For the longest time, society had us believe that women can be boxed into binaries, that they cannot exist as complex beings with a mind of their own. That they need to be instructed on how to exist as if they don’t hold any agency and can’t make decisions of their own accord. Women are always expected to be excellent contortionists, who could shapeshift and evolve to fit an ‘ideal’ version of themselves that catered to the male gaze.
From portraits to photo exhibitions, the female form has long been a central muse that photographers tend to grapple with. Stepping aside from the fetishism of the male gaze, there’s a new wave of Indian photographers attempting to examine the feminine form from a creative point of view through their work. Here are four such creatives that are championing women in all their flawed, complex, and wondrous glory.
Chandigarh-based self-taught photographer and visual storyteller Farheen Fatima engages in narratives themed around the female form, nature, and human relationships. She explores these themes through her photographic practice as well as rhythmic illustrations. In her latest series, ‘Dissonant Bodies’ she explores the theme of both societal and internalized fatphobia that makes women feel the need to be ‘small’ to fit in or to be desired. Explaining the concept of the shoot, Srishti Bose wrote, “Of all the words I know, the cruellest ones have been the adjectives I put next to my body. How incredible the geometries of the body are. How painful, sometimes, the narratives we inscribe on them. Fat women are taught that our biggest aspiration is being small, that the happiest thing to happen to our body is for someone to love it in spite of its shape. We are generation after generation of women squeezing ourselves into clothes and places and people that make us feel small, because anything that makes us feel desired is, what Rachel Wiley would call - ‘a novelty’.”
Aastha Manchanda is a visual artist and photographer based out of Goa, India. Honing her skills at building narratives around still life, she constantly tries to work towards making art with a heartbeat. Tapping into the subconscious, she throws light on human insecurities and vulnerabilities through the beauty of flowers. Breathing life into inanimate objects, her photographs showcase a utopian world where she resides in her head. It is in that same vein that her latest photo project ‘Madhumalti and her Garden of Secrets’ exists. Talking about the concept of the project she said, “The alter ego of the narrator was christened Madhumalti (a vine with red flower clusters). She runs wild in the woods, and picks flowers to seek comfort in her moments of solitude. Inspired by the cinema of Wong Kar Wai, the ongoing series explores hidden emotions and silences in isolation. It reveals the odd comfort of melancholy and implants narrative enigmas.”
Assam-based visual artist Sangeeta Bharali likes exploring and experimenting with art, history, and fashion and seeing how it all comes together in her visuals. The photo-project ‘Lakshmi Reimagined’ was a part of her personal styling project where she visually experimented with styling mythological and historical characters. Talking about the project she said, “This one is inspired by the Hindu Goddess of wealth and fortune Lakshmi. Adhering to early culture and rituals, I adorned the goddess in layers of cowrie shells. Cowrie since ancient times represents wealth and prosperity and because of their unique vulva-like appearance and because they come from the ocean, it is a sacred symbol of abundance and love as well.”
Kerala-based visual artist Sachu James has always believed that our stories have the power of transcending borders and making people realise that we’re one in essence. Borrowing inspiration from his personal life, he is able to weave narratives that offer a glimpse not only into his life but into human connectedness. For his latest photo-project Tropical Mamas he was inspired by the strength and resilience of his mother. Talking about the project he said, “My mother’s life took a sharp turn when she lost her eyesight, following a surgery, a few years back. My aunt, on the other hand, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and has been living with us ever since. At a time, when everything seemed to be ending for us, they showed immense strength and resilience.”
Adding, “I have seen how these women, flawed in the eyes of society, have managed to bloom in the face of adversity. Within their quiet spaces, they pour love into each other’s empty corners. Together, they transform our home into a space of beauty and magic. Tropical mamas is an ode to my two mamas, their camaraderie and the depth that they add to our lives.”
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