Experimenting with Cooperative Research

Jitendra Maid

Center for Cooperative Research in Social Sciences, (CCRSS) Pune

Our purpose

The CCRSS is embarked on a programme of collection, classification and analysis of songs of the grindmill, popular myths and collective data on marginalised communities (Vadar, Kolhati, Parit, Vaidu, Matang) in Maharashtra, India. The young men who undertake together that research experiment hail from various communities and parts of Western Maharashtra. None of them is graduate. All of them are conversant with the conditions of one another's community in their respective areas. Our intention behind this research is not to edit a film, publish a book, submit a thesis or write an essay, nor gain prestige. We make use of this research as a medium for social transformation.

Method of research

There are many methods of doing research. This is one of them. The basic double purpose behind the connotation 'cooperative' is, first, understanding each one's views, exchanging information and experiences; second, maintaining a rapport between research and action in order to find out a future plan of action. This rapport is the main aim that prompts the method.

With this method, it is not expected that research would be carried out in a laboratory or in an office. On the contrary, going and mixing with the people, "a person like us who belongs to them, establishes a communication with them, makes careful observations of their community and writes down notes." These notes are then collectively discussed during the group sessions of the team and analytical conclusions are collectively drawn.

Social science research through a cooperative method has a definite collective effect. If one meets the people in person, proposes and explains the topics of discussion to them, and then conducts the meeting with them, the group discussion on the topic under consideration takes a systematic collective turn. The one-sidedness of individual research disappears thanks to such meetings held from time to time. (Datta Shinde)

The characteristic features of a cooperative method

Why to collect folk literature?

Each individual and community expresses himself/itself through different media. Through oral folk literature like myths, folk songs etc. we get to see the respective customs and traditions, the behaviour and status, the way in which the community looks at itself, the social contradictions, the social history. In a way, folk literature is a mirror of the mind of the society. The history that we have seen so far has been the history of all the victors. For example, all have understood the role of Ram and Pandavas but it is equally necessary to understand the role of Ravan and Kauravas. But they have always remained in the background.

Folk literature is a stream reflecting the social changes. Folk literature would be useful for understanding the existing social system, for examining the existing social structure, for knowing one's place, one's position in the society. It would also be useful for finding the original reasons behind traditions, customs, practices.

The conflicting currents in this literature can be found out and used for bringing about social changes. The sacred books, the Puranas have become the monopoly of a particular class. The literature of the common people -- the "majority population"-- is all oral. That is why it is necessary to write it down, to bring it to light. This is why CCRSS is collecting folk literature.

Tamasha actresses (photo Alexandra Rozkosny)

If we want to create something new then we must see what the old is. Those who want to create history, should first see what has been their history, they should examine it.

Why did people preserve this information for generations? Society has definitely deposited some meaning in it and this meaning has something to do with the life of people. Some aspects of the society's mind are hidden in it. We verify it and how this information is related to the life of the people. This is what we try to examine.

While doing social work, it could help us in our social work once we can correctly interpret and find the true meaning of all events, legends, folk songs. For example, the social values and conflicts can be seen in Bhadalabai story, an important mythical figure of the Mang community.

A testimony of social and cultural history

Traditions and social organization stand in close relation to one another. It is important from the point of view of social history to come to understand the customs and rites. But it is equally important to study and know how society was looking at them. Professors, educated social workers consider customs and traditions as superstitions. We do not call them superstitions.

When we study history, our attention is drawn towards the mental attitudes of people, their thoughts, feelings, etc. Because the common man makes history too. Instead of observing the society from outside, one should observe it from within and find out what society says about itself.

Wherever customs are observed, we collect full and most minute information about all their details. This is to be understood as a sort of social cultural history of the society. With the course of time, these customs and traditions will be finished unless they are thoroughly transformed. If we have been able at that time to take note exhaustively of these customs, one may understand that we have succeeded in keeping alive the testimony of that society about itself. This is how we understand it.

In search of oneself

Our aim is not to keep alive the customs and traditions. We study the past to understand it and as a consequence find out new paths. If we can realise how we lived in the past, we shall be able to decide about how to live in the future. The one who forgets his past history can not shape his future history. Our persuasion is that those who want to give a shape to history have first to study their past history. This is particularly true of the down-trodden communities. We try to understand how in the past they took cognisance of themselves, this is one of our particular analytic attempts.

An answer to our questions about others can certainly be found in the stories and legends collected. These people see themselves and their communities in these stories and events; this as a consequence contributes automatically to the analysis of such issues as the following: earlier domination as well as the present day domination that they are subject to, the concept of their community, the values and contradictions that they share as well as the weaknesses and strengths of their relations with each other. Such events bring about changes in the mind of a man and this is how a human being's personality is built up. (Datta Shinde)

Popular myths yield what?

Where do we stand in this society? How do we figure in that culture? It is to answer such questions that myths are used.

Some of my professor friends ask me if I want to hang on to the old traditions by collecting these old stories, mythological legends, etc. I reply with some simple examples which came forth in the analyses made in our study-group such as the following. In the stories collected, "33 crores of gods" is to be taken as an idiom, "beyond the seven seas" means going beyond a limit; conflict seems to be an inevitable factor in most of the stories and legends. Also it appears that all the characters in the legends eventually come together and reconcile after transcending the conflict. The person who tells me the story, is telling us through the medium of the story: "Who am I. How was my community". This means that if the memories of ordinary people are to be examined, it is very necessary to note them down in details. (Datta Shinde)

For instance, some give importance and status to labour. They sanction community occupations. Myths give account of motivations. Community occupation is obtained sometimes as a blessing sometimes as a curse. Myths link one's lineages to gods and kings as descent. Through myths people tell their traditional activities. They also use myths as media to tell how 'we are superior to others', 'how society needs us'. The gender relations and kinship alliances are also important issues that myths deal with.

Stories and legends of theirs, shared events and circumstances are the medium that bring people together easily and make them talk. Because this is an accumulated information that they have stored. The older people tell us through these stories and legends that "For us, Vadars, it is our traditional right to pull the chariot of god at Pandharpur", "For us, Mangs, it is our traditional right to beg for alms on a new moon day". When these people spell these peculiarities about themselves, there seems to be a definite background to these events. Their place in society can be understood through their traditional occupations, customs and traditions. These things also help us understand what type of relations they entertain with the established structures which frame their social fabric. A link can be traced between tradition and stories; the relation that these traditional stories and legends entertain with the existing social system becomes quite clear. (Datta Shinde)

People do not volunteer to narrate their oral tradition

People usually are not ready at all at the beginning to talk spontaneously on their own. They refuse to speak. We have to make them speak out. Many reasons account for this spontaneous attitude. The fact that they are cheated, exploited when they are giving information means that society does not entertain proper communication with them on equal terms. Naturally people are not enthusiastic about such a communication. Peoples keep secretive and mum to protect themselves. They wish to keep their knowledge for themselves as their property instead of giving it to thieves. When we ponder over our experiences of collecting information, many things become clear in this respect.

Sanjay Jogdand:

In the beginning, when I used to ask questions for getting information to people from the Matang community, they used to look at it as something unfamiliar. They avoided saying anything. People used to ask me, in quite a few villages, "What are you going to do with this?" They used to tell me that many have made the same attempt before me. "You educated youth, you come to ask and collect very old things. Oh! brother, you, youngsters, you tell us time and again to forget the old. How can you come now and ask from us about it?"

When old people were giving information, they used to change the topic in between. So I had to follow their inclination. They had to be brought back to the original topic without their noticing it. When I asked them how they could remember so much, they used to say that they do not have to make special efforts to remember it.

Suresh Kokate:

When I went to one of my relatives to collect information, he first thought that I was mad. He said: "People are now going on the moon. Who asked you to dig these corpses?" The young boys from the community initially opposed me. "What will you do with information about an out-of-date launderer?" was their question. "We don't get any concessions. So what will you do?" I told them to get organised and place their demands before the administration, organise agitation for this purpose. This served as a medium to bring the youth together in some villages. "Aren't we really oppressed? I am writing only for this purpose." Then the youth started coming forward voluntarily and telling me who would be able to give me full information.

Kushal Kachare.

Women from the Kolhati community live on dance performances. When I went to collect information from them I had to keep their timing in mind. When I asked for information, they simply gave none. On the contrary, they would say, 'You have no work. Why are you asking us? What will you do with it? We have become old now after dancing for many years. Before you, Kale's son came. He was from our caste. He was one of us but still he molested women from his own community who were like his mother and sister. They were dishonoured. Now, what are you going to do for us? What are you going to do for the children? What are the government schemes for the aged artists? Is there going to be any benefit for us ? If so, then only you can stay. Otherwise, you can go away.' Young girls are reluctant to give information. I had to try and try very patiently. The Panch are useful as mediators in the Kolhati community because they know all about the Kolhati families. Other people and places can be approached through them.

People have abundant information. But nobody is ready to listen to them. Because nobody has anything to do with them. This information is of no use in their day-to-day life. Hence, people from this community are reluctant to part with their information. So, they have to be induced and encouraged; to that effect, we have to develop our acquaintance with them through casual communication.

Datta Shinde:

When I used to visit Vadar neighbourhoods, I used to wonder as to what I will have to say to the Vadars, and what special things they would have to tell me that might contribute to social research. But after going and meeting the people time and again, and after attending at Pune review and training sessions of our team, I realised that each person has something unique to tell me, from what he has heard, experienced, seen; in fact, he has a lot to tell. Once we come to know each other fairly well, he holds no bars in communicating about himself, his own life or the life of his community. This is how one Vadar reacted: "People will listen to what the baniyas and the bamans (the higher castes) have to say. Who is going to listen to us ? We are such dark-skinned people. Who is going to respect us?" Anyway, cooperative social research gives them a chance and an occasion to look at their own lives and at their community very closely.

Jitendra Maid:

To make women from our community talk needs a special skill. If the men present in the gathering are elderly, it takes time to make them talk. The reason being that women are shy, they are under pressure when they wish to talk in the presence of men. They are very careful and calculating when they speak in front of their in-laws or other relatives. They would never say bad things about in-laws or relatives when the latter are present in the gathering. If any of them happens to come during the course of the discussion. that person creates an obstruction in the discussion in progress. It again takes time to bring the women back to the point at which the discussion had stopped. Women also avoid speaking or remain under pressure if men are present in large numbers. Although the number of women present is large, they remain under pressure. Still they may dare to express themselves. If many people present in the gathering come from unequal background (viz. rich-poor, higher castes and oppressed classes), they make fun of and taunt each other.

The way used for prompting women to tell songs of the millstone, is to tell them first some songs or deliberately spell the songs wrong. Then they immediately say that this song is wrong and come forth with the right one. This method proved successful in making many women talk. Those women who repeatedly said that they did not know any grindmill songs told us these songs as a result of this method. I praised their songs, their voice, and other qualities. This makes them very happy. Once they have started with their songs of the millstone, there is no stopping.

How do I reach people, through whom?

We establish contact with people through friends, relatives and acquaintances. We go and meet them. Sometimes, the people to whom we go for information give us more contacts. They also come along with me. As we approach through a mediator, contact is established very quickly. We come to know each other directly; this helps to reinforce our personal relations. More objective information can be obtained through personal relations .

Communication becomes very easy when it is established through a common contact, a mediator. Information can be obtained if they are approached in a friendly manner. I first start answering their questions. Once they gain the confidence that the information is not gathered for making fun of their views nor to steal their thoughts, but that, on the contrary, information is sought for placing what they have to say in the right perspective and to be genuinely listened to, even those who initially are most reluctant become very talkative. Things that they have been guarding in their hearts just rush out.

How do I make people express themselves?

I try to create a family relation with them by getting to know them personally and by addressing them as aunt, uncle, friend, etc. This creates a closeness. I create an atmosphere of confidence by showing that I am not different from them, in fact, I am one of them. When I meet people, I discuss the present situation with them but at the same time, I ask questions about the past, about what I have heard concerning the former times. In this way, I try to recall their memories of the past. And then they start talking. I explain to them the purpose of my visit very clearly. I listen to what they have to say. I try to understand their problems. I suggest them ways to overcome these problems. When they see that I listen to them and respect their opinions and their views, that I become one with their problems, their joys and sorrows, they are ready to talk.

What benefits can people derive?

When professors conduct research, they either aim at a promotion in their job, or they are studying for their Ph. D. degree. We, social workers, have no such intentions. Our intention is that people should derive benefit from our research. People participate in the research process according to their capacity. It gives them an occasion to revive their memories. It gives them a pretext to examine themselves. They verify the history of their own community. This research is like two sides of the same coin. On one side, there is research, on the other, there is self-education, self-examination. People were angry when Laxman Gayakwad, Shantaram Kale wrote wrong things about their respective communities. We do not want to present a wrong picture for the readers or any one else' sake.

Our experience is that if people come together and organise themselves, they get more information, knowledge, understanding, etc. People who are not used to keeping contact and communication, gradually start sharing because of this research method.

The author:

Jitendra Maid is the coordinator of a team of six youth from different parts of Western Maharashtra. He wrote the present article as a report of group discussions and exchanges among the members of the team taking stock of their experience of cooperative research during training sessions. These sessions consist in reflecting critically upon the actual practices of collection of data and their analysis. Jitendra Maid after graduation in Commerce in a rural College followed a course in journalism at Pune, he is involved at full time in the activities of CCRSS and Village Community Development Association (VCDA), an NGO supporting small local action-groups in the district of Pune (Maharashtra, India); he is the only graduate of the team.

Other contributors:

Sanjay Jogdand belongs to a Mang community from Kopergao, Ahmednagar district; he recently resumed formal schooling which he discontinued out of poverty constraints, presently in St. XII, he is involved in both the programmes of collection of grindmill songs and monographs especially in his own community; this follows his participation in a self-education workshop organised by VCDA and attended by young rural social workers from all over Maharashtra.

Suresh Kokate belongs to the marginalised washermen community, Parit; he is a full time social worker of the NGO Asha Kendra at Puntamba, in Ahmednagar district, particularly involved in consumer movement; he presently writes a monograph of his own community and participates in the programme on grindmill songs.

Kuchal Kachare belongs to a marginalised nomadic community, Kolhati; he organizes youth in his area following the self-education workshop of VCDA; he collects the collective memory of his community in order to write a monograph.

Datta Shinde is D. Ed., teacher in a College of the Rayat Shikshan Sanstha; he is involved in the programmes of collection and valorisation of the grindmill songs, myths and social history of down-trodden communities, he collects information mainly about Vadars, stoneworkers; his attendance of the self-education training course of VCDA motivated him, like the other members of the team, to undertake this research work as a form of social commitment.

See also: A microsystem of communication

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