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 second of which, “The Outdoors: Simulated and Real” can be seen below.
The Outdoors: Simulated and Real
Indian women at the turn of the twentieth century had a contentious presence in the public domain, with the restrictions of purdah concealing them from sight even when they did venture out. The selection of images here indicates that with the onset of modernity, women’s participation in the public realm increased, and they appeared with greater ease in front of the camera in personal and professional capacities. Studios often bridged the gap between interior and exterior spaces, simulating otherwise physically unreachable terrain within their walls.
In the selection of images here, it may be observed that all photographs (except two) taken in the outdoors are of women in groups, as some face the camera while others look away. It is as if greater numbers increased chances of visibility and justified photographic capture in the outdoors. Later photographs from the middle of the twentieth century of public figures such as Sarojini Naidu and the actress Nimmi show them amidst gardens, although the latter is located in a reconstructed film set. Politics and films hence warranted the freedom of some women to appear in the public space and hence, public gaze.
The studio portraits here show conservatively dressed women against painted backdrops of Grecian pillars in European gardens, transporting the sitters to culturally aspired dreamscapes. This practice of juxtaposing sitters with backgrounds that did not belong to their actual world was possible within the studio that behaved as a space for fantasy, as a heterotopia of imagined geographies and as a facilitator of cultural desires. The relatively fewer images in this section are indicative of the general minority of women in the outdoors in the colonial period, and the comparative predominance of their presence and photographs in indoor spaces.
– Suryanandini Narain
Subjects and Spaces, Women in Indian photography 1850s to 1950s has been organised by Tasveer in collaboration with CINNAMON and forms part of Tasveer’s 8th season of exhibitions, in partnership with Vacheron Constantin.