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Faces of Femininity | The Indian Express

Summary. Related. An undated, early 19thcentury black-and-white portrait captures a woman in a sari lounging on a chair. Though there is nothing unusual, a closer look reveals a striking contrast of Victorian furniture and painted ornate pillars in the studio backdrop. Another image taken in the early half of the 20th century shows a village woman carrying a vessel on her head and in the background is a palatial staircase. These images are part of an exhibition at Moon River organised by Tasveer Arts titled “Subjects and Spaces, Women in Indian Photography”. There are over 60 images from the personal archives of the Tasveer Foundation that comprises a collection of postcards, lobby cards, studio portraits, films stills, cabinet cards and outdoor shoots. The exhibition has been divided into four parts: domestic, outdoor, group or family portraits and performative space. Rather than a chronological representation of women, the display reflects the socio-economic progress of women through the centuries. The images are a rich catalogue of photographic work emerging from the 19th and 20th century in India. It is through these photos that we see how the representation of women (as seen from the male gaze) changed from the colonial era to Independence, from exoticised anthropological studies, to ‘liberalised’ and glamorous film stars. What makes this exhibition unique is the shift in focus from photos of that era that comprised mostly portraits of men and architectural sites. “This bias interested us and so we began to pull out photographs with women, to see what kind of narratives and themes emerge,” says Nathaniel Gaskell, Tasveer’s creative director. The studios made it possible to romanticise everyday routines, with Grecian urns and Victorian columns. The image of the woman carrying the vessel is symbolic of the juxtaposition between the subject and the backdrop, which was possible due to studio photography. Another image of a woman from South India clad in a sari shows her with her back towards the camera. It was possibly captured for an ethnographic study as it shows her silver jewellery and the South-striped silk blouse. A ’40s portrait of Sarojini Naidu shows the politician seated on a chair in a lawn, looking away from the camera. In all the photos the women respond to the physical spaces that they occupy such as the studio, the outdoor and the group photo, which defines their identity, confining it or leaving it to the interpretation of the viewers. The other was the performance space, which emerged in the latter half of the 20th century. The earliest references are illustrated through the nautch girls. An undated postcard titled Nautch Wali taken in a makeshift studio in Calcutta shows a girl standing with her skirt fanned up, flanked by two musicians (on the tabla and the sarangi) on either side. The postcards, lobby cards and portraits of artistes from Bollywood from the latter half of the 20th century, add a touch of glamour and familiarity to the exhibition. An undated Nargis portrait shows her holding a cigarette, seldom seen, since female actors from that period were never depicted as smokers.  The exhibition comes full circle from showing women in a domestic setting, without expression to glamorous actors, who guard their independence fiercely. The works are on display at Moon River, D 16, Defence Colony, till  February 5. Contact: 41617103.
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