WOMEN | PHOTOGRAPHY
Between the 1850s to the end of the century, aesthetics of the Indian photographic studio reflected an adaptation of European traditions to local conditions. In the colonial world where notions of exclusion and inclusion, boundaries and markers were of prime significance, the photographic studio occupied a quite unique position. The camera became instrumental in the emergence of culturally-shared spaces. Early years of commercial photography saw collaboration between specialists with European studios hiring Indian assistants and vice versa, as well as the emergence of mixed ownership of studios and western patronage of many Indian-owned establishments. However, it was a male-dominated space and nearly all professional photographers and staff were men. An exception was Raja Deen Dayal, truly an early Indian photographic entrepreneur, whose establishments employed over fifty persons, including British assistants and operators. He had the foresight to set up a zenana section in his studio at Secunderabad (the Nizam’s capital) that was exclusively for women, often in parda (seclusion). It was headed by Mrs. Kenny-Levick, a photographer, whose husband was a correspondent for The Times. Patronage was brisk, a forerunner of things to come.
With the arrival of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, domestic photography was round the corner. It soon became an increasingly democratic activity, though initially not necessarily a gender-neutral one. Things changed rapidly from the middle of the twentieth century onwards and, as women marked the photographic space, if the concept had then existed, it would have been passé to speak of the male gaze alone. Now, of course, women are in dangerous conflict zones and areas of political unrest, at sites of natural and humanly-engineered disasters, in perilous spots of natural beauty, shooting with the same confidence and panache whether it is an advanced DSLR or merely posing for a selfie stick.
This first issue of the newsletter showcases Indian women as photographers, commentators on photography and creators of photographic installations as well as subjects of the photographic eye. As traditionally sari-clad photographer Mala Mukerjee pointed out that when she goes around Kolkata with a heavy camera bag slung over her shoulder, she hardly attracts any attention. She, however, does not see herself as a feminist photographer. People too often think of her as a wide-eyed housewife with an expensive hobby! The only issue regarding Mukerjee’s gender was at a particular temple that, like all such spaces, required permission to photograph – but here, the monks did not talk to women! When author Jael Silliman and she decided on combining visual and text in documenting religious spaces in Kolkata, they filled a significant lacuna in the architectural discourse on this city of many temples, mosques, churches and other houses of worship built in a range of different styles and traditions. If, in doing so, they reiterated women’s by now accepted role as documenters in public spaces, in the 1940s to the 1960s, Haleema Hashim delicately traced the privateness of women’s life through her Yashica twin lens reflex camera. Her studio was the two-storied home in the South Indian port city of Cochin and subjects primarily the generations of women who lived there.
Mallika Leuzinger concentrates on what she calls Haleema’s “reading portraits”. The photographer’s love of reading (inherited from her mother) was passed on to women relatives who anxiously awaited the arrival by post of various popular, low-cost Urdu women’s magazines. Perhaps a most evocative portrait is that of Zainab Usman – it is staged, posed and directed, its symbolism not hidden or particularly subtle: a chair carefully angled to catch the sunlight that streams in through a window with bars, a magazine page in the process of being turned, a young woman who reads, thinks and smiles – even as the barred window might hint at something else. But then there is the light that weaves in through inflexible iron rods . . . Leuzinger tells us that the culture of reading was not merely a part of Haleema’s photographs but also became objects of exchange between pen pals and her. One is reminded of the late nineteenth century role of the universally popular cartes de visite images that women from middle and upper-middle-class urban families exchanged or sent as aide memoires to friends and relatives.
If Haleema, an avid correspondent, brought the world into her home through her camera, Anita Khemka, and her partner Imran, sought to take the home into the world through their project on family portraits. In times of COVID-19, they had no option but to shoot outdoors and their sitters obliged by bringing precious objects from private spaces into the public domain. While family photographs and children’s toys were obvious props, a daughter placed her absent father’s wheelchair in the frame and a lesbian couple spoke of being a family with just each other and their dog: one of them elaborated “the family portrait somehow just sort of added a layer of cement to the feeling that this IS my family.” These are stand alone black and white portraits – and yet they form a tableau, a slide show with changing mises en scène. We do not know whether the sitters of each frame knew those in other portraits, and yet Anita and Imran have knitted them together through a shared solitude, a useful oxymoron that conveys much of how people lived through 2020.
The contemporary engagement of women with the camera spans and straddles genres, techniques and methods. While the work of contributors to this first issue of the newsletter conforms to a fairly traditional photographic lexicon, there are subtle indicators of the gender of the eye behind the lens – in the choice of angles of temples, of choosing women rather male readers of magazines and, though Anita and Imran collaborated, would Imran alone have showcased men more than women? Or positioned sitters differently? How differently do women and men see the world. Or do they not? We hope that contributors to later issues will continue to interrogate and reflect on these and other aspects of photographic practice.
THE CONVIVIALITY OF HALEEMA HASHIM’S PHOTOGRAPHY
Prof. 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 and having an introduction by her narrates childhood memoirs of her mother, Monica Chanda.