Uniting my twin loves of women’s rights and India, I knew I had to see this exhibition. And I wasn’t disappointed – it powerfully showcases a fantastically colourful patchwork of women’s changing opportunities across the contemporary sub-continent
Women’s rights, and the history thereof, is one of my most passionate interests. I have rarely been as interested or as animated about studying anything than I was during my first term of my third year at Cambridge, reading about women’s fight for the vote, Mary Wollstonecraft’s early battle hymn for education and equality, the purple and green symbolism of the cat-and-mouse beleaguered Suffragettes and their less ‘militant’ Suffragist counterparts, women’s domination by men and society as a whole, women’s attempts to live alongside men, as men themselves struggled to maintain an understanding of what manliness means in a rapidly-changing world, where women’s ‘place’ is no longer taken for granted. It’s a cliché that after studying feminism at Uni, women become militantly feminist, placard-toting activists who hate men, and refuse to shave their armpits as an act of rebellion, but frankly, who gives a shit – none of those descriptions fit me, and I’m just grateful that I had the chance to understand, even briefly, the complex attitudes that continue to define the relations between the sexes.
To this end, I still consume books, magazine articles, online debates and community-hall-based discussions on so-called ‘feminist’ issues as much as my schedule and wallet can handle. When one intern at work took up the role as a stopgap between finishing her ‘Gender Studies’ MA and starting work, I was immediately on the Internet to Google, casting myself in dreams in which I have endless pots of money to fund a life in which I flit happily about university libraries endlessly reading and writing about the activities of militant, strong women, who are now and then redefining what it means to impress and succeed because of who you are; what it means to be completely at ease with, but not solely defined by, your gender or your ‘place’ – or about women for whom life has dealt a poor hand, and their struggle to overcome this injustice.
The strands of struggle and wildly varying definitions of equality and feminism continue, of course, to weave themselves inexorably through men and women’s lives today, but in Britain, it is often suggested that the war for equality has been ‘won’. While this, in so many ways, is patently nonsense, women on the whole in this country arguably have it much better than at most times in history, and have it much better, one could also posit, than the many millions of women in third world countries, who are shackled not just by their gender, but by poverty, poor education, retrogressive laws, poor sanitation facilities and much, much more. It is easy to think that, for all the small struggles that women continue to face on a daily basis in this, most liberal and, still, even post-recession, rich of countries, women in far-flung, poverty-stricken nations have but a snowball’s chance in hell of ever achieving an equal, dignified society for their populations, the women included.
Which is why the Saatchi Gallery’s photographic exhibition, ‘Women Changing India’ was so deeply inspiring – it proved that this does not have to be the case.
India – why I love it
India is one of my small obsessions as well – as far as I can remember, I have always been mesmerised by the glorious colours, the expansive architecture, the packed bazaars, the crowds of people, the melting pot of a hundred thousand different cultures and religions, all jostling for space in a sea of saris and gleefully decorated bangles. As my article here laments, I have never been, but I am currently saving money with a dedication I have never before felt in a bid to get to the sub-continent, to see once and for all what it’s really like, and decide for myself if I truly love it (or, as some ominously warn me I might, loathe it) once I’m actually there.
When I saw that London was playing host to a travelling exhibition of photographs about Indian women and their role in their booming society, that this was the last weekend it was on, and what’s more, that it was free, I knew I had to go. Photographs about pioneering women, and Indian women, come to that? Sounds made for me.
Women’s place in Indian culture
I was expecting to be transfixed by the beautiful colours of the clothes and landscapes, as I usually am whenever confronted with India. But, bar the snippet of information given to advertise the event on various websites, I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to the content of the photographs themselves. Because sadly, when it comes to Indian women, for all their unabashedly kitsch, wonderfully decorated and riotously coloured attire, they often seem woefully hidden – especially the poorer ones. It seems that middle class Indian women may resemble more and more their Western counterparts in dress, thought, manner and desires, pushing the boundaries in everything from education (becoming doctors and lawyers) to redefining their love lives (with many espousing the Western concept of a ‘love match’ rather than an arranged marriage). But for poorer Indian women, it seems life can so easily become nothing but a drudge of cooking, child-rearing (preferably boys), illiteracy and servitude.
My knowledge of women in India comes mostly from my study of the sub-continent ‒ again in that halcyon third year ‒ where the place for many seemed entirely built on the problems inherent in the caste system, along with female infanticide, illiteracy, lack of political power, poverty, ignorance, early marriage, rape, and sati (the now outlawed but still-to-be-found practice of burning widows on the pyre with their dead husbands). India always looks to be full of women, but lamentably bereft of them when it comes to actual financial power, dignity, education or influence.
I was itching to find out more, and desperate to see this exhibition, which seemed to be focusing on the more human, hidden, female angle on India’s incredible economic boom.
Sloanes, Saatchi and saris
So off I went – and it’s just as well as I was so interested. If it had been anything else, I would have given up and gone home, so unexpectedly difficult was it for me to find the gallery, deeply nestled as it is in the heart of well-heeled (and therefore entirely self-satisfied and markedly smug, it has, unfortunately, to be said) London district of Sloane Square. But the gallery, once found, is an oasis of peace and creativity. Before this trip, I hadn’t had the chance to go, the gallery not marking one of the most famous posts of the London exhibition circuit, overshadowed by its grander, more central cousins, the National, the Portrait, the British, and not much advertised on my usual journeys on public transport around the capital. Nonetheless, two trains, some walking, much Google-mapping, road-crossing and brow-furrowing later, I found it, white and beautiful in the middle of some not-especially hidden (why was it so difficult to find?!) greenery and expensive-looking cafés. Its tall columns looked impassively out over a manicured, impressive lawn, and I took a few photos to take it all in before wandering relaxedly inside to immerse myself in sari fabric and, I was promised, inspirational women. I wasn’t disappointed.
The exhibition was pleasingly large, but just small enough to take in everything – exactly the right size for a properly intense browse. The variety of images was impressive, and while I couldn’t quite work out exactly which route visitors were intended to take around the place, each picture presented a fantastic snapshot into the varied, and often heavily-embroidered (literally), lives of women at the vanguard of the sub-continent’s changing social and economic landscape. The photos were grouped by categories such as ‘Banking on Ourselves’, ‘Generation Now’ and ‘Women at the Grassroots’, and presented a patchwork mix of the ever-increasing choices that women, both rural and urban, rich and poor, have in today’s India.
Cultural context: women’s changing roles
History was not much talked about as the images and quotations of famous Indian businesswomen, artists, filmmakers, politicians and entrepreneurs took the stage, impressing on visitors that they were the future in a vast and complex world. I felt that the exhibition suffered somewhat from this total lack of explicit background context – someone who had not studied India might wonder what was so revolutionary about Indian women driving taxis, or embroidering ‒ but the happiness, peace, enthusiasm and dedication writ across the faces of all those captured on film was evident to see – these were women pursuing their dreams, and coming out better for it on the other side. The variety of the roles that women now find accessible to them was clearly displayed throughout the exhibition, and was almost overwhelming in its scope.
There were students of engineering, biology and technology; young, all-female taxi drivers negotiating the crazy Mumbai streets, trained in self-defence; traditional embroiderers wearing bangles up to their elbows, starting their own businesses to keep their ancient trades alive; policewomen taking their place alongside super-tough men to guard the entrances of India’s mushrooming shopping malls; and the powerful politicians running the old system of ‘panchayats’ – essentially local village councils run by members of the community. This was an example of women defiantly taking up powerful roles despite deep-rooted opposition and patriarchy-based prejudice.
In 1992, the Indian Parliament passed a quota that compelled the newly-powerful panchayats to have at least 40% of their ranks filled with women, but, as is so often the case, changing a law does not mean changing a mindset. Indian women who populate the panchayats still face opposition, and must, as well as becoming involved in political life, usually also keep the household running, making food, washing clothes and fetching water.
It’s an age old problem that seems strikingly similar to the issues still faced by women today in this country: how to get involved with life outside the home, while also maintaining order within it; a daunting task which society still sees as your own. These unexpected flashes of recognition I felt while looking at a culture that looked so different to my own, were at once startling and heart-warming. The question of how to combine the often conflicting options of independence with the spectre of commitment to relationships and future family life seems pertinent to me, even during these years of apparent lack of responsibility, and youthful freedom.
The women photographed for the exhibition seem inspirationally capable, juggling their still- new roles with determination and strength, while the personal images interspersed with more public ones hinted at the vulnerability and braveness that sits just beyond the surface. The display was at once breath-taking and extraordinarily compelling.
Making a real difference
Deserving of special mention was the place given in the exhibition to Ela Bhatt, a diminutive, grey-haired but determined-looking old woman who in the seventies began the revolutionary financial collective the ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’ (SEWA) to help often landless, slum-dwelling and/or illiterate women to gain loans that they would otherwise never have had access to.
In setting up the SEWA, Bhatt gave hitherto powerless women the chance to sell their products, make a profit, and not only prove that they could pay their loans back, but improve the lives of themselves and those around them, and show that women can make a difference if given a real chance. Just as happily, the women involved in education and in the historic Mumbai film industry, are shining examples of the ways in which India demonstrates to the world that women can and will lead in what might have seemed closed shops to them just a few years earlier. Many of the photographs chronicled the widespread education available in India, especially to the growing middle classes, and showed how this access to learning can empower a woman to make her own money, and choose her actions herself rather than at the behest of an overbearing family or husband. The images of women sitting in polished lecture halls, enraptured, having fun, smiling and socialising with others, were particularly powerful.
The case of a New-York educated lawyer returned to her home country and now winning cases in the Indian Supreme Court was also especially edifying. Having graduated from extremely well-regarded Columbia University, she practised law at a high level in America before deciding to come back to India, and is now a top lawyer there. The contrasts in her life were palpable and glorious. From a photo of her looking all the world like a traditional Indian daughter, clad in colourful sari veil holding rose petals as part of a traditional festival, to another of her dressing in sober, western clothes to take up another hard-hitting case at work, her role at the edge of the new India looked evident.
Bollywood meets feminism
Notwithstanding, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the section of the exhibition about the Mumbai film industry. While I could see the advantage of having women as directors of films that don’t always cast women as mute objects of the male gaze, the fact that one of the women the photographs concentrated on came from an established film family, in that she is married to one of the most famous male film stars in Bollywood, made for a less convincing tale of women working their way up from the grassroots.
Her achievements in themselves, however, are still very impressive, and her clear contribution to the industry undeniable. But while photos of women working behind the scenes, as gaffers, technicians, choreographers or writers gave a snapshot into how the industry is changing, with film stars and the films they appear in still generally adhering to the traditional roles of ‘look beautiful, thin, long-haired and gorgeous, be desired, meet boy, fall in love with boy, defy family, come back, be forgiven, marry boy’, it’s hard to be convinced, by these set of photographs anyway, and from the scant knowledge I have of major Bollywood films, that the wholesale sexism that once ran rampant through the industry has been entirely eradicated. Maybe I just don’t know enough about it – I’m willing to be proven wrong. Director Farah Khan was quoted by the exhibition as saying ‘I believe we have true democracy in the film industry’ – and she would know. I just couldn’t really see it myself – although I could be expecting too much – a female gaffer and director is still an undeniable step forward, so perhaps it’s just the first on a much longer road to real equality.
Finally came a short film, complete with fantastically foot-tapping traditional Indian music, chronicling one of the photographer’s journeys throughout parts of India to capture her images. Much of it was unnecessary commentary, largely overshadowed by the power of the final photographs, and full of clichés about women’s empowerment, but, sadly, it’s quite difficult to write about women’s rights without sounding at least a little trite, and clichés are often there because they happen to point to a wider truth in any case. The film, and the input from some of the photographers themselves was a clever way to end the show – not only did it seem to place the pictures in contemporary context, it also brought them closer, making them seem part of a wider journey, and not just still moments in time from another world. The music helped, couching the women within their native environment and showing them as just some of the many millions doing the same as them within India. The women seemed inspirational and typical; both revolutionary and routine.
Poverty is universal
The last panel, about iconic women, and how women are rife throughout Hindu theology, with the goddesses Sita, Shakti, Kali, Lakshmi, Radha potent examples of a women’s ability to rule and define, both inspired and troubled me. Yes, it laid out why women’s role in society is paramount, why women have the power to lead, to create, to manage, and run a family all at the same time, but it also seemed to suggest that women started out as superior to the man, and that improving women’s conditions in India meant remembering that, and reverting to it. It complained about how women were seen as merely the ‘rib’ of the man, and then proceeded to explain why men are nothing but the ‘sterile’ ‘ribs’ of women.
This kind of man-bashing, and total lack of irony when it comes to some feminist principles, annoys me and baffles me in equal measure. Female equality isn’t about dominating men, it’s about creating a society where men and women are equally valued, for whatever they choose to do, however they choose to do it. It’s about giving both sexes the tools to become economically independent, and giving both sexes the space and opportunities to maximise their abilities. Giving women equality and choices doesn’t have to mean taking them away from men – it means setting out a pattern in which there is room for everyone, removing the barriers to all. It’s why, to take it back to a more familiar example, the suffragettes’ should be remembered not just for their fight for the suffrage not just of women, but for everyone – for ‘universal suffrage’.
Poverty, ignorance and illiteracy in India is universal – but these photos, by and large, showed ways in which women are finally managing to work their way out of it, without their gender being an issue. That was what was so inspiring, women working for women, depending on themselves, becoming beacons of power and changing attitudes across the sub-continent. The power of India, its economic boom and cultural richness is unmistakeable, and women, this exhibition proudly showed, are getting up and taking the portion that they are due. I felt inspired, if not a little overwhelmed. There’s still so much left to do in this country, especially among the poor, the uneducated, the rural.
But if these women can find small, but snowballing, ways to achieve what they want, then bloody hell, so should I. And first of all, I’m going to get to India, and see it, in all its unabashed, colourful, game-changing glory. The exhibition wasn’t perfect, but it was thought-provoking, wide-ranging and laid out in such a way that made complex obstacles of issues look surmountable – and made me want to see the country all the more.
Beyond that, my only complaint was that there were no postcards or posters of any of it in the Saatchi shop, beyond a hugely heavy hardback ‘catalogue’ priced at an eyebrow-raising £27 ‒ hence my furtive and rather poor-quality snapshots of the images behind glass as I went round for a second time capturing my favourite elements. Nobody was stopping me from taking photos, but I felt that a stridently-coloured poster would have been the perfect end to an intensely interesting show. If you want to see it though, you’d better be quick – it leaves for Europe on 29th September, moving just as quickly and intensely as the country of India itself.
The ‘Women Changing India’ exhibition is supported by BNP Paribas, in association with the Read India programme, helping improve the literacy and arithmetic skills of children aged 6-14, in underprivileged communities around the world, including in India.
The exhibition was first shown around India, including in Mumbai and Chennai, and in 2011 will travel to London, Brussels, Paris and Milan.