The photographs below form part of an exhibition at Tasveer 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 fourth of which, “Performative Spaces: Theatre and Cinema” can be be seen below.
Performative Spaces: Theatre and Cinema
One’s appearance before the camera suggests an act of performance per se, yet some demand a more deliberate execution, a more layered intention, than others. Spaces within the realm of cinema and theatre require that the actors perform for an audience in character specific formats, and the presence of a photographer causes a dual viewership of the same act. The photograph of a performance allows for the tangible circulation of a moment in the narrative, and women have historically been admired as the centerpieces of such moments.
In this selection of post cards, lobby cards, portraits and photographs of film sets, we see women in a range of performative roles. The earliest images are of post cards of ‘nautch girls’, meant for circulation in bazaars, to be taken abroad by visitors as objects of curiosity or souvenirs for voyeuristic pleasure. The girls stand posing for an audience they cannot see within the space of the studio, yet they exude the confidence of facing the camera for the purpose of being seen by unknown audiences across infinite spaces. In this regard, they may be separated in time but not in self-consciousness from the actresses of Hindi cinema, who appear embedded in elaborate sets or by themselves in glowing portraits. The space of the set from films such as Dahej (1950) or Humari Betiyan (1936) stretches the capacity of the photographic studio to include context within the reference of a time frame, giving actresses room to play out the characters of a story, generating multiple angles to the narrative. Actresses are seen to interact with filmic spaces that accentuate the meaning, beauty and impact of their character while photographic stills document the same. Individual portraits on the other hand, whittle away these elements and tighten the frame around a body or a face, opening up its details for scrutiny, admiration and memorialization. As such, the cameras of movies and photographic studios created their own spaces, which in being generous or concentrated in their scope, were nevertheless enclosures of fantasy.
– Suryanandini Narain