Looking Back on Education: The Life Stories Project

Life Stories on the Experience of ‘Alternative’ Education in the 1970s (2013-16)

The Oral History project on Life Stories on the Experience of ‘Alternative’ Education in the 1970s was begun in October 2013 under the overall supervision of Janaki Nair (JNU). The goal was to generate an archive of life stories of those poor Indians whose opportunities and prospects, and indeed, well-being, was considerably improved, and sometimes not, through access to formal education. One facet of this archive is its focus on not only the heterogeneity of student populations but on the wide range of educational experiences offered to the poor in India. Would those who passed through alternative schools, which were smaller, more experiential, and innovative, improve their opportunities more consistently than those passing through government schools? Was a more vocationalised training, such as that offered by it is, more appropriate to the lives of the laboring poor? And in what ways were schools run by religious institutions substantially different from state schools? 

With these preliminary questions, and with the support of Prof. Neeladri Bhattacharya and Prof. Geetha B. Nambissan, Prof. Janaki Nair initiated the project by organizing an Oral History Workshop from October 19-20, 2013 for training six Research Assistants (RAs) who were employed to conduct the interviews. The workshop, which also included 14 other interested students, focused on selected texts and questions, at the end of which the assistants began to discuss their preparations for the field, possible locations of interviews and the structure of the questions. These researchers wrote to Prof. Nair about possibilities in the field, and she helped them to identify and contact respondents. 

The interviews were finally conducted in different locations across India and in five languages (Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada). Broadly, the interviews were done with those who were poor, or had been poor at the start of their education, between the ages of 20 and 50, and included both men and women from some main Indian religions. They represented four different educational settings: government schools, alternative schools (schools largely in rural areas which were less structured than regular schools), schools run by religious institutions, and Industrial Training Institutes.

In all, there are 48 interviews, of which 44 have been transcribed and translated. Most of these life stories were collected in multiple sessions with the interviewees, who recalled their experience of education and schooling at length. Although there was no prepared questionnaire, the RAs were requested to keep in mind several sets of themes which would illuminate the link between poverty, educational possibilities and achievements, and improved life skills and chances to break out of straitened circumstances. 

Many of the respondents are first generation school goers, and their recollections, as the brief excerpts of the interviews show, are both exhilarating and troubled. What the interviews most clearly reveal is the hope that many of them placed in the opportunity offered by schooling: that it would afford them a better life and job prospects, that it would elevate their status and self-worth. Such hopes and desires did not go entirely unfulfilled, but as the excerpts reveal, perhaps not in predictable ways.

Project undertaken by Prof. Janaki Nair, TRG Principal Investigator


Janaki Nair (ed.), Un/Common Schooling: Educational Experiments in Twentieth-Century India, New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2022

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