Feminist Archiving: All About Loss and Recovery
"Feminist archiving is all about loss and recovery. It is about the celebration of history." That was Dr Malavika Karlekar, editor of the Indian Journal of Gender Studies and a fellow at the Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS), Delhi. She was speaking at a national seminar on 'Feminist Archiving: Possibilities and Challenges', organised by Dr Avabai Wadia and Dr Bomanji Khursehdji Wadia Archives for Women, Research Centre for Women's Studies and University Library, SNDT Women's University in association with the Indian Association of Women Studies (IWAS).
While tracing the history of archiving in India, Karlekar stressed that a major body of historical and archival material needed to be recovered. They exist in various forms, including as ballads, texts, pamphlets, postcards, posters and photographs, but they have not been collated or given a social or historical context.
The photographic image, for instance, has not received the kind of attention here, especially when compared to the West. Karlekar herself got drawn to it almost by accident. It was in 2002 when CWDS mounted an exhibition conceived as a visual documentary to celebrate the metamorphosis of women over 72 years. As curators of that exhibition, Karlekar - along with Leela Kasturi and Indrani Majumdar of CWDS - began putting photographs, some from family, friends, colleagues and institutions. The intention was to recreate the history of Indian women, interwoven into the history of the nation.
Thus began a journey of exploration. The initial collections were mostly studio portraits, with informative annotations on the details of garments and jewellery. They framed women with husbands and children, underlining the attitude that prevailed towards women, especially upper class women, in the late 19th century. Slowly, the postures have relaxed as thought processes got liberated.
As education for women became increasingly emphasised, photographs of indigenous schools showing children from various castes and classes mingling together for the first time, emerged. Soon there were snapshots of women in college - with pioneers like Parvati Kunvar, Emmeline da Cunha, Phulrenu Dutta and Tarabai Nabar, seeking higher education.
Of course, there is definitely a class issue here. The tricky thing about feminist archiving is 'Who' gets to represent Indian women. Since photograph was an elite pastime these archives largely capture upper class lives and, later, those of the emerging middle classes. There is an in-built narcissism discernible, with the 'Other' (the working class) emerging as figures that provoke curiosity but remain firmly on the margins.
Photo documentation of the early history of the Indian labour force, whether wage labour or bonded labour, is largely absent. Women, in particular, did not leave behind much by way of writings, nor were the early movements of working class women documented in any detail. Explains Karlekar, "In 1921, the year after women joined Gandhi in his non-cooperation movement, it was estimated that a third of the female population was in the workforce. While a handful became professionals, the majority joined mills, factories and plantations."
Interestingly, the national movement in which innumerable women participated provided a new visibility to them in the public space. Women like Aruna Asaf Ali, Kasturba Gandhi, Mridula Sarabhai and Kalpana Joshi surfaced as national icons.
From the exhibition that CWDS mounted emerged an interesting concept. "We came up with the idea of having the annual CWDS calendar as a form of a feminist archive. So every year, thereafter, we have had a different theme for our calendars, but they were all forms of feminist archiving," reveals Karlekar. Each calendar merges texts with visuals to provide a platform that is easily accessible. It has the 'every day' quality of being a calendar, while at the same, through its visuals and captions, reminding people of the richness of India's feminist history.
The 2013 calendar, entitled 'Fire and Grace: Kalpana Dutt Joshi', focuses on a revolutionary from the national movement. Joshi was born into a middle class family at Sripur, Chittagong district, which falls in today's Bangladesh. After she completed her matriculate in 1929, she joined the Chhatri Sangha, a student body. Nationalist leader, Purnendu Dastidar, drew her into the revolutionary activities of the Mastarda Surya Sen.
On May 19, 1933, Joshi, along with some comrades, was arrested. In the second supplementary trial of the Chittagong Armory Raid case, Surya Sen and Tarakeswar Dastidar were sentenced to death, and Joshi was sentenced to transportation for life - she was just 20 years. After being released in 1939, she graduated from Calcutta University in 1940. She soon joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) and resumed her battle against British rule.
In 1943, she married P.C. Joshi, the CPI leader. She was back in Chittagong, organising the peasants' and women's fronts of the party. In 1946, she contested - unsuccessfully - in elections to the Bengal Legislative Assembly. After India gained Independence and the sub-continent was partitioned, Kalpana migrated to India and withdrew from active politics. She died on February 8, 1995, in Kolkata.
The 2013 calendar on her reflects the various aspects and problems of archiving - most obviously the lack of material. The first photograph is a mug shot of Joshi kept in prison records and subsequently recovered by the family. There is a significant gap of years between the first and second photograph featured, which was taken after she married P.C. Joshi at a simple wedding ceremony in 1943. The newly-married couple is shown on the terrace of the CPI headquarters in Bombay (now Mumbai). Interestingly, the original photograph had its top corner chopped off near the flag. "Since it was very important to show the flag, we used digital technology to restore it," explains Karlekar.
Joshi with her first-born, Suraj, at Balraj Sahni's Juhu residence, Bombay, 1946, makes another heartwarming visual. "The problem we faced was the lack of choice, since the photographs we had were limited and could hardly capture the many facets of a revolutionary woman like Kalpana. If you have read the life of Kalpana Joshi, you would know that she lived in a commune. To come across this typical 'mother and child' image is something of a surprise, but it is important," adds Karlekar.
Another photograph in the calendar was taken nine years later. It shows Joshi with her two sons, Suraj and Chand, in the Calcutta of 1949. Reveals Karlekar, "We had two or three photographs but we chose this utterly delightful one - not only for the look in Kalpana's eyes but the way the children are obviously attracted to something outside the frame."
A family photograph follows. Says Karlekar, "This is really a photograph of a photograph of a photograph - we had to add sepia tints to it, to make it look in sync with the others." The image that opens the calendar is a montage. The photograph of Joshi was taken by famous photographer, Sunil Janah, in 1945. It was also featured on the cover of her book, 'Story Retold'. At the insistence of her daughter-in-law, senior journalist Manini Chatterjee, Joshi recounted the fierce Chittagong Uprising - its plan, execution and the martyrdom of Surya Sen.
Feminist archiving is a still at a nascent stage in India. With new technology emerging at a frenetic pace, the curator is left perplexed. As Karlekar puts it, "How we choose to document or not document a movement is something we need to pay attention to. If we are now documenting and archiving our every move - or so it would appear - what does this say about our relationship to history at that particular moment?"
The CWDS calendar has become an important feminist statement aimed at pictorial rather than textual representation. It underlines the large gaps in our knowledge of women and events and will hopefully encourage future contributors to explore new vistas. It remains, as Karlekar says, "an educational experience of a different kind".
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