If you happen to travel to Pastapur or Edakalapally village in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh and pass by the millet fields green with the new crop, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. In this heart of rural India, where many villagers are unlettered, Sooremma, a single woman abandoned by her husband long ago, may just accost you with a tripod and a Panasonic camera.
Despite the impressive camera paraphernalia she carries, Sooremma (55) cannot read and write. She had never handled a gadget nor earned more that 55 paise a day in her life, before 2003. Today, she is not only the heroine of a film, made by the Community Media Trust of the Deccan Development Society and ITDG, UK (now known as Practical Action), she can make films, too.
10 women & a camera
It is through the theme of her film that Sooremma learnt how to make films. Her film was on another woman like herself — an unlettered, aged farm labourer. Sooremma made the 10-minute film in about six days after she was taught how to handle a video camera.
Under the DDS experiment with unlettered, marginalised women that began in 1998, there are now 20 such camerawomen. As many as 17 of them are videographers, the remaining are radio operators. They have even made a film on their own experience, titled Ten Women and A Camera.
“Literacy is the holy cow of development,” says PV Satheesh, DDS chief and coordinator, Alliance for Democratisation of Agricultural Research (ADARSA), an international coalition of non-government organisations supporting sustainable farming practices. “Unless literate, you have not arrived — that is the thinking in the development sector,” Satheesh remarks, pointing out how many women may not have this one aptitude but “they do have other great communication skills”.
To prove this, his organisation DDS — which assists marginalised and small farmers to continue sustainable farming and helps them form sanghams (collectives) — began training sangham women as videographers, giving them the tools to record their own lives and cultures and that of their communities.
Language of the lens
Ten years on, not only are these women skilled chroniclers of events, they even train women like themselves in other countries on how to use the camera as a social welfare tool. “With the help of the camera, they have learned to engage with the world,” says Satheesh.
Lakshmamma (42) of Humnapur village is a mother of two. She was one of the three women videographers at a recent small-farmers’ jury hearing at a farm on Bengaluru’s outskirts that deliberated on ways of democratising the governance of food systems and farming in India and other Asian countries, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Iran and Indonesia.
On her two acres of land, Lakshmamma has learnt to grow as many as 15 different crops every year, greens and red gram included. But that is not all that she has learnt in her 15-year association with DDS: During one of the seed sovereignty meetings in her sangham, she picked up the camera.
During the initial four-days-a-month training sessions for a year, the women were taught how to handle cameras, edit, choose themes and film their community efforts. They were also taught how to preserve seeds, conserve water, make organic fertiliser, vermicompost, how to rear local cattle, engage in multi-cropping and so on. “Women feel shy to open up before strangers, but if Lakshmamma goes with a camera to them, they will talk, tell their sorrows and joys,” explained Lakshmamma.
“The camera gives them a unique language,” says Suresh Challa, Joint Director (Projects), DDS. “Literacy is a very sensitive issue with these women... They know they lack literacy but are not to be defeated by the lack of reading skills. Ask any of them and they will tell you, they can read all about life this way,” he elaborates.
“You can read only if what is written is in the language you know. You cannot read anything else. But everyone can see my film. It does not need any language. A woman in Peru can see the film and understand how Narsamma collects and saves her seeds every year and helps the land save its biodiversity,” says Chinna Narsamma of Pastapur.
Punyamma from Zaheerabad says, “Many people are not convinced about joining the sangham. If we make a film about the sangham, about all the work done, women see the film and understand how they will not be all alone, that there will be someone to help always. It is easier to convince people to join the collective through a film.
The women have learnt to make a biodiversity register and this, too, is recorded on film. Narsamma says, “We are forgetting our traditions, a camera helps us record our traditions so that they do not get lost.”
Molamma from Ippapally village describes how she would take her children to the field, where she earned a living by weeding the fields. “After the day’s hard work, I just came home, ate and went to sleep. I dressed in rags. I was not concerned about anything or anyone else. Now there is a Balwadi, and the little children of women like me go there and stay there while mothers go to work.”
Molamma films all that goes on in the Balwadi.
‘My story, my voice’
Narsamma and the other women now want a media-house of their own. Says Manjula, (25) a videographer from Pastapur, “There is a big difference when you come from the outside and make a film about us and when we make a film ourselves. You do not know the context. We know every child, every woman in the village, every problem. We can, therefore, tell our story more accurately.”
Narsamma and her friends now dress better, earn well as they are called to film events by other non-profit organisations, know more about the world, travel and are able to talk as equals with everyone else around them. Because of their filming skills, their status in their respective communities has also risen.
A Dalit single-parent, Narsamma is also the seed keeper of her community. But it is her filming that has taken her far. Two years ago she was in Peru, teaching indigenous community women how to make films. She has also been to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and to the UK, teaching marginal women how to make films. Although she has travelled widely now, she insists, “I love my own country best!”
Adds Lakshmamma, “This technology is not just for educated people, all women like me should get a chance to show their talent.” She too has been on an international trip. As she puts it, “Given the opportunity, I would like to visit other countries to film but I would like to live in my own country and ensure that women like me get a voice.”