An Arundhati Rajan Photoseries Shines Light On The Needs Of Chennai's Sanitation Workers

Nocturnal Nagaravasigal
Nocturnal NagaravasigalArundhati Rajan

Arundhati Rajan's photography project, titled 'Nocturnal Nagaravasigal' (translating to "women of the night town dwellers"), brings to light the unseen stories of Chennai's female conservancy workers, who toil through the night to keep the city clean.

Rajan describes one of her enduring memories as night drives with her father, where she would constantly see these sanitation workers clad in bright uniforms. This ubiquitous sight, coupled with a desire to explore the unseen spaces of Chennai, became the seed for Nocturnal Nagaravasigal. The project transcends the popular imagery of Chennai; venturing beyond temples, cafes, and fish markets to explore the unseen labor that upholds the city's functionality.

The project's development began in November 2023. Rajan used writing as a tool for introspection; filling a black sketchbook with questions and thoughts. These questions probed how to capture the essence of these women's realities and initiate meaningful conversations about their lives.

For two months, she wrote daily, irrespective of whether she could take photographs or not. This proccess helped her to achieve clarity and understand the women on a deeper level. Her written contemplations ventured into the lives of these workers as she meticulously filled her notebook with probing questions and contemplations, aiming to unravel the intricacies of the women's experiences.

Rajan's approach to photography centered on portraying the women in a manner that honored their dignity and agency; challenging prevailing societal norms that often reduce them to their occupational roles. Her intention was not merely to document their work but to capture their multifaceted identities, aspirations, and challenges.

Their intention was to portray the women in a way they would prefer to be seen; not solely defined by their work. This approach aimed to challenge the societal perception of cleaning as solely a woman's domain and elevate the women's dignity.

Beyond this, Nocturnal Nagaravasiga also sheds light on the adversities faced by Chennai's sanitation workers, including inadequate access to basic amenities such as toilets, insufficient provision of safety gear leading to health hazards, instances of caste-based discrimination, and reports of sexual harassment. Furthermore, the privatization of waste management services has exacerbated job insecurity among contract workers, further intensifying their vulnerabilities. The project emphasizes the need for responsiveness from both the civic body and private waste management agencies.

For Women's Day, Arundathi joined forces with fellow female creatives to present her work via a Chennai exhibition titled 'Women Outdoors'. Through her powerful project, Rajan compels us to acknowledge their contributions and advocate for not just for their well-being, but for the bellbeing of sanitation workers across the nation.

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