This essay comes from the catalogue of Tasveer’s exhibition ‘Subjects & Spaces: Women in Indian Photography’, in partnership with Vacheron Constantin
This exhibition draws its artifacts from the Tasveer Foundation Collection of photographs located in Bangalore, India. It contains an array of images in the form of studio portraits, film stills, post cards, 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. Uniting these two angles is the over arching thematic of ‘space’, which deliberately embeds these feminine sitters in carefully selected enclosures and provides the critical context to their visualized positions.
British political and commercial interests in the spatial expanse of India’s colonized territory employed the camera as a cartographic device immediately after its arrival in 1840. Indeed, one of the first uses of the camera was to chart colonial terrain and subsequently, its people, whom the Raj had to comprehend and control with renewed efficiency after the Revolt of 1857. The portraits taken of women against the same outdoor landscapes tended to emphasise their membership in groups, as seen here in examples from Maharashtra, Kashmir and Bengal. They hence appeared as representatives of specific vernacular, occupational or ethnic communities through posture and dress rather than as individuals and families. Several images appear with titles for the communities portrayed while others remain self-explanatory.
Portraits taken within studios include both families and individuated figures of women. The camera’s scope shrank to the space of the studio by the late 1850s as it became technologically more refined in handling lighting and printing methods, and catered to an audience whose tastes shifted from painted portraits to photographic ones. Within its more controlled conditions, the studio’s elaborately painted backdrops gave sitters heterotopic contexts against which they assumed new locations and identities. These backdrops usually displayed receding gardens in Victorian illusionistic style, locating female subjects in unknown Western landscapes, and in remaining a consistent theme for the indoor studios, gave Indian women a temporary claim to foreign access and superior cultural status. These backdrops inverted the previous project of the colonial surveillance cameras that took panoramic views of Indian terrain, and added density to the Indian sitters’ Europeanized context by placing props such as furniture and drapery. Women who were often dressed in traditional garments and jewelry assumed anglicised, educated and culturally elite statuses amidst this paraphernalia. The contribution of painterly conventions in such constructs cannot be overlooked when the period was known for the heavy of influence Raja Ravi Varma on visual conventions. Varma’s widely oleographs with mythological allegories defined the way Indian women presented themselves visually, fusing Indian bodies and garments against western theatrical backdrops. His format of academic realism brought painting and photography closer together than ever before, producing specimens of their mutual interpenetration in both practices.
The studio’s mission to classicize and romanticize feminine identities was in stark contrast to the portraits taken for caste, occupational or tribal identification, say for the well-known ‘People of India’ series (1868-1875) that in eight volumes had more than 400 images. Two examples of this series are seen here. The white background dislocates the women who appear not as individuals with their own names and identities but as representative samples of their ‘native types’. Post cards of ‘nautch girls’ have similarly abstract backgrounds, as it was the figure of the performer that was the focus of largely voyeuristic interest. This attempt to scrutinize the subject positioned the camera in a dominant role, silencing women into subjugated positions of specimens to be studied.
The portraits of film stars such as Nimmi, Vyjayanthimala and Saira Banu among others seen here also use plain backgrounds, although the motive to obliterate spatial context was to enhance the iconicity of their persona. Women as performers occupied a nebulous social space of admiration mixed with moral judgment in the early years of Indian cinema having made the journey from dancing girls to movie stars over a few decades. However, their photographic portraits amidst elaborate film sets under the glow of arc lights became treasured fragments to be acquired, collected and admired. These images traveled to unknown spaces and carried with them specificities of deliberately portrayed cultural characters.
This exhibition invites viewers to decode as to who the architects of pictorial aesthetic choices exactly were, and how the tastes of sitter, photographer, and viewer were made to concur in the final product of the image. Born within the confines of sexual identity that was ascribed a gendered persona by a cultural milieu, women of pre independence India were not always the arbiters of their fate. Historically, the late nineteenth century arrival of the camera coincided with various social reforms being enacted in favour of women’s emancipation, including the ban on sati and child marriage, 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 twentieth century, and India was one of the first countries to give women equal rights of suffrage at independence. Yet, social norms transformed patriarchal attitudes at a gradual pace, often not in tandem with the changes taking place at the political level, giving Indian modernity an intercepted character.
In this atmosphere, the space of the studio either enabled momentary liberation or a further clamping down of the identities of feminine sitters. As was socially the case, the women were not the sole determinants of their pictorial representations, being subject to prevalent social expectations and ascribed roles. For instance, the boudoir photograph of a lady in this exhibition could have been from a moment in which she celebrated her physical beauty in ways that domestic or public spaces did not allow her to, making the studio an unusually liberating space. Cinema actresses cast themselves into aspirational characters when they posed for the lens, freeing them within those roles. On the other hand, women in large familial groups that appear stiff and unsmiling, complied to being seated or standing according to internal familial hierarchies, adorning their bodies with markers of tradition, positioning their hands on their laps in clear sight, constricting their physical and cultural freedoms. Accouterments within the frame were hence often the constrictors or liberators of the woman whom they surrounded, often the same objects taking differential meaning for different sitters.
As an exhibition, Subject & Spaces does not claim to be an exhaustive representation of women from the colonial period, but puts forth a limited selection from within a larger collection of Indian photographs from the Tasveer Foundation. In the five sections of the 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. The haunting anonymity of most of the images invite audiences to engage with the gaze of sitters, elicit identification on the bases of the clues from the spaces that the sitters occupy, the garments that they wear and the postures that they align themselves in.