Eye to women
The book Visualising
Indian Women, edited by Malavika Karlekar, captures the
different facets of the life of women in India from 1857 to 1947.
Arresting visuals of prominent women and their role in social and
political history make this book a collector’s pick.
THE portrayal of women
in photography visualises some aspects of their lives as they
participated in spheres such as politics, education, family, ritual,
paid work, the arts, and so on. The collection of photographs here
focuses on upper and middle-class women as they were generally the
ones to be photographed. Pictures of working-class women are rare,
owing mainly to the nature of the photographic medium and its limited
reach. In the early days, the camera was not always there to focus on
such women: as a prized accoutrement of a middle-class way of life,
its role had yet to extend beyond the family, group outings, picnics,
birthday parties, and perhaps weddings.
The narrative underlying
the photograph is one which sees it not only as a moment frozen in
time but as an aid to history, in this case the history of Indian
women over a century. Though undoubtedly a tool of perception, behind
each photograph there is ‘not only a private eye, but layers of
history as well’. In the process, as one views the photographs, one
is also introduced to changing photographic techniques, women as
ethnographic types, the importance of the studio and of backdrop, the
vibrancy of ‘action’ shots of the national movement, of the horror
of Partition, and the surge of patriotism that engulfed the country in
1947. If this is an exercise in capturing the history of Indian women,
it is as much a reconstruction of the history of the photograph.
Dredging through family
albums and piles of sadly neglected memorabilia made it clear that, at
some level, this book, tinged with varying family ideologies and
priorities, with different hopes and visions, provides vignettes of
many lives and not the tightly woven story of a country’s women
alone. It celebrates the individual in history and reaches out to the
face in the crowd at one of Mahatma Gandhi’s meetings. It also
focuses on a group, such as the early professionals. For the history
the photographs tell is not only that of apparent successes but of
entire processes, of the triumphant smile as well as of the hesitant
hand on an open book, of the reluctant gaze of an ‘owner’ who
wishes she did not have to engage. Deciding between the sophisticated
visual of an accomplished professional and the slightly wobbly
attempts on the box camera of a moment which would normally go
unnoticed, meant making choices, retelling history from a certain
perspective. By and large though, it was decided representation of the
urban family unit. As the emergent middle class moved away from
land-based occupations to the new professions — law, medicine,
teaching, and government service — there was a desire to have
changes in lifestyles visually recorded for posterity.
|Amrita Sher-Gil in her studio in Simla (Shimla) photographed by father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, 1937
Born in Budapest in 1913 of a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father, Amrita worked ceaselessly in her studio in Summer Hill, Simla and while on the family estate as well as in Saraya, Gorakhpur. Perhaps the most talented Indian woman artist of the twentieth century, during her brief life Amrita painted a large number of incredibly beautiful canvases using strong brush strokes and vibrant colours.
Courtesy: Vivan Sundaram, New Delhi
|Right: Mehendi (henna) ceremony of bride Kaval Malik (later Singh), New Delhi, 1939
After the mehendi ceremony, a smiling Kaval sits before the backdrop of a white wall decorated with the impression of several palms coloured with mehendi. From her chooda hang kaleeras. In the Sikh ceremony, mehendi is smeared on the palms of the bride after which she reaches back and leaves the impressions of her palms on the wall behind her. The henna is quickly washed off and then the professional henna artists or mehendiwallis take over by decorating the palms of the bride and those of her friends. The drawing of intricate patterns can take several hours followed by more time for the drying so as to achieve a deep red colour.
Courtesy: Naina Dayal, New Delhi
The Sud family in Ludhiana, 1910
A desi Punjabi Hindu family from the plains, the women draped their sari with both the sidha pallav (2nd from right, seated row) and ulta pallav (3rd from left) as well as wore the salwar-kameez.
Courtesy: Subhadra Butalia, New Delhi
Diwali in Lahore, 1938
Here women of the family perform Lakshmi puja at sunset, lighting diyas and distributing sweets. Diwali, the popular Hindu festival of lights, celebrates the Goddess Kali in eastern India and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, in the rest of the country.
Courtesy: Shanta Mohan, New Delhi
Snatika ceremony at Kanya Mahavidyalaya, Jullunder (Jalandhar), 1928
Founded in Jullunder (Punjab) in 1890-91 by Lala Devraj, an Arya Samaji, with the active support of his mother, Kahan Devi, KMV was among the first progressive institutions for girls begun by a dedicated core of social reformers in different parts of the country. One of its aims was to provide appropriate instructional material for its students in both Hindi and Sanskrit; when it developed into a college, training women teachers became important. This photograph is of the snatika or convocation of 1928; the formal robe is an interesting adaptation of the western-style gown
Courtesy: Tara Meenakshi Sekhri
Women soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA), 1943
Subhas Chandra Bose or Netaji as he was popularly known, accompanied by Captain Lakshmi Swaminadhan (later Sehgal), inspecting the Rani of Jhansi regiment at Singapore. the women’s regiment was a wing of the INA raised during World War II for the liberation of India. Lakshmi Sehgal is the daughter of Ammu Swaminadhan, an eminent Congress worker and member of the women’s movement. A medical doctor, Lakshmi too is an ardent champion of workers’ and women’s
Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and
Dr Sant Kaur Grewal in Gulmarg, 1938
A gynaecologist and obstetrician, she worked for many years in the medical service of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Courtesy: Amrita Gopal Singh, New Delhi
Excerpted with permission from:
Visualizing Indian Women 1875-1947
Edited by Malavika Karlekar Oxford University Press
Pages 121 Rs. 1500
Swarup Rani Nehru
From an orthodox Kashmiri Pandit family of Lahore, Motilal Nehru’s wife, supported the freedom struggle along with her children and other members of the family. She joined demonstrations and walked through the streets wearing
khadi. In this photograph, however, she is wearing what appears to be a crepe de chine sari with embroidery along the border. Together with the embroidered border that was attached to the sari, this woven chinoiserie also came originally from China. Swarup Rani wears heavy minakari jewellery of the kind popular in north India. These were of precious stones set in gold with enamel on the reverse.
Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi
Achhut Kanya, 1936
Directed by Franz Osten, this Hindi film belongs to the genre of the ‘classic’. It made Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar the most famous screen pair of the times. In a period of political and social unrest, the pertinent theme of tragic love between an untouchable girl and a Brahmin youth touched a chord of sympathy amongst the audience.