Dalit women reclaiming their narratives through Community Media

By Arnaz KhanonOct. 25, 2023in Knowledge and Media

Specially written for Vikalp Sangam

A short film, ‘The Sangham Shot’ was my introduction to the work of Deccan Development Society’s Community Media Trust. 

What prompted me to get to know more about their work was when Chinna Narsamma of the CMT team pointed out in the film, a distinction between a Patel shot and a Sangham shot.

The Patel shot refers to the top-down approach of the power imbalanced equation between the producer and the subject of a media piece. The work at the CMT is of dismantling this into the Sangham shot, which is the process of media creation and consumption that strives for equality as its guiding principle.

The Deccan Development Society (DDS) is run by around 5,000 Dalit women forming autonomous communities for issues like food production and sovereignty, seed conservation and sharing, natural resource governance, fair markets, and so on. The need to then have an autonomous media arose from within the community, thereby creating a rural women’s media collective the DDS Community Media Trust in 2001 which included radio and video production.

To understand the culture and work of the Community Media Trust, I travelled to Zaheerabad in Telangana, their base.

The CMT video office at Pastapur | Picture Credits: Arnaz Khan

The genesis 

My attempt at understanding the work of reclaiming media began by first visiting the editing room of the video and film-making team of CMT. To familiarise me with the scope of their work, they set up a viewing of the films that they themselves had made explaining the Why, What and How of what they do.
It is imperative to note first that throughout the visit at DDS, I, along with other team members were driven around by Suresh garu (a Telugu word denoting respect), who has been with the DDS community as a driver for the past two decades. Loaded with an ever-eager smile and sharp, witty humour, Suresh garu would enthusiastically take us to and from multiple sites, sharing his journey witnessing the growth of the Community Media Collective and stories from their time.

The CMT team screening the movies that they made | Picture Credit: Arnaz Khan

When we entered the editing studio whose walls were adorned by nostalgia captured in frames, in piles of old cassettes and in stacks of files, the first thing we were offered was a warm sweet drink made of ragi, jaggery and dry fruits to keep us warm. The women were gesticulating and trying to make small talk with me to make me feel at ease. Another integral person for my visit was Srilaya, programme co-ordinator, acting as a bridge between the women who spoke only Telugu (with a few words from Hindi and English) and me. She relentlessly translated hours and hours of conversations, even going the extra mile attempting to translate local idioms and inside jokes by giving me elaborate context.

Between being driven, translated for, fed and made light conversations with, I was already filled with gratitude for all the labour of love and warmth the people had to offer.

We huddled up in a semi-circle around a large TV for the screening and the setting was intimate. 

In the room with me were the women behind CMT: Laxmamma, Chinna Narsamma, Algole Narsamma, Manjula, Kavita, General Narsamma. They had been part of the DDS community, working in different capacities: seed-keeping, project management, student at Pacha Saale The Green School, office work at DDS office and so on. These were the women who came together to start their media collective and the early trainees in camera and radio work.

Kavita with her school Pacha Saale in the background | Picture Credit: Arnaz Khan

We started the screening and watched three documentaries made by them. Five of the women that were seen in the film and in the credits were present in the room with me for the viewing. We had a discussion following the screening. This was the first barrier that broke for me where the subjects, the creators, the producers and the beneficiaries of a media output were all present in the same room with the fair opportunity to be a part of some aspect of the media creation/production/consumption cycle. At one point, while the film was on, looking at one of the women on screen, everyone (except me, of course) in the room chuckled, pointing out that she was wearing blue on and off screen. Thereby, I learnt that blue was her favourite colour and she wears it on special occasions. This personal touch demonstrated the real ‘social media’ for me.

In the late 1990s many Doordarshan documentaries were made on DDS. But the DDS women were not comfortable with what they saw: 

“People from outside would come to document our work and stories. They would often misquote us, misrepresent us and capture what they assumed was important based on their prejudices and agenda. This made us question, ‘Why can’t we capture and tell our own stories and not depend on outsiders to do that?’ That is how the idea of having autonomous media as part of DDS’s work came into being,” shared Chinna Narsamma.  

CMT started in 1998 with the need for these women to be able to tell their stories from their perspectives as they felt misrepresented by the mainstream media.

The lens enabling multiple lenses

The guiding philosophy of CMT has been to centre the voices and narratives of people who have been left out because of untouchability, belonging to marginalised castes. They chose video as their medium of story-telling owing to their lack of literacy and video allowed them to express beyond the confines of literacy. 

To retain their autonomy, they have registered themselves as an entity independent of DDS, with its own bank account. It is not a for-profit entity as they don’t want to compromise on their values or dilute them if a certain film-making contract entails those requirements. For them, values take precedence over money. A democratic process of decision-making is followed to determine what kind of training they require, what issues to film, who to cover, what to prioritise, etc.

Late P.V. Satheesth, founder and Executive Director of Deccan Development Society, was very determined to ensure that professional standards of film-making are met and not just principles. The women were then trained in handling the camera and film-making. 

They followed the principle of shooting anything and everything that caught their fancy on the go without censoring themselves. This gave them the freedom in boundless imagination and expression. 

There are many nuggets that put the ‘local’ in local community media at CMT. One such example was: during their training, they would use the game hop-scotch to teach continuity in editing. Drawing parallels from the game, they were asked if jumping from a particular shot to the next made sense. Their training curriculum was designed in a way that would teach them in a language that they would understand according to their unique context.

The saree-clad women would traverse the roads of the villages with their huge cameras pointing at multiple things, sometimes from atop trees that they climbed. They would receive stares as if they were aliens. Over time, when people saw the films and their work, they started garnering respect and adulation. 

It has also played a deeply impactful role in redistributing power to those behind the camera who were now slowly shattering one barrier at a time. The camera gave them the power to shape narratives, use their creative liberty to showcase issues most pressing in their communities and speak in a language of visuals that speak to and of the marginalised sections. When the women would be on the field shooting and demonstrating their utmost dedication and operating heavy equipment with such skill, their image also shifted for those who mocked these very groups and called them illiterate. 

Their process enabled them to realise the wisdom that was already present in them and share it with the world at large and most importantly within the community itself.

In this sense, the material camera lens cleaned some people’s conceptual lenses and some discarded their old ones.

Sangham Radio

The next day, I was picked up by the punctual and eager Suresh garu who would endearingly say, “Ready Amma?” upon seeing me. That morning, the car made multiple pit stops to pick up members of the radio team from their homes which were in decent proximity to each other.  

Everyone was super excited as they were going to record folk songs of women farmers that have never been documented orally or textually. 

We entered into the scene of one of the elder women, Chandramma sharing pictures and stories. We sat as the women kept coming in for the recording. They were rehearsing songs and Chandramma occasionally scolded others when their lyrics went off track. The pride beamed from Chandramma’s face while talking about her culture and explaining its relevance.

The women farmers practising their folk songs before the recording | Picture Credit: Arnaz Khan

The recording process was a stark contrast to the commercial radio process that I have witnessed. The hierarchy  between those behind the recording equipment and those being recorded was non-existent. The producers were of the community, from the community. Algole Narsamma was earnestly writing down the lyrics of the folk songs while the women were rehearsing. Once the recording started, Algole was also part of singing the songs with the women. 

Algole Narsamma documenting the lyrics of the folks songs along with others | Picture Credit: Arnaz Khan

The lines between the producer and the creator were blurred. The power dynamic that plays out in such set ups was non-existent and since they could foreground their main purpose of being there, the process not only went by smoothly but also had a celebratory nature.

Recording of the women farmers’ folk songs | Picture Credit: Arnaz Khan

After the recording, we all sat down to eat the food that was brought to us by the DDS driver, made a few kilometres away at the DDS restaurant, Cafe Ethnic, that has a millet-based menu. The restaurant was set up in Zaheerabad town to familiarise the urban food consumers with the local food grains and organic food culture and help them adapt.

India’s first community radio station coming into being

At that time, the Policy Guidelines for Setting up Community Radio Stations were not in place in India. 

In the meanwhile, their training for radio production had already begun. 

Firstly, Sangham Radio was established a decade before the policy was even passed. It was the first community radio in India. Other community radio stations might have 5-6 employees and they run whatever they want. But at Sangham Radio the scope is much larger. Women from over 50 villages reach out to the state to make their voices heard. They can also walk into the station any time they want and they will be heard. There are also certain thematics that the programmes adhere to such as issues of food sovereignty, control over natural resources, education, critique of GM seeds, health and so on.

Initially, no one had any access to radios or many hadn’t seen one. Eventually, women pooled in money and offered to buy radio sets. DDS itself distributed 500-600 radio sets across villages. The challenge was that there was no one with the expertise to repair these sets. That dwindled the listenership. It gained popularity again with the rise of mobile phones, making it more accessible. 

Radio has now gained a lot of popularity. Earlier only songs on the radio were being played in auto-rickshaws. At the peak of its popularity, both the Narsammas stayed at the station for 10-12 hours daily as the call-in facility was very active. People would keep requesting them to play local folk songs. 

The radio station has around 2000 units of archival material of folk songs. The recording of archival material has been happening simultaneously alongside recording for new material that would go on air. The programme airs everyday 7 am-9 am. People from 8-10 different villages come to the station to record their grievances which would be edited and presented in the daily programme.

The radio sits under the umbrella of DDS. DDS has been instrumental in macro social changes such as achieving food sovereignty with their Community Gene Banks, creation of the Zaheerabad Consumers Action Group, setting up child care centres for farming and labourer women and much more. The radio helped capture and amplify this work while also having its own independent contribution.

The radio has the luxury of exploring an issue at length by recording long form material. Its strength is its archival material that anybody can request for and refer or listen to. If someone wants to engage in some issue, they can hear it directly in the voice of the source. 

One of the women recounted this story: There was an old man from a nearby town, Qasimpur. He would diligently listen to the radio everyday. He was so pleased that one day he reached the DDS office to see who was delivering such brilliant programmes. He was shocked to know that it was two young women behind such incredible work. This is only one of the instances in which the women received recognition and adulation for their work. And that hasn’t always been the case. It took a long time for them to be looked at with respect and establish their credibility, breaking the glass ceiling of gender bias.

There was an old practice in the villages where the beggars would not beg for money directly. They would go door-to-door and perform traditional folk songs. In return, people would give them grains. This practice of bhiksha has been lost today. The radio team reached out to these performers and recorded their stories. This is one of the many examples of stories of lost practices that the radio has recorded. 

There is no limit to how much is recorded for how long these stories become part of the radio’s archives that anyone can refer to if they wish to. The process involves very little editing, only when what the person is speaking doesn’t align with the causes that DDS works on. The radio focuses more on field recordings rather than studio as it helps them represent the ground realities much more accurately. One of the most integral roles of the radio is of revival: songs about villages, the culture of the people in different villages, traditions, agrarian folk songs and so on. 

Another role that radio has unknowingly played here is that of a mediator of conflicts among village members. There have been cases of people going to the station for their interpersonal conflicts and minor issues. As interpersonal issues are also considered important and if the producers deem the issue fit for production, they encourage all the parties to record their grievances and most of the times they get it resolved. 

In cases of bigger conflicts, as long as verifying the facts of the conflict is concerned, the producers allow the data to be shared after the police cases are filed. Even in cases of domestic violence they suggest bringing both of the parties plus an elder person to mediate. 

Impact on producers

They consider themselves just farm labourers with little education. Over the course of their work with the radio, they claimed to receive recognition from beyond the places that they have gone to. They have built an identity for themselves that can be recognised worldwide. 

Algole Narsamma narrates a personal anecdote that reflects this. Once her daughter had to do a school project which involved interviewing their mothers. She interviewed Algole Narsamma and the work that she has been doing with Sangham Radio. When she presented this to the class, the teacher along with others recognised Narsamma and showed a lot of respect. The producers are recognised solely by their voice too.

Outside of radio, they have other jobs in DDS too. They are the supervisors of their respective village Sanghams. Algole Narsamma is also a part of the video shooting team.

“Radio was not really in my plans. I wanted to be a lawyer. I was very scared to operate the radio: the buttons were so small that I was afraid I would break them,” said General Narsamma.

A lot of women share similar names at DDS. To create a distinction, they add their village name or any other nickname as a prefix to their name. The General in General Narsamma’s name comes from the fact that she was part of the children’s Sangham’s in the green school, Pacha Saale and generally took up a lot of leadership roles. She was, hence, nicknamed General by P.V. Satheesh and it just stuck ever since. Algole is a village in Zaheerabad and Algole Narsamma hails from there.

Both of them studied in the DDS green school, Pacha Saale, but in different batches.

Algole Narsamma (left) and General Narsamma (right) standing in front of the radio station | Picture credit: Arnaz Khan

Media of and by the people

The Community Media Trust here demonstrates that not only in the content, the media has to be democratic in its representation and decision-making processes as well. Throughout my visit here, what I experienced wasn’t some theoretical representation of media and its techniques. Media, here, was an integrative experience of witnessing an entire ecosystem being at play in perfect symphony. The Sanghams working on ground around various issues, the media taking responsibility for capturing history as it is being written while amplifying it, the people who work together also share lives together intimately, and much more. The work of the media was generative rather than extractive and hence, it was in the true spirit of being the fourth pillar of democracy.

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