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Space, gaze & women in colonial India
NIDHI GUPTA  18th Jan 2014

Reclining Lady (1870) | Photos: Tasveer and Vacheron Constantin

he British colonial enterprise in India began with a systematic process of mapping the land and its people. They employed several tools — cartographic and ethnographic studies were carried out through surveys and censuses that were then compressed into huge archives. One of the technologies that they used in this process was photography.

Despite their Orientalist tendencies, the archives built up by the British through their "investigative modalities" give us ample material to understand colonial India today. Ironically, the camera became not only a tool for documentation, but also a figurative lens, allowing a certain gaze to take precedence.

An instance of this is to be found at the ongoing exhibition of archival photographs at the design concept store Moon River. Tasveer's latest show, titled Subjects and Spaces, Women in Indian Photography, 1850s to 1950s, looks at the representation of women and femininity as it evolved over a period of 100 years, from the 1850s to the 1950s. The exhibition contains an array of images in the form of studio portraits, film stills, postcards, cabinet cards and lobby cards employing photographic techniques such as silver gelatin printing and hand tinting.

"The theme of the exhibition focuses on women who occupied complex spaces while being photographed, and as such visually communicated claims to social status, identity and historical position. The show brings together women of diverse and contrasting backgrounds to reflect on historical trajectories on two matters: one, regarding the position and role of women in colonial India and the lack of any uniformity in it, and two, concerning the varied nuances of the practice of photography itself," says Suryanandini Narain, who has co-curated the exhibition with Tasveer creative director Nathaniel Gaskell.

The images on display are a study in the various traditions of photography that evolved in this time, from studio portraiture to documentary work. A young Maharani Gayatri Devi makes an appearance in a hazy, effervescent portrait that shows her wearing a sari and pearls, looking demurely away from the camera. Another staged portrait of Bollywood actress Saira Banu, decked up in wedding finery, has her smiling coyly into the camera, her head resting on her knees. The backgrounds in both images have been obliterated, thus highlighting their iconicity.

Such portraits are placed alongside images of nameless women, the purpose of which was more to delineate a certain kind of Indian woman than to tell a personal story. An 1890 image titled Nautch Wali Dance Girl shows a woman in a dance pose in the centre, flanked by a musician on either side. Another work from 1870, titled Reclining Lady, has a woman dressed in a sari and jewellery relaxing on a chaise lounge — the expression in her eyes, though, seems to be alert and wary.Image 2nd

There are also group portraits of Marwari, Parsi, Gujarati women — which are an exercise in studying markers of identity, so as to categorise them as a certain caste, class or tribe. From the staged to the ethnographic, these images offer an insight into the manner in which colonial modernity became embedded in the representation of women who, now, were finding themselves crossing the threshold of home and, unwittingly or not, participating in the vast exercise of mapping India.

The curators have divided the show into five segments, where 'space' is at the forefront. In this show, "women have been identified as occupants of spatial boundaries that potentially liberate or confine them, hemming in their identities or leaving them open to viewers' interpretations. Side by side, famous faces appear with unknown ones in an attempt to be recognized, acknowledged and understood," says Narain.

Yet, it is difficult to deduce a single narrative of femininity from these images, as there probably wasn't any one overarching premise. But the one common factor seems to be the patriarchal gaze that all these pictures depict. How much of a say the female sitters had in the way they were being represented is anyone's guess. Narain explains: "In the late 19th century, various social reforms being enacted in favour of women's emancipation, including the ban on sati, allowance of widow remarriage and a concerted effort toward the education of girls. The nationalist movement saw an incremental participation of women until the middle of the 20th century. Yet, social norms transformed patriarchal attitudes at a gradual pace, giving Indian modernity an intercepted character."

Subjects and Spaces, Women in Indian photography has been organised by Tasveer in collaboration with CINNAMON.

Venue: Moon River

Date: Until 5 February

Timing: 11 a.m - 7 p.m

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