Sorry, we need to see a letter from an institution: Struggling as an independent researcher

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Image description: Collage, woman speaking

Image description: Collage, woman speaking. Artist: Catalina Alzate

 

"Sorry, we need to see a letter from an institution."

It had been tricky to take the afternoon off from my day job and to find the exact location of the library I had been told would be helpful to the research I was doing. Three years into trying and failing to do this research independently for a book I am still meant to be writing, I was desperate to look at some archives.

I was in Delhi on work related to my day job, which meant my tickets were paid for, and I was staying with a friend, which meant I didn’t have to worry about a hotel – I had planned the trip so that I would have five extra days in which to visit the archives and look at them.

But when I got there, the librarian was on leave for fifteen days, and I was told there was really no one else who could advise me on what I was looking for. And they wanted a letter that certified… what, exactly? That my work was solid enough to be supported by a research institution? And what did this gatekeeping mean – that, without that support, I didn’t deserve to look at their collections?

That my work was solid enough to be supported by a research institution? And what did this gatekeeping mean – that, without that support, I didn’t deserve to look at their collections?

Eventually, I was allowed to use the reading room, but I had to know exactly which books I was looking for. Their computer system allowed for some search words to be used, but this system was extremely rudimentary. After trying out at least ten different search words related to my research, I found five or six books that the library was able to share with me. Most were available to buy online, or available on pirate websites. Without the librarian to guide me to new material, the visit was essentially a waste of time – time I didn’t have.

***

It has been seven years since I have been formally associated with a university. I finished an MA in anthropology and left academia, to first become a human rights campaigner and then a journalist, but I never wanted to stop doing research. The three years I spent doing a BA in English Literature had not prepared me on how to write papers. We came in as teenagers from high school and were plunged into a fairly rigorous degree but with professors who weren’t really interested in teaching us how to write.

But my MA had been different, shorter, more intense, and much more rigorous – and at the end of the academic year, when I had to research my dissertation, I hit upon a subject that would continue to fascinate me for years to come. I looked at the public discourse surrounding female hereditary performers using the lenses of both medical anthropology and ethnomusicology.

Pioneering work in the field has been done by a number of researchers since the 1980s, including scholars such as Davesh Soneji, Saleem Kidwai, Veena Talwar Oldenburg and Ruth Vanita, ethnomusicologists such as Anna Morcom and Amelia Maciszewski, as well as writers and filmmakers such as Saba Dewan, who made a film called ‘The Other Song’ on the subject and recently published a book called Tawaifnama.

The dominant understanding of these women is that they were sex workers, but the reality was for more complex – these were diverse communities of women performers and courtesans who had been demonised by the colonial project and then the nationalist project, and their repertoires of music and dance had been appropriated by the upper class, upper-caste Indian elite. This appropriation has been called out over the years, not only by scholars and researchers but by performers too. A recent example is dancer Nrithya Pillai’s efforts to open up conversations about how devadasi dance repertoires were appropriated by the upper caste, for which she has had to face flak and hostility.

After I saw an academic talk about them in the flattened way they have come to be referred to now, I felt a desire to delve into their complex histories. I finished my thesis and graduated, but I never stopped reading about this.

And I found that I couldn’t and didn’t want to stop writing.

Two years into working full-time after university, I went back to it – I needed to pay rent and the bills, so I started writing for online websites. This led me into a career in journalism that saw the publication of reportage, essays and reviews on gender, sexuality, culture, politics, and books. Through this, I kept reading whatever I could about women’s performance histories in South Asia, but now that I had left academia far behind, I found I had to really scramble to get my reading done.

Despite the wealth of academic research that has been done on this subject, especially in the last 30 years, it is surprisingly difficult for an independent researcher to get their hands on a lot of it. There are some PhDs on the subject that I have never gotten to read, despite my best efforts to contact the people who wrote them, many of whom now teach at universities themselves.

Two things have helped: pirate websites like sci-hub and libgen, and friends doing their PhDs who could find books and email them to me. Without these, I don’t believe I would have been able to read anything at all. So much essential research is tied up behind paywalls; these pirate websites are sometimes the only things making rigorously researched work possible outside the bounds of academia.

So much essential research is tied up behind paywalls; these pirate websites are sometimes the only things making rigorously researched work possible outside the bounds of academia.

It is still possible to access secondary research in this way, but for archival research, things are a real mess in India. Archives are missing, or disorganised and inaccessible. Well-known scholars, researchers or writers can be unapproachable, even downright territorial and unfriendly. And because of the disgraceful legacy of colonialism, some valuable archives are abroad, out of the reach of anyone who has no institutional affiliation and no independent resources to get themselves there, which means having the means to pay for visas, air tickets, and accommodation in extremely expensive cities like London, for someone who wants to access the British Library. There are a few digital archives, but these are far from extensive.

Three years ago, I signed a contract with a publisher to write a narrative non-fiction book on the same subject. The advance given to debut writers is a laughable amount – it wouldn’t support rent and bills for more than three months at the most, let alone the actual doing of any extensive independent research. If this were a book that did not need so much research (although what book doesn’t?) perhaps I would have finished a first draft by now.

But the last couple of years have been an incredible tussle between finding the time and resources to carry out my research and the rest of my life – my day job, my personal life, my health, finding the energy and money and resources to stay afloat. I applied to whatever fund I could, and received a lot of interest and encouragement until the very last stages – but there is too much public health in my project for art grants, and there is too much art in it for grants related to rights and justice.

I have always wanted to go back and get either an MFA or a PhD, so when I applied to a PhD and got an offer to go back to the same university I had been able to do an MA, I felt hopeful. But though the university shortlisted me for the full scholarship I would need to return, I had to appear before the same gatekeepers who make decisions on who receives a number of academic scholarships that let Indian students study abroad. I had received this scholarship once before and was eligible again.

But I faced a panel of men who had no connection to and no knowledge of the subject I want to research, and when I suggested that many respected classical singers were of courtesan origin, and hereditary female performers lived and sang in north India still, the man in charge baulked. “Do you know who Siddheshwari Devi is? How can you say such a tasteless thing?” he asked me. “Do you know who she is?” I wanted to ask. He had named a deeply respected singer from the north Indian city of Benaras who was definitely a hereditary performer. I had done my research and prepared my arguments, but in the face of the status quo understandings of these performers, and the sheer power this man wielded over the entire scholarship process (for not just this one, but two other scholarships), I was powerless.

This is a litany of failures, and I really don’t have very much to show for it except the lessons I’ve learned.

But I faced a panel of men who had no connection to and no knowledge of the subject I want to research

 

***

So what does an independent researcher with limited means and chronic illnesses end up doing? Earlier this year I was forced to leave the city I lived in for a number of reasons, and I moved back into the home I grew up in. With the money I was finally able to save, I made a research trip to the north Indian city of Lucknow, where my very favourite singer, and one of the most well-known performers of courtesan origin – Begum Akhtar – lived for a long time.

Those six days felt like a soft landing, after all the closed doors and frustrations of the last few years. I was actually given some time and guidance by a senior scholar who has done incredible work on the subject. I visited the singer’s tomb and stood there quietly for a long time. I met and interviewed people. I felt like I had come home. If things were not so inaccessible for those of us who do research outside of academia, that week would perhaps have not taken years to arrive.

At the same time, I am aware and would be remiss not to acknowledge that even being able to do this speaks to a lot of the privileges that I do have – I am someone who is seen as not being queer. I am savarna and middle class. I speak and write in English. All of these open doors for me that are closed for countless other people.

Along the way, I have met or had the chance to speak to people who love this fairly obscure subject as much as I do (although there is now a sudden explosion of interest on the subject, thanks to conversations about gender and women’s histories that are opening up).

They have shown me that I don’t want to scale down the scope of my research or be beaten into submission and write something very limited. I recently read Tawaifnama by Dewan, which took her over ten years to write, and it gave me strength and inspiration. It is a landmark book, remarkable in scale and depth, and she researched it independently.

I know how much I am striving to write my books, and get an advanced degree in either writing or in the humanities, and how difficult the process has been – and how much good, creative, and rigorous work independent researchers like me could do with the energy and time we spend scrambling around, simply for access.

 

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