Summoning Durga Through Photos Of Indian Widows: An Interview With Sharmistha Dutta - Homegrown

Summoning Durga Through Photos Of Indian Widows: An Interview With Sharmistha Dutta

India’s feminist fight is generally one of extremes. Oscillating between horrific brutalization and the placement of its ‘goddesses’ on pedestals, we’re not much closer to finding a bridge between the two to rest our battle-weary selves. But if there’s one thing we’ve seen an inspiring change in, it’s the number of artists bringing true attention to the realities. Among many such champions, this starkly monochrome photo story by Sharmistha Dutta moved us more than others, perhaps because of its choice to focus on a sub-sect of women who rarely receive the attention—-Indian widows.
Having worked on this self-financed project since 2012, Dutta collaborated with a senior fashion stylist (Durga, in this story), and Dev J Haldar, a communications specialist, to bring the project to life. “There are two distinct parts in the story. One, that establishes Durga as the common woman, and the rest, which focuses on the widows. For the initial build-up to the story, I travelled and photographed in Delhi, Kolkata and Varanasi. The hardcore research work led me to Vrindavan, where I photographed the widows,” she says in explanation of the project.
Homegrown Loves: The duality in every frame. Dutta foregoes subtlety for a clear depiction of her message and it’s something we appreciate in an artist. The fact that she’s managed to balance her aesthetics with something so powerful, evoked in us a quiet admiration that lasted till the very last photograph in the series.We caught up with the photographer for a quick interview about her choice in subject and things that danced around it. Scroll on to view the project in its entirety, interspersed with snippets from the exchange.
I. Gender-based injustices are aplenty in India. What drew you towards the widow’s plight in particular?
SD: I had heard so much about the plight of widows in our country, but a visit to Vrindavan really opened my eyes to their condition. It’s really disgraceful how people in our country behave with a certain section of women, in the pretext of rituals and age-old superstitions. In my opinion, it’s the biggest and the most shameful case of social injustice against women.
II. It’s been over a year since you started this personal project. Tell us about a few key moments/ realisations you may have uncovered along the way.
SD: Well, to begin with - more than anyone, I have become very sensitive towards the issue. A lot of people have seen and read about my work, and the good news is that they have immediately related to the analogy of Durga being a common woman. It must have struck a chord somewhere, and hopefully the awareness will grow.III. You’ve mentioned that the Government of India has taken a few steps towards helping the widows in Vrindavan. Tell us a little bit about what these are and in your opinion, what more can/ should they do?
SD: The government had actually not done too much about their welfare till recently, when in 2012 Supreme Court directed National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) to ascertain if Sulabh will be willing to take up the noble cause of improving the living conditions of these women. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of Sulabh, a social service organisation expressed his readiness to do so and initiated implementation of welfare measures. In less than two years, he has been able to transform the lives of many a destitute women in Vrindavan.
IV. Since you interacted with a lot of widows, what was a general sentiment that you found unified them regarding their status in society?
SD: Well the most common sentiment was they all want to live the rest of their lives peacefully, with dignity. They would rather live in these shelters, than go back to their families, who abandoned them in their most needy years.V. Most of your photo narrative focusses on elderly widows, do you think things are different for younger widows?
SD: Most widows I met were elderly and a few were middle aged. Due to Sulabh and many such NGO's consistent work, their lives have improved. Apart from healthcare and nutrition, Sulabh also provides education and vocational training to them. This has dramatically improved their self esteem and many ladies are now able to earn their livelihood by making agarbattis, incense sticks, garlands etc. Most importantly, they do not have to beg anymore.
VI. Can you contextualise what Durga means to you, personally, in a few lines?
SD: Durga is someone who's powerful from inside, emotionally strong and capable of handling many a life's struggle. No problem is too big for her. She is an everyday woman leading an ordinary life. She lives inside all of us, we just need to remind ourselves of that, every now and then. Dev puts it best in the context of this project though - “It must be strange for a society, such as ours, that idolises Ma Durga and yet turns a blind eye to a million destitute mothers and wives, treating them with so much indifference and hostility. It makes us all look a tad hypocritical, don’t you think? A society that propagates respect to women only in relation to her status with a man! It is time we realised that there resides a DURGA in every woman, whether she is the well-educated lady from the upper echelons of society, the quintessential middle class working woman, the village simpleton or the old and bent widow in Vrindavan."

Image Credit: Sharmistha Dutta

[A 12 -year stint as an Designer and Art director in the Advertising Industry and then a few more years in the Publishing sector, established Sharmistha as a promising talent destined to reach appreciable heights in her career. But all this while a constant urge to do photography egged her on to take up the camera and when she did so, the transformation was dramatic. Before long, Sharmistha had embarked on her journey as a committed photographer. Her journey into photography started a couple of years back when India was going through a massive social turmoil and there was a sudden spurt in cases of violence against women, specially in the national capital. Somewhere it influenced her thought process immensely and forced her to look at the social status of Indian women in a critical way. Consequently she started working on her first ever photo project on gender bias and women’s rights in India. When not documenting social issues, she just loves to photograph landscapes, cityscapes and old architecture. And of course portraiture is also her passion. She has been successfully exhibiting her work with a lot of respectable galleries in India and abroad. Her work has been published in several national newspapers and magazines as well. You can contact her at [email protected]]

Words: Mandovi Menon

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