Preserving Peoples’ History

Here an ordinary person counts

THE LADI SHAH PROJECT BY MAJID MAQBOOL

Accompanied by his grandfather to a village on festive occasions like Eid, as a kid Dr. Khurshid Guru was fascinated by Ladi-Shahs, the travelling minstrels who weaved satirical narratives sung in their unique voice. As he grew up, the Ladi Shahs faded into oblivion. But he did not forget their stories.
Dr. Guru went on to become a renowned surgeon with expertise in pelvic oncologic surgery in New York. But the idea of narrating and preserving Kashmir’s oral history stayed with him. He wanted to adopt modern media to preserve Kashmir’s rich, but largely undocumented, oral history. This year, after two years of conceptualization and ground work in New York and Kashmir, involving recording and cataloging of hundreds of interviews, the Ladi Shah Project started bearing fruits.
The Ladi Shah Project aims to document Kashmir’s past and present and preserve the rich oral history of Kashmir narrated through personal stories of people. The eclectic repository of interviews is now accessible worldwide on the excellent Ladi Shah Project website – www.ladishahproject.org. The website features over 150 interviews, (to be uploaded in the months ahead), and extraordinary personal accounts from a broad section of Kashmiris.
Dr. Guru first thought of developing Kashmir’s first digital oral history archive back in 2009. He started working on the project from Buffalo, New York, where he is currently based. The project volunteers in Kashmir began to work on ground.  “In 2009 when I came up with this concept, it took us two years of research for archiving and working on digital and multimedia aspect,” he says. In the last six months, he says, they developed the website, which has been professionally done, and fine tuned the concept of how to portray the recorded interviews.
The project was developed, planned and implemented by the Guru Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the quality of education and medical care in Kashmir. Aimed at sharing the meaningful stories of ordinary Kashmiris, the Ladi Shah Project provides a brilliant platform for documenting the oral history of Kashmir and preserving it for posterity.
By recording personal anecdotes, such as an artisan explaining the beauty and meaning behind his craft, a retired teacher noting the perils of unquestioned obedience, and a social worker’s struggle to help establish the first blood bank, the Ladi Shah Project creates vivid snapshots of everyday life in Kashmir as it is, and as it was. Shared in Kashmiri language, these stories highlight Kashmir’s diversity and the common experiences that define its history and culture.
 “We had oral history before anybody else had it,” Dr. Guru says over phone from his home in Buffalo, New York. “The only difference was that it was carried from person to person.” A renowned robotic surgeon based in New York, Dr Guru says the Ladi Shah was the right name for this project. “Because it brings back us,” he says, emphasizing on the word “us”. “We modernized our own history by taking our indigenous Ladi Shah concept and building it in modern media, and adopted modern ways of sharing it with a wider audience on the internet.”
While conceptualizing and researching for the project, Dr. Guru says they trained two interns in New York to begin with. They were then sent to work with three more volunteers in Kashmir. “We set up a home based office at my home in Barzulla. My father, Dr. Abdul Ahad Guru, used to run a clinic at home for the poor patients. I converted that clinic into an office for this project,” he says. There we have a sort of archiving and documentation office, he informs, and then the interviews go into a database which comes here in America. “It is then archived and a team of media persons here modify it for better sounds and quality,” he says.  “There is a team of people here who hear the interview and catalogue it properly for the website,” he informs. “Whichever interview we do there is a proper recording and archiving system in place,” he says. “You can search peoples’ interviews by categories on the website and choose the clip you are interested in.”
For the project Dr. Guru says they interview ordinary Kashmiris who are willing to share their life experiences. Among the interviewed includes a Kashmiri poet, a social worker, and a school teacher. “Next month we will put out the life story of a shawl weaver,” he says. “If there is somebody who is old enough to share a story, we will record and preserve his interview.” The only people we don’t interview, he points out, are the politicians. “We have actively kept current politics out because there are already so many people talking about it in the media,” he says. “We prefer to discuss peoples’ lives and their history.”
Besides updating the Ladi Shah Project website every month with five new interviews, Dr. Guru says they intend to record theater activities as well in future. For example, he says, if someone makes a play in Sopore or Baramulla, the idea is to have access and record it, and then put it up on the website for a wider audience. “We want to give them a forum where they can all be heard,” he says.
Dr. Guru says their goal is to document and keep peoples’ history alive, mostly importantly, told in their own words.  Our main focus is common man’s history, he says, and the story of their lives.
The Ladi Shah Project has a group of volunteers working in Kashmir. “And we have a lot of people who come from America to work on the project in Kashmir in the summers,” says Dr. Guru. Since we began work on the project, he says, a lot of people have come forward, asking us to record interviews of people they think have amazing stories to share. “I have received many, many emails since the website went online,” he says. “People are telling us that we are glad you are doing something to keep our history alive.”
Growing up in a Kashmir-American community in Western New York, Samia Shafi, a Kashmiri American, wanted to be part of a Kashmiri oral history project since high school. Two years ago Samia learned about the Ladi Shah Project from a friend. “The Guru Charitable Foundation had been planning and laying the groundwork for the Ladi Shah Project for years and was finally ready to launch it,” she says. The timing was perfect. Along with a friend, she got on board. And in May 2011 they travelled to Kashmir to help get the project off the ground.
Samia co-launched the Ladi Shah Project in Kashmir, and is responsible for training and providing ongoing support to the program staff. She also manages communications and development for the project. She has four years of experience as a fundraiser for not-for-profit organizations in New York City, where she currently resides. “In America we saw how family and community members came alive when they narrated stories about Kashmir, particularly when speaking in Kashmiri,” she says. “We felt that Kashmiri history and culture was incredible in so many ways and wanted to share it.” 
In Kashmir she says she became part of an amazing, dedicated team of volunteers who succeeded in turning this project—which many skeptics simply said would not work given the context—from an idea into a reality. “I feel so grateful to have had an opportunity to work beside such wonderful people,” she says. In one summer, she says she learned a lot from meeting and speaking to Kashmiris from truly diverse backgrounds. “It’s a privilege when someone entrusts you with their personal stories, and I am thankful to all those people who agreed to be interviewed and shared their lives with us,” she says. “All of the people who we spoke to had something unique to share.”
Whenever Samia talked about Kashmir in America, if at all people had heard of it, she says the first thing they usually remark on is the “beauty” of the natural landscape. “It's true that Kashmir's mountains, rivers, forests, the countryside, are stunningly beautiful,” she says. “But Kashmir is also so much more than that,” she points out. “I think it's important to see the value in the Kashmiri people and in their stories.”
Samia believes that the Ladi Shah Project is about making ordinary Kashmiris feel that their voices – their stories, and their lives—matter. “It’s about providing a platform for Kashmiris to be heard,” she says. And then she quotes one of her heroes, the oral historian Studs Terkel best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans, on the power of storytelling:
 “Today so many ordinary people feel like nobodies, but when they speak of their lives, they realize they count! They become alive!”

(Feedback at maqbool.majid@gmail.com)

Lastupdate on : Tue, 24 Apr 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Tue, 24 Apr 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Wed, 25 Apr 2012 00:00:00 IST




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