heart’s most fragile desire). The lines ‘Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down’ are a reference to Ayim’s tragic suicide in 1996. The poet jumped from the thirteenth floor of an apartment building after battling depression and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Before Ayim died, she received invitations from across the world to attend and speak at conferences about feminism, anti-racism and human rights. It was through her global activism and her commitment to Afro-diasporic coalition that Ayim connected with individuals like Linton Kwesi Johnson. ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ is just one of many tributes sent by her friends and colleagues following her death.

09 January 2023

Recording of the week: ‘Wayn tkhallīnī’ by Iraq’s Rashīd al-Qundarjī

This week’s post comes from Hazem Jamjoum, Audio Curator for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme.

Rashīd al-Qundarjī (1886-1945) was one of the early recording artists of Iraq's Maqam repertoire. In musical contexts, the Arabic word maqam usually denotes melodic and rhythmic modes. In Iraq, however, the word is also used to describe a genre and form of musical suite that has come to be consecrated as the art music of Iraq’s urban centers, Baghdad in particular. In 2008, UNESCO added Iraqi Maqam to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Al-Qundarjī’s father was a bead-maker who died when the musician was still eight years old. The young boy, Rashīd ibn Ali ibn Habib ibn Hasan, apprenticed as a cobbler. Kundarji is the Turko-Arabic word for cobbler, and that is how the singer got the name by which he became famous. He studied Maqam with Ahmad Zaydan (1832-1912), one of the great masters of the Maqam tradition in Baghdad, and was reportedly chosen by Zaydan as his successor.

By the 1920s, al-Qundarjī was known throughout the city as a master in his own right, a status he held when this song was recorded in 1925. Such recordings only enhanced al-Qundarjī’s reputation, so much so that Iraq's King Ghazi (r. 1933-1939) became one of the singer’s great admirers. This admiration undoubtedly contributed to al-Qundarjī’s appointment as the official expert on Iraqi Maqam at Radio Baghdad from its inauguration in 1936 until the singer’s death a decade later.

Listen to Wayn tkhallīnī

Al-Qundarjī was widely regarded as a traditionalist amongst Maqam aficionados; he sang in the high-pitched register prized by nineteenth century listeners, and insisted on the use of the chalghi ensemble - composed of santūr (hammer-plucked zither or table harp), joza (bowed spike fiddle), and dumbak (hand drum) - for his accompaniment. He generally performed and recorded with the same chalghi accompanists we hear on this recording: ʻAzzūrī Hārūn on the santur, Sāliḥ Shumel Shmūlī on joza, Shāʼūl Hārūn Zangī on dumbak, as well as the pestaji (backing singer) Makkī al-Ḥaj Ṣāliḥ. In the 1920s, when this song was recorded, the chalghi ensemble came to be challenged by the takht ensemble (‘ud, qanun, and violin) favoured by Egyptian recording artists, and championed in Iraq by the Maqam moderniser Muḥammad al-Qubbānjī (1904-1989).

The era in which this recording was produced is significant in other ways. In the mid to late 1920s, record labels that had mostly concentrated their activities in Egypt and Greater Syria began trying to expand their operations in the Arab world to Iraq and the Persian Gulf. This recording is one of Baidaphon's early attempts at recording Iraqi artists to expand their reach into the Iraqi market. This and other recordings made around the same time were so successful that by the mid-1930s, many recording companies had set up recording studios in Baghdad.

Photo of Baidaphon disc centre label

Though Maqam specialists regard al-Qundarjī as a traditionalist, he did introduce new pieces into the established repertoire. Indeed, the choice to record this song is somewhat of an innovation in itself. The song is a pesta, a form that was not strictly speaking a central part of the Iraqi Maqam suite, but rather a piece sung near the end of the suite by a pestaji, the lead backing vocalist to the main Maqam singer. A highly melodic form, the pesta is sung in the same melodic mode as the Maqam suite itself, and would offer the lead Maqam singer a chance to rest his or her voice. On the recording, the pesta is delivered as a kind of call-and-response duet between al-Qundarjī and pestaji al-Ḥaj Ṣāliḥ, each singing a variant of the pesta’s simple lyric “wayn tkhallīnī, wayn trūḥ” (where are you leaving me, where are you going?). Given the length of a standard Maqam suite, and the very short duration possible to record on 78rpm shellac discs of the era (around 3 minutes), al-Qundarjī's choice of a pesta was a way of adapting to these technological limitations. It proved to be a pioneering one as more Iraqi artists recorded pestas, and many songs in that form have come to be known and loved as stand-alone musical pieces ever since.

20 December 2022

'Jiune Rahara' / Desire to live

Rahul Giri was one of our Resonations artists-in-residence during 2022. The Resonations artist residency programme is generously supported by the British Council. 

Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. 

In his last blog as artist-in-residence, Rahul gives us some insight into what he has done during the six months of his online residency:

Over the last six months working with the British Library’s sound archive as a Resonations artist-in-residence, I have engaged with various forms of Nepali music that cut across language, culture and geography. My primary focus within this vast archive has been the recordings of the Gandharva community - a wandering musician caste from Nepal.

Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey  in Tarkughat Village  Lamjung  1992
Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey, in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, 1992

Some of the Gandharva recordings I have closely listened to were written against the backdrop of war.

Jiune Rahara’, performed by Lurey Gandharva on voice and sarangi, and recorded by Carol Tingey in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, in 1992, is one such example. The song was most likely written over 200 years ago. It references the time when the Gorkha Kingdom (a hill state in central Nepal) was at war with its neighbouring states. This war was part of an expansion campaign (also known as unification of Nepal) that took place in the 18th and 19th century. It ultimately led to the formation of present-day Nepal.

The song ‘Jiune Rahara’ explores the complex psyche of men preparing to leave for the battlefield. Sung from the perspective of the soldiers, the text juxtaposes themes of faith and fate. The song lyrics narrate how men going to war rely on various practices that are considered auspicious in Nepali culture.

The refrain ‘Jiune Rahara’ which literally translates as ‘the desire to live’ puts things into perspective. It poignantly describes the mindset of the soldiers who are well aware of the realities of war - how the fear of death and the desire to live simultaneously manifest themselves through these rituals and acts of faith.

Reading the lyrics of the song, makes this clear:

Find the auspicious hour, brother, [for us to leave]
We have as blessings the curd and the banana
The desire to live

Consecrated grains of the shali rice
And curd from the mali cow
Give us the tika mark
The desire to live
Brother - we head off to the fields of war

In how many places, brother, were you hit
By musket balls?
How many places, the cut of the khukuri [machete]?
The desire to live
Will you ever come home again?

[Translated into english by Prawin Adhikari]

One of the first thoughts that came to my mind while listening to ‘Jiune Rahara’ was how the song could be applied to the lives of present day Nepali migrant workers.

Every year thousands of Nepali men and women travel abroad for employment. They especially travel to Gulf countries (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and others) and Malaysia. Like the soldiers in the song ‘Jiune Rahara’, they are well aware of the trials and tribulations that await them, including the possibility of death. Most of them make this journey out of necessity - out of a desire to live - to escape poverty, to provide for their family or to simply look for a better life.

‘Jiune Rahara’ is part of a larger body of Gandharva songs that explore themes of war through an individual’s perspective. The song is an intersection of art and reportage where loss and longing, hope and fear make way for grander narratives of valour and bravado.

Inspired by ‘Jiune Rahara’s’ approach to dealing with complex themes in such a poetic and effective way, I started thinking about creating a body of work that was based on the experiences of Nepali migrant workers'.

In the early stages of this residency while researching the Gandharva tradition I was also listening to recordings of sarangi with sampling and sound design in mind. Sarangi is the primary instrument of Gandharvas. It is a four stringed fiddle played vertically with a bow. The music producer in me was drawn to the melancholia, granularity and vulnerability in these sound recordings. I was also interested in the dissonance, grit and scrappiness which crept into them every once in a while but was especially audible when musicians tuned their instruments in between songs and conversations.

I asked Rajan Shrestha, a musician and ethnomusicologist from Kathmandu, to send me very basic recordings of sarangi - long drawn notes with no direct connection to the Gandharva compositions.

My initial goal was to create a body of work that used the sound of the sarangi as a building block - to create a varied sonic palette based on the textures, timbres and tonalities of these archival recordings. To do this, I would use various sound design and sampling techniques.

The decision to work with newly made recordings of sarangi was partly out of respect for the Gandharva tradition. It also gave me a lot more freedom as a producer as I was starting from scratch and could manipulate these recordings to match my inclinations.

Over the last few months I have been working towards reimagining and re-contextualizing these recordings - extracting and exploring elements of noise, drone and dissonance to soundtrack aspects of Nepali migrant workers journey. Most of my work with these recordings has coincided with the build up and the culmination of the World Cup in Qatar.

The majority of my work in progress is a response to the reportage around the plight of South Asian migrant workers involved in building the stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.

You can listen to some snippets of my work in progress on Soundcloud.

Some of these sketches include sound design ideas that replicate construction sites - claustrophobic walls of sound that represent the harsh working and living conditions, meditative musical passages that reflect muted optimism and hope that some of the workers have shown in interviews.

As of now these are just fragments, a collection of sketches, audio notes that I hope to build on in the coming months.

19 December 2022

Recording of the week: ‘Rooms above pubs: a nexus of free improvisation’

This week’s post comes from Tom Jackson, Workflow Support Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Rooms above pubs have played a prominent role in the development of the UK’s free improvisation scene. The Horse Improvised Music Club began organising events above the Horse pub in Waterloo, before moving to the Dog House in Kennington and several other pubs in South East London until they established a concert series at Iklectik Art Lab. Between 2013 and 2016, Daniel Thompson ran Foley Street Improvised Music Concert Series above the King And Queen in Fitzrovia. While not technically rooms above pubs, special mentions should go to Flim Flam and Boat Ting, which have both been running for over twenty years, the former in a room below Ryan’s N16 in Stoke Newington, the latter on the Bar&Co boat at Temple Pier.

Rooms like these provide a vital space for improvisers to perform and develop their practice, offering an unparalleled intimacy between audiences and musicians. Operating alongside venues whose main activities include a platform for concerts (Hundred Years Gallery, for example), there’s always been something very special about these rooms, temporary spaces of activity existing sometimes for a few years, sometimes going on for decades. I think the history of this music would have been very different without these rooms above pubs.

Scan of 'The Cut' flyer

In the 1980s, concerts were organised at the Priory Arms in Stockwell by Alan Tomlinson and at the Roebuck in Central London by Phil Durrant, Steve Moore and Gillian McGregor. The British Library has recordings from both of these concert series. ‘The Cut’ (British Library ref: C138) is a collection of recordings of the latter, featuring the following improvisers and poets: Clive Fencott, Phil Durrant, Mike Hames, Matt Hutchinson, Stuart Jones, Paul Hession, Roger Turner, Peter Cusack, Phil Minton, Gillian McGregor, John Butcher, Steve Moore, Hugh Metcalfe, Allen Fisher, Parny Wallace, Neil Metcalfe, Jim Denley, Philipp Wachsmann, Will Evans, Mark Sanders and Thebe Lipere. It’s a collection that provides ample evidence of the intensity and excitement of the scene at that time.

From 1984, here are three solos recorded at The Cut, from Paul Hession (26 September), Jim Denley (24 October) and Peter Cusack (12 September).

Listen to Paul Hession

Listen to Jim Denley

Listen to Peter Cusack

Special thanks to John Butcher for providing a copy of the flyer.

12 December 2022

Recording of the week: ‘Acts of protest: Women and the Indian independence movement’

This week’s post comes from Chandan Mahal, Learning Projects Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

The figures of Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru are well-known but we should also remember the many women who were active in the struggle to free India from British rule.  The contributions of female political activists, including Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Fatima Jinnah and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, greatly influenced how India’s struggle for freedom was achieved. As leaders, these women significantly changed the course of the independence movement.

When Gandhi encouraged women to join the Satyagraha campaigns, which were campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience, many responded to his call. Women from all backgrounds, including poorer and rural communities, were mobilised through the Swadeshi movement in particular. This was part of a drive to boycott foreign goods, especially foreign cloth, and encourage the use of domestic products including home spun cloth. The aim was to regenerate India’s textile industry, which had been destroyed by the British during colonial rule.

The spinning of cloth had always been important for village women as a source of income, so thousands were encouraged to take it up along with the wearing of home-made cloth (khadi). Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, twice-president of the Indian National Congress, describes the importance of these defiant acts for mobilising women: in many ways they marked both the beginning of women’s emancipation in India, and an important progression towards independence from British rule.

Listen to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Download Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit transcript

Pandit also highlights in this clip the famous Salt March in 1930. The British government had introduced a salt tax which doubled the price of salt and made it illegal for Indians to make their own salt. The tax levies had made salt unaffordable for the poorest. Sarojini Naidu led a march to the salt works at Dharasana in 1930 and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay organised a mass raid on the salt fields in Wadala. Even though Chattopadhyay was arrested, her seven year old son and other marchers continued to execute her plan. At her trial she tried to sell salt in the courtroom and even asked the magistrate to quit his position and join the Satyagraha movement! Sadly she was given a nine month prison sentence.

In this oral history interview sourced from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay describes how the salt satyagraha was considered a pivotal moment of new mass participation by women in a national movement:

Even though only a few women were chosen officially to take part in the salt satyagraha with which the Indian revolution opened on the morning of April 6 1930, by sunset that first day it had turned into a mass movement and swept the country. On that memorable day thousands of women    strode down to the sea like proud warriors. But instead of weapons they bore pitchers of clay, brass and copper: and instead of uniforms, the simple    cotton saris of village India […] Women young and old, rich and poor, came tumbling out in their thousands, shaking off the traditional shackles that held them so long.  Valiantly they went forward without a trace of fear and embarrassment. They stood at street corners with little packets of salt, crying out: ‘We have broken the Salt Law and we are free! Who will buy the salt of freedom?’

Taken from the book History of Doing by Radha Kumar (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1993).

In the clip below, Kamaladevi talks about one of the occasions when she was arrested and how she was kept in solitary confinement.

Listen to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Download Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay transcript

Thousands of women participated in the movement by breaking free from tradition and taking part in strikes and marches, picketing shops that sold foreign clothes, and wearing khadi, which became a symbol of Indian nationalism. Some of the leading political figures in the women’s movement were members of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), along with other important organisations like the National Council of Women in India (NCWI) and the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). These organisations provided an important platform where the campaigning for women’s rights could be carried out more broadly.

Members of the AIWC, which was established in 1927 by Margaret Cousins, can be seen in the image below taken in 1930. From left to right; Mrs Hamid Ali, Mrs Brijal Nehru, Mrs P.K. Seu, Mrs Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrs Sarojini Naidu, Mrs Hinde-Koper, Mrs Paridoonji, Mrs Margaret Cousins and Mrs Hamsa Mehta. Other prominent members of the AIWC included Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandi, and Muthulakshmi Reddi.

Photo of the Standing Committee of the All India Women's Conference  Bombay  1930

Standing Committee of the All India Women's Conference, Bombay, 1930. Photographer unknown. Taken from The Awakening of Indian Women by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others (Everyman’s Press, Madras, 1939).

To learn more about the role of women you can visit the Voices of Partition website and hear some rare recordings from political activists including Sarojini Naidu, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Aruna Asif Ali.

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