Voices of Rural India: A new initiative allows rural communities to tell their own stories and monetise them
By monetarily compensating its contributors, Voices of Rural India is creating an alternate revenue stream for those engaged in tourism, who have been deprived of a livelihood because of the lockdown.
In Ladakh's Maan village, Stanzin Dolkar has been defying gender stereotypes her whole life, adamant about continuing her studies instead of following into either marriage or intensive labour, the expected paths for women in this area. She found her calling after being selected for an astronomy training session by the scientists at the International Astronomical Union. “I feel fortunate to be born in Maan village. Here, the night sky is very clearly visible. You can see stars, planets, even the Milky Way galaxy,” Dolkar says.
Her passion evolved into employment, as the Global Himalayan Expedition started Astrostays, a network of homestays in the area. However, the lockdown has meant that no tourists have visited Maan this year.
An alternate source of income presented itself in the form of Voices of Rural India (VoRI), started by travel writer Shivya Nath, Himalayan Ark founder and Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat sarpanch Malika Virdi, and the Digital Empowerment Foundation's Osama Manzar. A not-for-profit digital initiative, VoRI allows people from rural India to tell their stories in their own voices. It has allowed Stanzin Dolkar to continue chasing her dreams.
Launched on 15 August, one of the core ideas behind the initiative is to change how stories from India's villages reach people. “Typically, what happens with digital storytelling is urban people are telling rural people’s stories. But the people whose stories they are don’t end up owning them. That’s what we want to change,” says Shivya Nath.
Nath was prompted to think about the livelihoods of those communities and individuals who are dependent on the tourism industry, since the lockdown brought travel to a halt. This includes tour guides and homestay owners. “Because of my travels, I’ve been connected with a lot of people in the tourism space who’ve been working with different communities across the country and [have been] hearing from them about how everything has just gone to zero,” Nath explains.
VoRI pays those who contribute stories to its platform. The first story earns Rs 1,000, the second fetches Rs 1,500. And from the third story onward, a contributor earns Rs 2,000. While being a platform, VoRI also aims to enhance digital storytelling skills in rural India, for which they create monthly training modules covering topics like smartphone photography, creating engaging videos, and more.
Take for example Trilok Singh Rana, a tour guide in Uttarakhand’s Shankhdhura village, whose income instantly dried up because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We have been facing severe losses, since tourists have completely stopped coming. More recently now, one or two have been coming, but most people are very scared, since it’s a remote area and there’s no hospital nearby,” he says.
Though he has struggled through this period, the lockdown has also afforded him the chance to learn about the craft of likhai or wood carving. “In the olden days, whenever someone built a house, they would do all the design work in doors, windows, and so on. But slowly it disappeared, and then none of the craftspeople who did this remained. Then Bihari Sharmaji came to our village; he stayed here for two months and taught people how to do likhai. Now it has started reviving slowly,” he says about the craft.
When he learnt about VoRI, this is what he decided to write about. “It’s new for me, since I’d never written a story before, didn’t know anything about writing one. Over time, I understood how to write. And I collected photos from the surrounding houses as well. It felt great to see my story get published. I’m getting ready to write a second story now,” he adds.
Besides being a source of income, VoRI’s long-term goal is to act as a record of local cultures and grassroots knowledge, essentially preserving largely oral cultures in the voices of their creators and nurturers. To this end, the stories on the website, though translated into English, are accompanied by audio or video clips of the original version. The initiative works with communities in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. Its contributors range from Munsiari, Uttarakhand’s Rekha Rautela who reflects on the relation of her farming family with barley, to Spiti’s Chhering Norbu who shares the mystery of a 14th-century monk, among others, bringing a range of perspectives. “And it’s a source of pride because you’re talking about your culture, heritage, and traditions,” Nath adds.
“Landscapes and communities who inhabit them are embedded in their own particular stories and cultures. And perhaps that’s part of what draws the tourist to rural destinations – to come experience and, in some way, be a part of these stories,” says Malika Virdi. “But a constant challenge with tourism has been to engage the often preconceived and objectifying prism of the tourism gaze, to one of openness, curiosity, and mutual respect. For our rural storytellers, VoRI is an opportunity to delve into and own their life experiences, and their folklore with pride, and choose to retell them to the world at large,” she adds.
This is exemplified by the story of Mahadu Chindhu Kondar from the Sangli district of Maharashtra, who talks about the generations-old practice of worshipping wild tigers. When he was asked if he knew any story, Kondar thought about his childhood experience of having first seen a tiger when he was four years old. “I decided to write about Bagh Devta, the tiger god, whose idol finds a place my village. I hope that this story has an impact on readers and they start viewing nature as god,” he says.
As a school teacher — who, during the lockdown, has been travelling thrice a week to each child’s home and giving private classes — he’s especially happy to see an initiative like VoRI. “Rural students don’t normally get an opportunity to write like this. With VoRI, rural people have the opportunity to get involved, tell their stories, and see them get published,” he says, adding that he’s already working on a second story.
VoRI is reaching these storytellers by partnering with tourism organisations already invested in local communities, including Global Himalayan Expedition, Himalayan Ecotourism, Himalayan Ark, Grassroutes Journeys, and Spiti Ecosphere. “Basically, tourism is all about stories. And a lot of people associated with tourism are already storytellers, they’ve interacted with the kind of audience we’re trying to reach. Now, because it’s all virtual, it’s just a different means of storytelling. And these organisations are our bridge with the storytellers,” explains Nath.
— All photos taken with permission from the Voices of Rural India website.
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