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The Hidden Story: A Documentary

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NEW YORK, NY 10013


Reviewed by SALLI VARGIS


A woman squatting on the ground in front of a thatched hut
Photo courtesy of Women Make Movies

The Hidden Story is a social history of peasant women whose stories have rarely been documented in traditional sources on Indian women. The video/oral histories of four women from different geographic regions of India, set in 1987, are part of the Women Make Movies series. They represent the social structures of the respective communities that have bound these women and reinforce the conclusions in the book, From the Seams of History: Essays on Indian Women, edited by Bharati Ray. The film illustrates the dual limitations of gender and caste that play an important part in the lives of these women.

The video begins with a Hindi movie song. The camera captures the view of the rice fields from a jeep speeding through a monsoon on a high­way heading from the outskirts of Delhi to the state of Madhya Pradesh. The first stop is Asna village in Bastar where we are introduced to Mitki Bai, a militant forest preservationist. Prompted by the meager daily wages of Rs.10, Mitki Bai and her supporters defy the orders of the forest rangers, who had barricaded access to the forest, to gather roots, leaves, and mushrooms that supplement their basic diet of rice. While helping themselves to the forest resources, Mitki Bai and her friends also protect the forest from wanton destruction.

Mitki Bai’s networking with other women in the village results in regular meetings demanding permission to enter the forest and for reforestation (the planting of Mango and other useful trees). The move­ment gathers momentum, spreads to twelve neighboring villages, and later to the entire district.

Despite being chastised by their menfolk for shirking domestic chores, 400 women march to neighboring villages to gather support, and ultimately 2,000 women march to the collector’s office in Jagdalpur where their demands are finally met. Mitki Bai’s life as a lower-caste Bathra is atypical because she performs rituals of the Brah­mins such as surya namaskar and an elaborate puja around the tulsi sthal.

Sarala Sardar from Bankura district in West Bengal is anoth­er forest conservationist. A member of the Bhumige tribe, Sarala is co-owner of the Tus­sore plantation that the women struggle to maintain. Although from different regions of India, Mitki and Sarala believe that women have a close affinity and interest in preserving the forest. Instinctively they are aware of the utility of preserving the forest; they know what fruits mother earth will provide, and what should and should not be cultivated on her soil. Sarala, like Mitki, was conscious that men were not supportive of their networking efforts, and as mem­bers of Forest Protection Com­mittees or as Forest Rangers their interests were purely administrative. Thus women organize samitis (committees), meet the district authorities, and make their demands known in order to elicit changes. Both Sarala and Mitki are leaders seeking change and are reason­ably successful.

The third woman, Gora Bai, is from Suni in the district of Bikaner, Rajasthan, the desert region in Northwestern India. Even though Gora Bai is a Mus­lim by birth, her language and customs are typically that of the majority Hindus. For most of her forty years of married life, Gora Bai has worked long hours. Her day begins at sunrise with chores such as milking thirty cows, churning forty kilo­grams of milk into butter, mak­ing cow dung cakes for fuel, grinding nine kilograms of wheat, cooking rotis, and work­ing in their dry desert field from 9 a.m. to sunset.

Years of hard work have left Gora Bai wrinkled and aged. She has experienced Rajput domination and perpetual indebtedness to them. Her fami­ly is repaying the loan that her father-in-law had taken from the Rajput landlords. Although they own a piece of land, Gora’s family lives in perpetual pover­ty because of poor yield from the arid, barely productive soil.

A self-styled historian of her community, Gora relates the discrimination that her Dhadhi community faced at the hands of the Rajputs. During the fifties and sixties she drew water for 200 cows at the only well in the village and would get in return a mere two pitchers of water for her family. When Gora shared water with the untouchables of the village, who were prevented from coming anywhere close to the well, she was chastised by the Rajputs.

The other farm woman is Kamakshi from Magra, near Kanchipuram in South India, whose plight is worse than that of Gora Bai. She, along with the other women from her commu­nity, work on the Mudaliars’ land cultivating rice and other crops. These women face dou­ble discrimination, from the upper-caste land owners as well as from their menfolk who expect them to perform all the domestic chores and also the back-breaking jobs of trans­planting rice, threshing, and winnowing the grain.

Although Kamakshi does not make any effort at organiz­ing the women to protest dis­crimination, she is aware that her society has not changed. According to her, the upper caste treat them in the same manner as they did before India’s independence. Kamak­shi would like to evoke change so that her daughter and the younger girls in the village will not have to go through the cycle of poverty and discrimination that she has endured.

As an untouchable, she describes the humiliation they suffer every day. Until indepen­dence, her community was not permitted to enter the temple, the worst form of segregation. Although her community is permitted entry into the temple today, they have their own tem­ples where gods and goddesses have appearances that are repre­sentative of their community, not that of the Brahminical tradition.

Unlike Mitki and Sarala, Gora and Kamakshi are not involved in protest movements. However, they have a vision to do whatever they can in order to break the cycle of discrimina­tion and poverty. The common threads that bind these women’s experiences include their posi­tion in society, economic worth, gender, and religious beliefs which are different from the dominant Brahminical tradition of India. Despite these limita­tions, Mitki and Sarala have demonstrated that networking can bring about change, slowly but surely. Gora and Kamakshi are optimistic that someday their conditions will improve.

The videotape is a useful educational tool for students of Indian women’s history, women’s studies, and sociolo­gy. For the most part, the video captures or “recovers” the histo­ry of these women in their envi­ronment. Photography is good; however, narration could have been supplemented with more captions, at least for pertinent information such as the names of the tribes, people, and places because they are not easy to follow.