Karimeh Abbud, Untitled, 1930s, Gelatin silver print, 89 x 139 mm. Courtesy: Issam Nassar


Malavika Karlekar

Any overview of photographic practices is fascinating – and more so if it is juxtaposed with examples of contemporary understandings of the image. The three essays in the second issue of the newsletter do just that, judiciously blending history with post-modern praxis. Each contribution stands alone, and yet, to the engaged viewer-reader, they can be read as parts of an impressionistic whole.

In her essay titled The New Woman Behind the Camera, Andrea Nelson presents select images from an exhibition she recently curated in New York. Focussing on 120 women “who made significant advances in modern photography from the 1920s to the 1950s”, Nelson draws our attention to the fact that through their practice, women were in fact tracing the history of world – two world wars, the Great Depression and then, the emergence of the New Woman – independent, strong-minded and career-oriented. The curator takes care not to present a viewpoint solely from the West as there are, among others, erstwhile doyenne of Indian photography, Homai Vyarawalla and Karimeh Abbud from the Arab world. 

The choice of Vyarawalla’s image draws the viewer’s attention to the photographer’s eye – a cart puller with his heavy burden against the backdrop of that imposing hybrid edifice, Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) in Bombay (Mumbai). The grand building – a reminder of colonialism’s public face – is in stark contrast to the labouring man. By not choosing to focus on the building alone but on life around it, Vyarawalla reminds us of the chequered history of the post-colonial world. As Nelson points out that by “using techniques such as photomontage, multiple exposure, and the cameraless photogram, women studied the effects of modern technology on human perception”. Witness Anna Barna’s Onlooker where clever shadow play leaves the viewer wondering.

In her interview with Jennifer Chowdhry Biswas, Bangladeshi photographer Tahia Farhin Haque zooms us to the present, to life with Covid-19. She chooses to be veiled as it provided her a sense of comfort, away from unkind eyes. In her recent project, Duality in Reality, she visualised the horrors of domestic violence, magnified during the pandemic, through food and objects of daily use. Thus, a chicken’s claw is suspended against a bright red background, dentures grin, nestled against the soft folds of yellow material . . . What are these quotidian objects saying, one wonders? Are the dentures those of the abuser, the background a symbol of the abused? A recurrent emotion is that associated with the loss of her older sister: in the project, I Could Not Save You, Haque focussed on self-portraits as she found this “more a coping mechanism”, its initial form “was much like a diary that I had been writing before I took these photos. These photographs gave me an outlet to release my guilt and helped me in addressing the depression that came with her [the older sister] passing”.

If the young Bangladeshi’s presentation strikes an overly personal note, one that the viewer-reader has to, at times, work hard to grasp, Gemma Scott’s essay on the representation of women through photographs during the Emergency imposed by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi brings one firmly down to earth: between 1975-77, governmental excesses were sought to be mitigated by an effective propaganda machine, and photographs were an indispensable part of the process. Mrs. Gandhi addressing public meetings as veiled women listened, supposedly transfixed, a breast-feeding tribal woman casting her vote, crowds walking to meetings . . . As Scott writes, “whilst women hardly featured in the Congress’s textual commentary on the imposition of Emergency, they occupied a significant presence in its visual depictions of mass support for its measures”.

All three contributions emphasise the power of visual depictions, of how women perceive their world. If the straight-forward narrations of Nelson and Scott are useful counter-points to Haque’s highly individualistic visualising of her world, together they provide vital insights into the obliging nature of the photograph. Of its malleability – the ability to tell ‘the truth’ as well to allow for fantasy, illusion and excavations of individual psyches. 



Andrea Nelson

Dr. Gemma Scott

Jennifer Chowdhry Biswas


Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies and Curator of Re-presenting Indian Women: A Visual Documentary, 1875-1947 and the annual calendar based on archival photographs of women, all at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. Since 2001 she has been researching and writing on archival photographs. Her recent publication Of Colonial Bungalows and Piano Lessons: An Indian Woman’s Memoirs (2019), a volume edited with an Introduction by Karlekar narrates childhood memoirs of her mother, Monica Chanda.

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