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 third of which, “Collective Spaces: Family, Community, Colony” can be be seen below.
Collective Spaces: Family, Community, Colony
Within the demarcated spaces of gender, women in colonial India were further categorised by community membership. Essentially, there was a difference between ethnographic colonial interest in local groups and a family’s desire for pictorial self-representation. For the former, larger or smaller groups based on religion, region, caste or occupation spatially filled the frames of photographs in an act of exemplification. Families on the other hand arranged themselves according to an internal logic or hierarchy of the importance of its members. Women became the visual symbols of groups by bearing their marks upon their bodies in terms of clothing and jewelry while complying with strictures of physical comportment. As such, they were the custodians of collective spaces and community membership by being complicit with their rules of maintenance.
In the selection of images here, various criteria unite the sitters within a single frame as members of the same family, faith, occupation, vernacular or a developing sense of nationality. The earliest ethnographic portraits are of women from the ‘People of India’ series along with post cards depicting fisher women. They are the anonymous examples of their ethnic and occupational groups or castes, abstracted from their true surroundings. Such images were part of the concerted surveillance efforts by the British after the Revolt of 1857, as they sought to comprehend the subject masses better by categorising them. A rupture in the colonial enterprise is seen in the image of a cyclist, which is imbued with humor and play rather than serious social investigation. Women from the region of Maharashtra and of Parsi faith appear repeatedly in this section, probably driven by their own desire for self-representation and group consciousness rather than colonial imposition. Two group portraits are not in studios but in courtyards of large homes where rituals are being performed, giving an insight into collective activities involving women. Two others are of large families, Parsi and Marathi respectively indicating the demand on the camera to travel to outdoor locations, spatially presenting a contrast to how studio portraits of smaller groups and individuals were framed.
– Suryanandini Narain