The idea of setting up SPARROW took root in 1988. Before that, those who are now the trustees of SPARROW had met several times and discussed the possibilities of setting up a Women’s Archives with a difference. The need for such a specialised archives has emerged from their own work in Women’s Studies. The idea was not to set up a Women’s Archives as just a collection centre but to create an archives which would be more vibrant and more communicative.
The Women’s Archives was conceived as an organisation which would bring people together; an archive which would be an agent of change.
The papers were drawn up and the founder trustee Dr. C S Lakshmi, Dr. Neera Desai and Dr. Maithreyi Krishna Raj put their signatures to it. A few years before this, C S Lakshmi and Maithreyi Krishna Raj had been involved in bringing out feminist calendars and diaries. These were brought out under the banner of Reaching Out, a feminist group. The group was just C S Lakshmi, Maithreyi Krishna Raj and Jyoti Randive, and the money for the first calendar had come through individual donations, which really meant chasing people. Some people became expansive and generous in parties when they were inebriated and promised all out support. Their addresses were promptly noted down and on the appointed day they were reminded of their generosity. It was interesting to watch their shocked expressions! Often, the donations were given out of embarrassment! After the sales of the first calendar, the activity could sustain itself and a few more calendars and diaries were printed.
Some money from the sale of the last calendar was there and with this the SPARROW letterhead was designed. Chelna Desai, who had helped in designing the earlier calendars, designed the SPARROW letterhead. Printed on ribbed paper it looked elegant and impressive. We had made a beginning. The address given on the letterhead was B-32, Jeet Nagar, J.P.Road, Versova, which was C S Lakshmi’s residential address. Her small flat overlooking the sea was exactly 500 square feet and SPARROW occupied her small bedroom.
Several important photographic and other collections were done in the first four years with the help of donations from friends and supporters of SPARROW. Along with these activities, there was also the work of sending letters to various funding agencies requesting financial support. Almost all the funding agencies responded with enthusiasm and wished us the best of luck in our ventures, but felt that what we had planned did not quite fall within their funding design. Third World countries were supposed to worry about slums, environment, legal aid for women, health care, rural development and so on. Setting up a Women’s Archives did not figure anywhere in anybody’s plans either in India or abroad. Many government officials were visited. One of them wanted to know what oral history was and when he was told what exactly it was, he exclaimed, “You mean you want to call chit-chat of women, history?”
Along with funding proposals went the search for space. There were many hours of wait in the corridors of the Municipal Corporation for nearly two years. In 1991, during the efforts to raise funds, Pheroza Godrej, the owner of Cymroza Gallery, became a friend of SPARROW. With her help and with generous contributions from many painters in Mumbai and elsewhere, SPARROW organised a painting exhibition in 1992. The initial funds to launch the exhibition came from Grindlays Bank with support from Jyotsna and Ravi Shekar. Some funds came from Dhorabji Tata Trust. For a while SPARROW could only think of paintings. The catalogue brought out for the exhibition was rightly called A Nest For SPARROW. The short note in the catalogue expressed all that SPARROW had gone through. The note began with the line:
Some dreams are like stubborn foetuses in the mind refusing to die; waiting for life to be breathed into them. Setting up Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) has been one such dream.
The note ended with this paragraph:
There is story of a Zen master who spent years in seclusion. When asked what he had learnt all these years, he took out his flute and blew out a short, sweet note and left. May be we can afford to do that a few years from now. When people ask us what we have done all these years, we will reply in one word: SPARROW.
The exhibition gave SPARROW some visibility and attention. It also brought a small amount of money with which a tiny room above a wooden staircase was taken on rent. A part-time librarian was employed and many friends came and helped on a voluntary basis. Our first wooden table with decorative edges was bought along with a steel cupboard and a steel shelf.
In 1994, Mumbai was still awakening from the shock of the communal riots that had taken place after the Babri Masjid demolition. SPARROW organised a three-day oral history and visual summer workshop with college students. The funds for this came partly from the Ministry of Human Resources and Development, Dhorabji Tata Trust and Vikas Adhyayan Kendra. Just when we thought we were a little secure to launch our archival work, SPARROW got thrown out and ended up in a garage for nearly two years with work again shifting to Lakshmi’s residence.
Once again the trips to the Municipal Corporation began in earnest. At one point it almost seemed that we would be allotted a couple of rooms in a Municipal School that had a new building. Locating that school in an area where big buildings are coming up and roads were yet to be done, was an adventure by itself. Once the school was located we realised that it was a new structure with no water or electricity, surrounded by overgrown thorn bushes. S N D T University was approached and after much hope the University refused to give space. A private college with a supportive Principal again raised our hopes, which were shattered by the trustees of the college. In 1996, Rohini Banaji, a writer, scholar and an activist, allowed us to use her small flat at Yari Road, Versova. A college student came and did part-time work and we had an enthusiastic woman as a peon. Individual donations still came in and to secure more donations, SPARROW printed a brochure with a donation form. Donations began to trickle in mainly from friends and organisations that believed in our work.
Maithreyi Krishna Raj mentioned HIVOS in one of the trustee meetings. The SPARROW proposal was sent to HIVOS and it is possible that HIVOS personnel who came to see the office at Yari Road may have had an anxiety attack seeing what little space we had and what big dreams!
After an initial rented space of 500 square feet SPARROW has shifted many times. Its last rented space was a 2000 square feet residential area where nearly 23 professionals worked. In January 2008 SPARROW shifted to its own building in Dahisar, acquired with a generous grant from HIVOS and donations from friends and supporters, which we call The Nest. SPARROW has traversed a long distance and there is a long journey ahead of us. But when a fledgling SPARROW decides to fly, the sky is the limit!