The photographs below form part of an exhibition at Tasveer in partnership with Vacheron Constantin, which looked at the representation of women in Indian photography from the 1850s – 1950s. An essay on the exhibition can be seen here.
The exhibition was divided into 5 categories, the first of which, “The Indoors: Spaces Within” can be seen below.
The Indoors: Spaces Within
‘Interiority’ is a central attribute of the deeply connected realms of household and femininity, translated by photographic studios through varied visual metaphors. In the early nationalist phase of the second half of the nineteenth century, the purity of the domestic space was to be ensured by its chaste women who were repositories of traditional values. New patriarchal norms in fact sought to preserve the interior spaces of homes and the women within, from where a cultural renaissance for the new nation was to take place. It was upon the studio-going bourgeoisie to translate such aspirations into visual vocabulary through photographic portraits. Studios were thus sought out as transformative spaces, and made to resemble luxurious interiors through painted backdrops of Victorian mansions with sweeping staircases, heavy velvet curtains and hazy flora at a distance alluding to anglicised bourgeois tastes. Special props such as ornate chairs, carved tables, vases with flowers and intricately patterned carpets added three dimensionality to the sitters, who temporarily laid claim to these objects as markers of superior social status. Books and flowers occupied their hands and gave an aura of education to women who represented the amalgamation of modernity, progress and traditional knowledge. Examples here are seen from some famous studios in Bombay (now Mumbai), including Bourne and Shepherd, S Hormusji and JS Tarapore of the Kalbadevi Road, as well as some studios from Bangalore, Delhi and London.
Among the images in this section, some stills from films and/or theatre call for attention, as they mimic domestic interiority in the narratives they present. Two such images show women in sensual states of half undress, while another shows a woman in her toilette, alluding to extremely private realms. Two other images of closed carriages or palkis interestingly locate interiority within public spaces for women in purdah. Among all the images, only two seem to actually be taken within the home – one, of a widow outside her door beyond which she may have had restricted movement, and the other of a wealthy lady who would have had the means to invite the photographer to have a portrait taken at home.
– Suryanandini Narain