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Missing mothers and grandmothers

By Arshia Sattar

A lush book of photographs of Indian women in the colonial period focuses on the women we all know -- the freedom fighters, the social reformers, the artists. But where are the ordinary women -- our mothers and grandmothers?

Visualising Indian Women 1875-1947
edited by Malavika Karlekar. Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 2006.
Hardback, pp 121, Rs 1500

 This lush book, steeped in sepia and nostalgia, records a special exhibition of the same name that was curated and presented by the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, last year, probably to celebrate 25 years of the Centre. The idea is to show us how women were visualised in the high colonial period: as individual girls, wives, mothers, workers, professionals and as groups. Photography as an art and a method of 'true' documentation arrived in India along with the colonial enterprise, partly as an anthropology of the native races, but soon to become a medium appropriated by these same 'natives' to record themselves for posterity.

The pictures are quite simply beautiful, as old photographs are. We see our collective ancestors, men as well as women, sometimes as they want to be seen, as in portraits, sometimes more naturally in candid pictures and sometimes in public and political moments like the freedom struggle and in the refugee camps after Partition. Personal collections as well as public archives have been scanned to bring these pictures together in a single location and these little footnotes, too, tell their own tales about where and how and by whom women's stories and visual histories are maintained.

The book is divided into five separate sections: showcasing the family, the learning experience, worlds beyond, the national movement, towards the midnight hour and five women, this last focusing on five individual lives including Pandita Ramabai and two women photographers. Thus, the pictures are not arranged in a chronology, they are grouped more thematically, providing some sort of linear narrative within sections.

It is the first two sections that are the most interesting as it is here that we see more from private collections. There are studio shots of young couples -- carefully framed, keeping a watchful eye on women's positions in society. There are also photographs from a later period which would seem to be 'home' photos with the camera being wielded by a member of the family. These are more intimate, not simply because of the family atmosphere, but also because the camera itself is now more familiar, becoming a medium that we use ourselves because it is we who want to be remembered. In 'The Learning Experience', there are wonderful photographs of young women in school and college, some official and some personal, and there are also pictures of pioneers in women's education, those among our grandmothers who were the first to go to medical college or to become teachers. There is courage and determination about these pathfinders whose legacy allows so many of us to be not simply women of letters but also little girls in village schools, ribbons bright in our hair.

'Worlds Beyond' takes us outside the family and the home/school. Here women are objectified -- many of the photographs come from a museum's anthropological section and there are many of women in the early film industry as well as singers and dancers. The other two sections on the national movement and the early moments of independence are somewhat less thrilling since these images have been seen before, so iconic are they for a history of the nation as well as for a history of gender. These sections would be well complemented by Kali for Women's publication The History of Doing. The last section on the five individual women seems a bit arbitrary, though the inclusion of the two women photographers would seem a fitting end to this visual memoir. Except that their work is practically absent from the collection.

A project such as this is automatically limited by what is available and what is reproducible. But sadly, despite this, the book fails as anything other than a put-together collection. Too many of the pictures are of public women -- like those in the Nehru family, Amrita Sher-gill and various reformers and educators. Given that personal collections have been sourced, one can ask why the net was not thrown wider to include more ordinary families who have pictures of grandparents and older relatives. Not only would this have made a valuable point about the extent to which the camera was a part of the urban Indian consciousness, it would also have addressed the regional and communal imbalances: women from minority communities are barely represented in this collection. Urban Muslims, Christians and Parsi families, women and children, were being frequently and proudly photographed by the 1920s, often without any men in the frame, in studios and home situations. It is sad that CWDS did not make enough of an effort to source these pictures as well so that we could see more women like our mothers and grandmothers, rather than the women that we already know from history and gender studies.

The title of the book and the exhibition speaks of 'visualising' rather than 'representing', which is an interesting choice, suggesting that these pictures tell us how women were viewed and considered, rather than constructed and re-presented to the public gaze. And while there is a fair amount of discussion about how women got to a studio and whether or not there were female studios, there is surprisingly no mention at all of the male gaze and how that would surely have contributed to the visualisation of women in all their roles. This is all the more surprising given the amount of details on women's clothing, jewelry, the presence and absence of the blouse and the increasing diversity in the way the sari was worn.

Many of the questions that the book does not raise (for example, the issue of the male gaze) could have sparked an interesting discussion about how women are visualised in the contemporary world of images and counter-images. Nonetheless, the book does contribute to a view of women's history in the sub-continent and for that alone, it has some value. The collection and archiving of women's stories in various media (written, oral and pictorial) has just begun and one can hope that in another 25 years, we will be able to present broader and more comprehensive views of women in their many worlds.

InfoChange News and Features, February 2006