[Editor’s Note--The past few weeks have been an exercise in the ventilation of a pertinent issue plaguing the country - the atrocity of sexual violence towards women in India. Our comrade Shreena Thakore, co-founder of No Country For Women, has been taking the reins with her columns investigating several aspects surrounding the matter, filling up our pocket in the virtual universe with some interesting dialogue. After discussing the ‘myth of the impoverished rapist’ , and showcasing a curation of goosebump-inducing, crowdsourced stories from women across the country via ‘Break the Silence’, we moved forward from unearthing the roots of gender-based violence in India to shed some light on a less-explored problem. The gendered negotiation of space in India - this grassroots-level issue is what has been the driving force behind our digital photo campaign in tandem with NCFW. We would like to involve all of our followers and readers in our campaign to spread awareness, called ‘Gendered Spaces.’ We reached out to photographers, all of whom have witnessed the manifestation of this issue in their parts of the world, to lend us some visual insight; you know what they say about the worth of a picture. Scroll on to take a journey through myriad perspectives elaborating on a woman’s right to be present in a public space - and sometimes, as it feels, to be anywhere she is not ‘supposed to be’.]
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
- Alfred Eisenstaedt
After much discussion over frames, concept note ideas and whirlwinds of sheaves of paper we thought were a bygone trademark of the 90′s, here are the frames and the people behind the lens who’ve eloquently captured the essence of ‘Gendered Spaces’:
I. Ronny Sen
Kiss of Love Protest, Calcutta
“I’ve never seen anything like this happen in Calcutta before. The Kiss of Love protests have attracted a massive number of people from all over, and this is a fascinating evolution of the ‘Hokkolorob’ protests (the series of student protests in Jadavpur University which are still ongoing). Over the course of this protest, I’ve heard many people come forward and speak openly about their sexual orientation, emphasizing that they aren’t afraid to discuss this in public anymore. Compared to the rest of the country, the right wing forces haven’t been trying to curb the protests as much, because they would far have been outnumbered. In line with its revolutionary history, Calcutta has stood up, again, for something which really needed to be spoken about.”
Ronny Sen is an independent photographer based in Kolkata.
II. Nirvair Singh Rai
“When I was a child, I would always sit next to my mother in the Gurudwara. It was only when I grew a beard that men started staring at me and asking me to come to the other side. I would still hold my mother’s hand and try to ignore them. Worship and prayer are always considered as very pure concepts. Sadly enough, this definition of purity has not been extended to how we look at gender. In such a space, the presence of a man next to a woman is only thought of as a cause for distraction.”
The Vessel, Rajshahi, Bangladesh
“I was in Tanore village in Rajshahi, Bangladesh, for the wedding of a close friend who hails from the Santhal tribe. The Santhals are a very quiet, shy race, and the women do a large part of the chores. This young girl, Shibani, came to the bank of the river one morning to wash some utensils. She was one of the two girls in the village, who worked very hard. She had two brothers, but a large part of the housework fell upon her, while her brothers lounged about. Upon seeing me at the river, she put the round vessel on her head, standing ankle-deep in the green waters. I could see the entire village and her tribe echoed in her spontaneous, childlike reaction. I could also see how womenfolk are often relegated to most housework, and how women spend all their lives providing for the providers.”
Horseback Stories, Pune
“I made this image for a Maharashtrian wedding—the family stays in Pune, but hails from the village of Morve—tradition requires the bride to sit on the horse and trot around the village, making her way to the Vitthal Rukmini temple, in order to invite the gods to the wedding. It was so empowering to see the bride sit regally on the horse. Custom usually has the groom astride the horse, and over the years, warriors have also been depicted as these awe-inspiring brave figures riding horses—imagery that has usually been associated with the male gender. The image of a woman on a horse is either used to evoke laughter, or something out of the ordinary. To a certain extent, this image has also been sexualised in cinema and advertising. Why is it that we only see heroes on horses? This, from the land of Jhansi ki Rani and fierce female warriors. In fact, when my friends see this image, they are often amazed and confused about this ceremony. It is strange how little we know of our own culture, and how little we think of women.”
Nirvair Singh Rai hails from Bathinda, Punjab, India and is currently studying photography in the South Asian Media Academy – Pathshala, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He grew up watching his father pursue making pictures with a film camera. And gradually, photography became his partner in moments of solitude. He went on to intern with World Press Photo award-winning photographer, Pablo Bartholomew, who further honed his ways of seeing and capturing the world. He has always been very inspired by nature and spends a lot of time documenting the natural world around him. However, photographing cultures, people and their ways of life have also become an intrinsic part of him. He has previously shot for National Geographic Traveller, India and Drik News agency, Bangladesh, along with working on a commissioned project by Fabrica, an Italian publication.
III. Unaiza Merchant
Men Bathing in Public, Kolkata
“The male body is not seen as lewd or offensive, and men can take off their shirts and ‘show skin’ to absolute strangers, without it being considered an anomaly - this is considered perfectly normal in society; there are no hints of self-consciousness that a man needs to feel. I’d also like to draw attention to the fact that men from under-resourced communities are free to bathe, piss and defecate where they want, but what do women from the very same strata do in the absence of sanitation facilities? Going alone to a secluded area is another risk in itself, as came into the limelight recently in the horrific 2014 Badaun gangrape case.”
Unaiza Merchant is a 21-year-old freelance graphic designer with a penchant for photography (along with several other things that constantly occupy her love and attention). You can view her work here.
IV. Anurag Banerjee
Saheeda Sheik, Mumbai
First published in Time Out Mumbai under the Me, Mumbaikar section. Image: Anurag Banerjee”Saheeda Sheik, 50, sat by herself on the topmost step of the small stairway that leads to nowhere at the dargah close to the Mahalaxmi station when I approached her. It was early evening and while everyone was in a rush to get back home, her calmness attracted my attention.
She told me that she was feeling a little dizzy and so she thought she would just catch some fresh air. Sheik lives alone in Agripada and spends most of her time with her sister’s children. On most evenings she heads out for walks around the city. “I have high sugar – 450,” she said. “So the doctor told me I need mental sukoon – peace of mind apart from medicines and a good diet. This is difficult in the city with its traffic and crowd and noise, but I often find a quiet spot like this one and get my peace of mind,” mused Sheik.
That there are spaces such as these in the city of Bombay, where a woman can sit by herself and do nothing, is, in itself, a glimmer of hope.”
The Woman in the Café, Benaras
“Benaras is a town stuck in time. Getting lost in its winding alleys, sticking to a stone wall to make way for a sacred cow, and many a quaint café, are all part of the city’s charm. Thankfully, the city’s mindset is not stuck in time. It’s not an uncommon sight, here, to spot a woman sitting alone in a café or by the ghats. She won’t be bothered or stared at by passers-by.
It was while I was passing one of these small cafes, one called Shiva Café to be specific, that I noticed this woman sitting inside, all by herself. Cigarette in hand, a shawl wrapped around her, just the sight of her put me at peace. And she seemed to be at peace too, no one came in between her and her smoke and cup of coffee, she wasn’t asked to hurry up and empty the table, she wasn’t harassed by looming, questioning eyes.
I passed by the café many a time after I made this photograph, in the hope of catching a glimpse of this woman whose mere demeanour filled me with silence and solitude. Alas, this was not to be.”
People idling at Haji Ali circle
“Bombay is a city that has always been fighting for space. For those living here, there never seems to be enough. However, for those moving into the city, there always is just enough. That is how the city has always been – accommodating of one and all. This photograph is part of an ongoing body of work titled “Where do I sit?” Through the series, I intend to ask where is it that one could sit, where is it that one could wait, where is it that one stop their breath, or to do nothing at all. Is there space and if there is, where is it? Here we see a group of people, including two women and a child, idling at the Haji Ali circle in Mahalaxmi in Bombay. What I like about this photograph is that it does not show any distinction in terms of who the space belongs to. We see a few young boys who were just gossiping sitting on the fence along with this man who has reclined himself on a parked scooter, and the two women to the right of the frame who have climbed onto a raised platform in the enclosure with a child. They were merely stopping for a while before they went about their chores for the rest of the day and even though the space they found was not ideal, it was just enough.”
Anurag Banerjee is a graduate from Symbiosis Institude of Media and Communication (UG) where he specialized in film studies. He moved to Bombay in June of 2013 and joined Time Out Mumbai as a photographer where he worked for over a year. In February of 2014, he collaborated with author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi on a photostory titled “Gone Away” which explored silence and solitude and largely revolved around the author’s life in Goa. This series was later exhibited as a digital show as part of a Tata LitLive session at the NCPA, Mumbai.
He is currently working on an upcoming arts festival, Sensorium, in Goa, apart from working on personal projects.
V. Ambarin Afsar
Be a Man
“I think those are the most loaded words I have ever heard. Why do we deny our men their sensitivity? It is only in moments of isolation that I have observed men such as my father breaking down and lowering their guard, only to be ashamed and gruff about it later. This young boy, for instance, was jeering at his other friends who were outside the compartment, and a few moments after the train moved, he looked a little less cocky, and a little more lost. Being emotional is a woman’s domain... this assumption is an example of a colossal gendered space that throttles any chances of men expressing themselves emotionally, or thinking that they are not going to be judged for doing so.”
Make me a Roti
“We’ve all heard this innumerable times—some of the world’s best chefs are men. My father would make great omelettes, street food vendors are almost always men, and yes, most chefs are also men. So, why is it that a daughter-in-law’s place is in the kitchen? Why must girls learn to cook while boys are sent off to play or do other chores during a festival or the arrival of a guest? If you are in a pinch, you would rather that you could cook, instead of wait for the nearest mother, daughter, sister or girlfriend to come along and save you from starvation. What has cooking got to do with gender? Those ‘must make perfect rotis’ matrimonials never cease to amaze me. During Ramazan, the streets are lined with men cooking practically all day—kneading huge parathas, making skewers of kebabs and even sandwiches. Nobody thinks any less of them for doing all this, so it is very strange when women who can’t cook or aren’t great cooks are ridiculed on account of their gender.”
This is Who I Am
“How I choose to dress, or how I choose to do my hair are my choices, and that is how they should be treated. There are far too many people passing judgement on other people’s attire or their appearance. If it isn’t fashion telling us how to get smaller or bigger, it is our neighbourly neighbours attempting to do us a favour by telling us exactly what they think about that skirt, those jeans, that dress, that neckline. I think it all comes down to respecting someone’s choice. If you do not like what someone else is wearing, then don’t look at it, or ignore it. Not everything requires a (very) vocal approval or disapproval. Gender has nothing to do with dressing demurely, flamboyantly, conservatively or outrageously. At best, these are all unnecessary classifiers.”
Ambarin Afsar lives and works in Mumbai, India. Professionally, she writes and shoots for Better Photography magazine. She is an avid reader and is still cataloguing all the books she’s read so far on GoodReads. Her virtual shelf houses more than 700 books. She likes travelling as much as she can, and while she has not ventured too far from her city, she considers it fertile ground for many adventures and serendipitous meetings. She believes that her images are little messages sent by her heart to her hands. You could say that they are romantic in nature, just as falling in love with a moment, a passing stranger or an untouched vista is romantic. She also enjoys baking biscuits, cookies and cakes, and considers her images as a collection of savouries and sweetmeats that leave an unforgettable taste behind. She mostly shoots on the street—spotting unusual moments and catching people unawares is something she enjoys doing. From cityscapes to urban grunge, her body of work is probably as hard to pin down and describe as a city that is as large and dynamic as Mumbai.
VI. Anushree Fadnavis
From the #TrainDiaries’ Series
“This picture is a grim reminder of the lack of public spaces for women and the prevalent attitudes and ill-treatment of the homeless. A few nights ago, Poonam was being reprimanded by two policemen in the ladies compartment of the local train. Poonam claims she sleeps on the roadside because she left her husband who used to abuse her. On this day, she was sleeping on the last seat of the compartment. The RPF in the train didn’t say anything until another police officer got in at Santa Cruz station, and started yelling at her to wake her up. I was shocked to see a male police officer behaving this way with a woman, merely because she was sleeping in a public place. I had a big argument with the policemen asking what crime she had committed. Most women think of the ladies compartment as their home. However, some women in the compartment agreed with the policeman’s action. I told them the policeman had no right to come to the compartment this late, and talk this way with her. He could have asked any one of us to talk to her or wake her up. The policeman who got in at Santa Cruz slipped away at Andheri. I confronted Anand Bhagwan, a RPF in the train, who told me that he doesn’t know who the policeman is. I was forced to pull the train to a halt to understand the crime Poonam had committed but after arguments with railway authorities no answers came my way since the cop had slipped away, and other passengers were losing their patience with the delay caused.
The idea behind the photograph is that, yes, the ladies compartment is a place where we women let ourselves be; it’s our space . We usually consider this as our second home and ladies share and bond here. Women do some of their chores here - dressing up, make-up, knitting, chopping/peeling vegetables, what not. What shocked me was the way the police was using his authority. I, myself, felt violated. I wondered - what if somebody just woke me up from a deep sleep and bombarded me with questions? Here, this lady was really scared and she was too meek to reply. She didn’t know what was going on. According to the law, after sunset, a female officer has to be present if you have to arrest any woman (with terms and conditions). I know, in this case, they were not arresting her and she had not committed any crime except that she was homeless - which, again, is not a crime. They were doing their duty of public service but they should also keep in mind the time and place and whether that lady had committed a crime. She was just sleeping. It was violation of a public space and their power, I felt. So I reprimanded them.”
Anushree Fadnavis is a photojournalist working with a News Agency called Indus Images based in Mumbai since the last one year. I have worked as an intern with DNA newspaper . You can find some of her work here. Her personal story ‘#traindiaries’ has been published in newspapers like Mumbai Mirror, Mid-Day and the Mint lounge. The Katha Collective and Scroll have also published this story.
VII. Aparna Jayakumar
Celebrations on the Streets
“Sneha, a musician, cuts loose and dances with street performers, in a rare show of loss of inhibitions for most women in public spaces.”
Solo Walks on Marine Drive
“This capture of a woman walking solo on Marine Drive made me ponder about how Bombay had always felt like a safe place growing up, but recent events have made something as simple as a walk alone seem like something women in the city might think twice about. This is a scary thought.”
Post-Fashion Week Ponderings
“But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”
- Tina Fey
Aparna Jayakumar, 30, is a photographer from Mumbai, India. Her work has been exhibited at the Aegean Center in Paros, Lincoln Center in New York City, Villa Borghese in Rome, Art Bazis in Budapest, KC Dunaj Gallery in Bratislava, Strand Art Room and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai and at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011. She was nominated for the international photography award Prix Pictet in 2009. She has been published in Monocle, Inge Morath Magazine, Le Journal de la Photographie, Tasveer Journal, Travel+Leisure, The Telegraph, IQ, The Sunday Times, BBC TopGear and other publications. She has shot campaigns for brands such as GEOX, Ford, Cadbury’s, Marico, Etisalat Mobile and publicity stills for films with directors such as Mira Nair, Sooni Taraporevala and Vishal Bhardwaj.
VIII. Bhumika H. Bhatia
Shots From ‘Her Diary’
“People have this perception about beauty, and how a girl should look like. Basically, how a woman should look according to society - hair combed properly, dressed appropriately, modern yet traditional, the list goes on and on... When I started shooting ‘Her Diary’, I had a clear vision as to what I wanted. But, once it was out, the reaction left me in shock. People did appreciate it, but there was a whole lot of them waiting to pounce on me. They said that the girl in the photograph is disrespecting the culture of our society; she has stretch marks, she has acne, she is not wearing any make-up, she needs to wax. Who gave society the right to choose who is beautiful and who isn’t ? Don’t we have any right over our own bodies? What I wanted to show through these photographs is what women in general go through - some of them come out of it, but some of them are trapped forever.”
Bhumika Bhatia is a portrait photographer from India. She always had visions that she was here for a purpose. Always dreamt of a world where everything was extraordinary, with a hint of fantasy and romanticism, with surreal trees and purple clouds. Photography for her began 4 years ago while sitting in the back seat of her cousin’s car. It was about to rain and the weather was amazing, so she started clicking pictures, and luckily the first picture she ever clicked turned out to be good. But Bhumika convinced them that she wants to take pictures for the rest of her life and want people to connect with them and be inspired in some way.
With her first exhibition “Sublunary World” at the age of 19, she became the only Indian female photographer whose work has been published and exhibited across the world at such a young age including Jimmy Choo and the Elton John Foundation, Selfridges, London where she was also a runner-up, Paris Fashion Week and so on. She has been featured in magazines such as Digital Photographer, Digital Camera World, GQ India, Cosmopolitan India, YUVA India, Yeah uk,Carpaccio-Spain, TIME Magazine (Online) , The Sindhian, Haute Magazine, USA , MYOD India, Cover for Asian Photography Magazine, Better Photography Magazine, Femina Bride, twice on the front page on Vogue Italia,Creative Boom-UK, Brink Magazine -Florida, Racing Minds and plenty of online blogs. She is determined to change the photography scene in India.
You can contact her at [email protected], and check out her Flickr account here.
IX. Aishwarya Arumbakkam
The Character of Space
“This photograph is a commentary on the way women interact with, and perceive, space in India. How men and women experience the same space is very different here. There’s a certain role you’re expected to play as a woman within a shared area - their character is blended with the character of the space; projected on the space, rather than allowed to express their own unique mannerisms. It’s come to a point where we’d probably prefer to blend in, because as disturbing as it is to be a force fit - it’s so much more difficult to do the opposite simply due to the reactions you land up provoking. You occupy a space in a very tangible manner, there are so many reactions you evoke just due to your very existence. The right to exist is almost nullified if you don’t exist within the dynamics of the space so you need to interpret the fabric of a space every step of the way here. I feel like for those of us who live in the city, it’s relatively much easier to project our own personalities but the struggle is still very real.”
Aishwarya Arumbakkam’s artistic practice uses the medium of film, photography and performance to create personalized mythologies that puncture established social narratives and counter it with subversive narratives that sustain the voice of individuality and plurality in a highly homogenized society. These subversive narratives strive to create alternate memories and fantasies for the practitioner, participant and recipient.
By doing this, she aims to provide a set of clues to re-interpret codes and create remnants that will serve as alternate archives for the future.
X. Sharmistha Dutta
The following images are stills from the photographer’s photo essay - ‘Durga~ Dynamics of power, Gender bias and a story of widows in India’ - regarding which, we have actually interviewed her before. These are the images she felt best conveyed the issue of gendered spaces within the context of our campaign. Contributors to her project include Rakhi Biswas, who enacts the role of Durga, and Dev J Haldar, who gave words to her entire concept.
The Widows Of Vrindavan
“Widows gather at the Kesi Ghat in Vrindavan to celebrate Diwali. Although widows have been prohibited from taking part in such social occasions and celebrations, Sulabh International Social service organisation has worked tirelessly for the last 2 years to break down such age old restrictions on these women. Occasions such as these not only boost their confidence in themselves, it really helps raise their social acceptability.”
“Widows at Meera Sahbhagini Ashram in Vrindavan sing bhajans in the early hours of the day and at sundown. It is a way of thanking the god and also a way they make a few pennies.”
“The Act of Visarjan somehow is one of vehemence and heartlessness. Its reminiscent of a woman, so commonly abandoned by her family, once she’s widowed. From being the nurturer of her home and hearth, she suddenly becomes a burden, who no one wants to take care of. (Here I have drawn a parallel between how we abandon a woman once she is widowed and the widely practiced act of visarjan, where we submerge the idol of the goddess Durga, after several days of worship and adulation during Durga Puja)“
“She once belonged to a happy family. Upon the death of her husband, her fate changed overnight. She was driven away from her native village in Bengal and is now spending her days in an Ashram in Vrindavan, in the company of many such bereaved women.”
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]
[NCFW & Homegrown would like to involve all of our followers and readers in a campaign to spread awareness called ‘Gendered Spaces.’ This is a call to action for the digital photo campaign that explores the intersection of Gender and Space. When was the last time you saw a woman peeing in public, or walking into a liquor store without cold stares, or a man ironing clothes in your home perhaps? The prompt is broad, take the idea and run with it. Then mail us your photos along with your thought behind it, and your contact details to [email protected] with the subject ‘GENDERED SPACES SUBMISSION.’ At the end of 3 weeks, we’ll be publishing the best photos/ submissions on Homegrown.]