Reconnecting with India’s rural roots

The People’s Archive of Rural India, a new online repository of text, audio and video, was born out of concern that a rapidly urbanising India is ignoring the cultural riches and daily travails of rural life.
The classical dancer Kali’s story is told in a short documentary film on the new Pari digital archive of rural India. Courtesy Pari
The classical dancer Kali’s story is told in a short documentary film on the new Pari digital archive of rural India. Courtesy Pari

NEW DELHI // When Kali was a child, Indian classical dance was the last thing on his mind.

His father died when he was six months old. His mother, a porter, raised him and his five brothers and sisters in a ramshackle shanty in a fishing village in Tamil Nadu. One brother died of brain fever.

Then, when Kali was 15, he stumbled by chance into free folk-dance classes in a heritage museum just outside Chennai. From there he progressed to Kalakshetra, an institution in Chennai that teaches classical Bharatnatyam dance. Now, at 21, he is pursuing a postgraduate diploma with the aim of establishing his own dance school.

Kali’s story, told in a short documentary film is now part of the People’s Archive of Rural India, or Pari: a new online repository of text, audio and video born out of concern that a rapidly urbanising India is ignoring the cultural riches and daily travails of rural life.

“We believe that good storytelling can begin to work on bridging that disconnect,” says Pari’s founder, P Sainath.

Two thirds of Indians still live in villages. “We hope to connect a third of Indians to the other two thirds, and as far as possible we want those two thirds to record their stories in their own voices,” Mr Sainath says.

The website is divided into categories. Things We Do examines the world of rural labour; Things We Make features the work of artisans and craftspeople in villages; Farming and Its Crisis focuses on the concerns of Indian agriculture; Dalits looks at the lives of India’s “untouchables”, nearly a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population.

Mr Sainath was a long-serving rural affairs editor at The Hindu newspaper, and won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism in 2007, but he realised India’s newly corporatised journalism had become more and more “about the service of power, not of people”.

“We have glamour, fashion, eating-out correspondents, but not one covering labour,” he says. “Not a single full-time reporter covering agriculture. On the other hand, we have websites and apps that can tell you where exactly your favourite celebrity is dining at this moment and what they are eating.”

In 2011, Mr Sainath began to think of an online archive that would allow the stories of rural India to be recorded at length and in depth, and he has spent the past three years building the platform he wanted.

Apart from drawing upon his 35 years’ experience as a journalist, he also sought volunteers – more than 300 so far – to populate the website.

While Pari is largely funded by Mr Sainath, it also accepts donations from individuals.

“We do not seek direct grants or funding from governments or corporations,” he says. “Pari is idealism driven and it’s heartwarming to see how much of that still exists. So people gave us in labour and effort and output what they may not have been able to give us in cash.”

Pari’s volunteers contribute because these stories find few homes elsewhere. Aparna Karthikeyan, a filmmaker in Mumbai who shot the documentary on Kali, said it would have been difficult to chronicle the dancer’s life in depth in any of India’s mainstream newspapers as it was an unfolding drama.

Ms Karthikeyan had never produced video stories until she volunteered for Pari last year. Now she has completed six.

Pari’s prime directive, she said, was to chart “the everyday lives of everyday people”.

Until she started to work with Mr Sainath, Ms Karthikeyan had worked largely in urban settings, conducting interviews that would last an hour or two at the most.

With Pari, she has learnt to take more time to immerse herself in the stories she covers.

Having been a city-dweller all her life, she has also had to realign her perspectives to adjust to the culture of rural India.

“For instance, I found that women were largely absent from the narrative, whenever I went to villages to talk to people,” she said. “This isn’t always the case with urban India. So I had to draw the women into conversation. But once I did, I found they were spellbinding storytellers.”

Mr Sainath has grand plans for Pari. He wants, for instance, to record every spoken language in the country – all 780 of them, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. He wants to record India’s myriad traditions of folk arts, and he wants to subtitle all his videos in other languages so they can be as widely accessible as possible.

He even aspires to spin Pari off into portals in different languages and to have “an army of Pari Fellows working in every single sub-region of the country”.

The need for a project such as Pari is urgent, he feels. As India changes, “the upheavals of a rather brutal transformation in the Indian countryside are very poorly covered, when covered at all.

“Most of us were villagers four or five generations ago. We are trying to keep people in touch with their history and legacy.”

To view stories from the People’s Archive of Rural India, go to

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read