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October 28, 1999


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Stark Images Of Indian Womanhood

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

A two-and-a-half-year-old girl balances on a pole, performing for Arab tourists in Bombay; rural Rajasthani women with their elaborate garments work on the Indira Gandhi Canal, against the backdrop of the Thar desert; young educated women, recruits of the Indian Air Force, drink beer and play billiards in Hyderabad....

These are some of over hundred images of women in India presented in a stunning photography show that explores the question: What has Independence meant for women?

'In Black and White' is an ambitious project that covers the works of over 40 Indian and foreign photographers. The exhibition carries works of renowned photographers, including Sebastiao Salgado, Max Vadukul, Michael Ackerman, Pamela Singh, Jay Ullal, Zana Briski and Sheba Chhachhi.

Point of View, a Bombay-based non-governmental organization organised 'In Black and White' to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. Major funding for the show came from the Ford Foundation.

In the last two years the exhibition had traveled through 18 cities in India. Now for the first time, Point of View has taken the show outside India to three cities in the US, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

The US leg of the tour is co-sponsored by Sakhi for South Asian Women, a New York based organization dealing with issues of domestic violence.

"The whole idea was to promote the point of view of women by using media in a creative way," said Bhishaka Datta, one of the coordinators of the project, in a interview at the Admit One Gallery in New York's Chelsea section. The show continues at the Admit One Gallery until November 6.

"It was important for us to do a high profile exhibition, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of India's independence," Datta said. "We also wanted the project to be visual, so that you can get people who can't read to see the show."

On Sakhi's involvement with the exhibition, Radha Rangarajan, a member of the organizations board of directors said the organisation had been founded 10 years ago to address the needs of South Asian women affected by domestic violence. It was organising several special events, including this exhibition, to commemorate its ten years of existence.

"Through powerful, beautiful and stark images," she added, "this exhibition provides us a unique opportunity to connect the struggles and strengths of women's lives in both India and the US and to raise awareness about violence against women in South Asian societies."

Datta said that from the onset the plan was to acquire photographs shot by female and male photographers, as well as by Indian and non-Indian photographers.

"The truth is that in India there are very few documentary photographers and even fewer women photographers," she said. "We found that some of the best work stylistically interesting work -- on India is outside the country. Otherwise we would have a much, much smaller and weaker show."

'In Black and White' carries what Datta described "classic women's issues themes" such as violence, politics, work, and the female body. Other themes emerged as the 'Point of View' began to receive images from different photographers.

One such theme, on the concept of birth, includes some of the more disturbing photographs in the show. In a colored picture taken in Tamil Nadu by the German photographer Jay Ullal, a women lies in a hospital, covered with a sheet. Next to her, in a steel container, lies an aborted female fetus.

In another haunting image, also from Tamil Nadu a black and white photograph by the New York-based photographer Zana Briski has an abandoned newborn girl lying alone in a hospital bed, set in a stark poorly lit room, with a midwife besides her.

While the images in the birth series were the most popular, Datta said, Indian audiences liked the works of Michael Ackerman -- a series on traditional rural women in Benares, and photographs by Pamela Singh -- modern Indian women dancing at a Bombay party and playing billiards in Hyderabad. A quote from the Bengali actress and director Aparna Sen, put it pithily: "India exists in several time frames at the same time."

While highly praised by the press in India, 'In Black and White' had it share of controversy. The series of photographs on the theme of body, including Sheba Chhachhi's image of a pregnant woman's belly occupying the entire frame upset India's top photographer Raghu Rai. He later went on a prime time television and said that he was amazed at how a show where the images were collected by women could include works that made women look like animals.

Rai's comments trigged a "huge debate in India," Datta said. In her defense, Chhachhi was reported in the press as saying that she did not believe in the concept of a perfect body.

Another theme, the third sex, included several photographs of eunuchs in India.

"The eunuch pictures were a big dilemma," Datta said. "Eunuchs are not traditionally considered women in India. We just thought it would be interesting to push forward the idea of gender identity, because in India you never get a space to develop or explore these kinds of questions. Who is a woman? Is it biology? Is it socially constructed?"

One picture in the series by Abhjit Varde has a young eunuch in Bombay dressed in a sari, grinning and displaying his genitals right under a street sign that reads Falkland Road.

Datta said that the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay initially wanted to remove Varde's photograph from the exhibition. Point of View was able to include the photograph at the Bombay exhibition but the principal of the Madras Christian College in Madras insisted that the exhibition would be allowed on his campus only if Varde's photograph was excluded. This time, Point of View gave in.

'In Black and White' is a bold and an ambitious attempt at capturing the various facets of women's lives in independent India. As the introductory passage in the catalogue that accompanies the show states, the realities of the 50 years of Indian independence have neither been black nor white, but somewhere in between. The show gives us an honest chance to reflect on that.

'In Black and White' is on in New York City until November 6 at the Admit One Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, 4th Floor (between 10th and 11th Avenues, near Chelsea Piers), New York, NY. Phone: (212) 463-0164.

From November 11 to 24, it will be held in Chicago at Indo-American Center, 6328 North California, Chicago, IL 60659. Contact: Priya Patel (773) 728-2235. Co-sponsors of the show are Apna Ghar and Asian Human Services.

From December 2 to 16, it will be in San Francisco at Kalart Gallery, 855 Sansome St, Suite 301, San Francisco, CA 94111.

For information, contact Arvind Iyer / Sumitra Ravi (415) 693-9727. Narika co-sponsors the show.

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