Workshop 2

Reconstructing Histories:

Theories, Methods, and Practices


 Senthil Babu D. Historian, Department of Social Sciences, The French Institute of Pondicherry

 Nicolas Bautès Geographer, Department of Social Sciences, The French Institute of Pondicherry


 John Kurien Visiting professor at the Azim Premji University, Bangalore

 Denis Vidal Anthropologist, IRD (URMIS); Lecturer, EHESS (School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences)

 Geetha V. Independent writer and researcher

 Vareethaiah Konstantine Independent writer

 Karuna Miryam Historian, Visiting professor at the Azim Premji University, Bangalore

 Nityanand Jayaram Environmental activist and journalist

 Kingston Artisanal fisherman and film maker

 Sakayam Writer and entrepreneur

 Chaitanya Wildlife biologist, Co-founder of In Season Fish

With the collaboration of Prabhakar Jayaprakash (Ph.D. student, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai), Bhagat Singh A. (postdoctorate, anthropologist and writer), Balasubramanium (Information technology, The French Institute of Pondicherry), Arun Kumar A. S. (Postdoctorate, anthropologist), Mehela S. A. (Postdoctorate, anthropologist), Kohila Senbagam (researcher in the Fisher Coast Project, IFP).


 Argument Purpose

The Workshop seeks to address three central questions:

  • Why construction of histories continues to remain an important exercise for marginalised communities?
  • What are the perspectives, theories, and methods available from attempts to reconstruct such histories?
  • How far such histories have helped transform the lives of the marginalized?

The Fisher Coast Project team at the French Institute of Pondicherry has put together a pedagogic module based on these questions for this workshop. It has six lectures followed by Q & A, a day of fieldwork, three group work sessions, a documentary screening and discussion, and a panel discussion. The team is able to invite speakers from various backgrounds to be part of this workshop like fishers, academicians, practitioners, researchers, and writers.

Dr. John Kurien, a visiting professor at the Azim Premji University, will give the keynote address for this workshop on the first day. He has planned to reflect on four decades of his experience in working with artisanal fishers from different countries. The core aspect of his talk would be “the need to re-discover and valorise history, knowledge, and heritage of fishers [a subaltern group] to move towards a convivial future.” The team is hoping that this lecture would set the stage for the sessions to follow on next four days. The first day would end with a group work session to plan for the fieldwork on the next day.

The participants of this workshop would be divided into four groups and they would visit field sites of the Fisher Coast Project at Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu. The focus of this fieldwork is to introduce the participants to Cuddalore coast and fishers, besides various components of the project. The selected sites are Cuddalore harbour, Alapakkam, Pettodai, and Killai. The significance and learning points for each of this site is given in the following section. The second day would end with a group work session where each group would present their observations and initiate discussion.

The third day will look into theories and methods of writing histories of marginalised communities. With the help of historiography of gender and labour, we would discuss ways and means to approach the subject of history of fishers. The later has been an unexplored subject since very few have attempted to explore the same. Dr. V. Geetha, a writer and independent researcher, would discuss non-canonical sources in constructing histories of women’s lives. She has planned to address four aspects in her talk like “the question of sources; the relationship between the historian and the subject of her inquiry; issues involved in addressing ‘gender’; and narrating women’s lives in an unequal and diverse society.” Similarly, Dr. Karuna DW Miryam, a historian, would provide an overview of Indian labour historiography and its various phases. She would share the latest trends in labour history elaborately looking at both formal and informal sectors. The afternoon sessions would start with a documentary screening and followed by a discussion. The lessons from historiography of gender and labour would act as a background to the session of Dr. Vareethiah Konstantine, a prolific writer. He would talk on everyday life of fishers and coastal transformation in the last few decades. The other subjects that he will cover includes sources, methods, and future areas of research.

On the fourth day, the workshop would narrow down and look at subjects like craft, coastal transformation, and labour process. Given the centrality of craft to fishers, the workshop will discuss potential ways to reconstruct histories of fisher lives vis-à-vis changes in crafts such as labour process between kattumaram and fiber boats / economy of fishing between kattumaram and canoe / and alienation of production between canoe and trawler. Dr. Denis Vidal, a lecturer and researcher, would start the fourth day with a session on “reinventing art, craft, and technology in India today”. He would use case studies on fishermen, carpenters, blacksmiths, sculptors, and tribes to elaborate on methodological implications on understanding of the notions of craftsmanship and technology.

In continuation, Mr. Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist and journalist, would talk about relationship between spaces, communities, and histories. The core aspect that he deals in his talk would be importance of “claim making process”. He says, “the neytal tiṇai [coastal landscape], with its vast expanses of pōṟōmpōke [commons] is a treasure trove of untold histories and places that are yet to become.” The idea here is to construct histories of fishers as part of histories of coastal transformation. While the coast has been a spectacle for mainland communities, it a working space and a core element in the everyday life of fishers.

In the afternoon, participants would work in groups for presentations on the next day. After tea time, there would be a panel discussion on species, labour process, and market. Mr. Chaitanya Krishna, a wildlife biologist, would chair this session. Mr. Sagayam and Mr. Kingston are other members of this discussion and they are fishers from the Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu. Most non-fishers may not aware of how fishers fish in sea and how fish turn up on their plates? Likewise, they neither understand the life of fish in sea nor life of fishers. This session would try to explore the relationship between these two aspects and how they are mediated by factors such as technology, social policies, and market. The last day would have group presentations and valedictory session.


Field Work

Introduction & expectations

Prawn hatcheries – Killai (Coordinator: Arun Kumar AS)

The sudden boom in the prawn export during 1990s attracted huge investment in the field of aquaculture. With capital investment in aquaculture turned profitable, capturing coastal and backwater regions became a common scenario. Within few years, the land surrounding Pichavaram and Killai villages have been badly affected as acres of agricultural land converted to aquaculture. In consequence, they dispossessed hundreds of agricultural labourers from their traditional livelihood. In addition, the seepage of residuals and chemicals used to treat the farms into ground irreversibly increased the salinity in cultivable land and ground water. There were populist resistance against aquaculture by fishers and farmers since the 1980s and still lingers in the memories of Killai. This fieldwork aims to use the tool of photo-voice to document experience of aforesaid promises, impact, and the organised resistance that helped to forge the voice against these farms still now.


Heritage – Cuddalore fishing harbour (Coordinator: Bhagath Singh A)

It is one of the major fishing ports in Tamil Nadu. During the colonial period, it had served as a port for export and import of goods. It was converted into a fishing port in 1959. It is one of the busiest fish landing centers in Tamil Nadu with about 245 mechanised fishing boats and 600 motorised non-mechanised fleets operating everyday. The port serves as an economic center that provides labour to thousands of fishermen and others. Fishing in general is a single way job, perhaps after it lands on the shore, it becomes business which is a two-way negotiation. For a section of the catch, the local women takes the lead in bidding process and they sell the fish in the local markets. The fishing industry is considered as unorganised sector with informal labourers. A day trip into the harbor would help to understand labour process, hardships of labourers, and link between labour, species, and market.



Coastal change and migration – Alapakkam (Coordinator: Kohila S)

Alapakkam is a biggest dalit settlement in Tamil Nadu. Until few decades ago, it was a major hub of agricultural labourers, both men and women. Though they had been an amalgamated caste group and labour force with sizable population, they did face oppression and caste discrimination for many centuries in the hands of landlords and other Hindu caste groups. The caste hierarchy and informal labour economy left them at a much disadvantage position. The factors such as change in livelihood pattern, impact of mechanisation in agriculture, increase in literacy, and political mobilisation have brought drastic changes in the labour process of this village. About half of the labour force has attained mobility and moved into non-traditional occupations, some have taken to wage labour in fishing, unthinkable as an option for dalit labourers until recently. The field visit to this village will provide a chance to understand the changing socioeconomic conditions of the dalit community.


Industrialisation and fish work – Pettodai (Coordinator: Mehala SA)

The Cuddalore coast has been classified as one of the highly polluted industrial areas of Tamil Nadu. Also, a portion of this district is prone to natural calamities every now and then. In the name of development, many industrial units have been established along this coast, producing chemicals, petroleum, and petro-chemical products. The effluents from these industries are impacting the lives of fishers and non-fishers of the areas to a large extent.

For example, Nagarjuna Oil Corporation Limited (NOCL) is spread over 2186.56 acres of land comprising 3 revenue villages – Thiruchopuram, Kayalpattu and Kambilimedu. Pettodai is a fishing hamlet situated in the Kayalpatu village panchayat with about 125 households. NOCL took various lands (agricultural lands, wastelands, and coastal wetlands) to construct its plant in the year 2000. The changes that is happening ever since has affected both men and women of the village. It is important to document various impacts of industrialisation on commons and lives of fishers. The fieldwork will provide opportunities to interact with fishers and understand issues such as land dispossession, alienation, and loss of livelihood.

Methodological approaches in social sciences