There are a lot of heroes buried in history that do no get celebrated as much as others. Especially in India which has had colonization, wars, regime changes and movements so epic that learning about all of them are enough to fill a lifetime. Patriarchal structures have always ruled the Indian society and from the beginning, history was also mostly written by men which conveniently erased women and their participation from tales of bravado. In an attempt to revive and acknowledge one such story, two Indian artists have a conceptualized a photoseries based on a young female freedom fighter.
Following their fascination rooted in the old trees around their hometown, Kanpur, Gauri Awasthi and Aashna Singh ultimately reached Bithoor, often considered the outskirts of Kanpur, where they found a forgotten story of a daughter and warrior who was instrumental in the first revolt of independence in 1857.
In 1857, freedom fighters across the country revolted against the British, of which Bithoor became a central point at the time. Led by the brave Nana Saheb, the adopted son of Bajirao Peshwa II, Indian fighters initially won against the British army and even captured their Garrison there. But when the British arrived with additional forces, Nana Saheb managed to escape the palace to find a safe place and regroup. However, his 13-year-old adopted daughter, Mainawati stayed back to protect the fort.
Though many lived to tell Nana Saheb's story of the freedom struggle, even hoisting the tricolour flag in his name where he used to formulate policies with his general, not many know of the tale of his daughter, Mainawati, that was captured by the British who continuously tortured her to elicit the whereabouts of her father. When she refused to give up his location, she was burnt alive at 13 and attained veergati (martyrdom).
In the photo series, the artists invite us to remember this forgotten heroine and ultimately reimagine this young girl, fighting for her father and motherland. They invite us to 'imagine' what she'd be like if she lived. They have also created a conceptual video exploring the same that you can watch below.
To add some context to their choice of this reimagination, Gauri & Aashna used ancestral jewelry from their grandmother and mothers' wardrobes to invoke the personal feminine, that they wished lived with her. They also chose water, as opposed to fire, to retell her living. Part-oral history and part-academic research, this project is aimed at resurrecting the forgotten stories of the women before us.
'Imagine' is a retrospective series that eliminates the distance we often feel from people in history as time passes who we only see in paintings and depictions. Looking at what she could have been like somehow stirs up a really intimate response for her bravery and contribution to India's freedom and our cultural history.