I got married at a young age like many other women around me. I was stuck in an abusive marriage but was unable to stand up for myself. I had vaguely heard about some women’s organizations, it was only after ten years, in 1989, that I came to know about Saheli and I decided to seek their help.
Stepping into the Saheli office, I came across educated women for the first time. It was a shock to see women smoking cigarettes, since that was something I had only seen in the movies. I wondered if they were not afraid of the society. It was only after spending time with them that I realized that they are pro-women, and that even women can be educated and become doctors and engineers. The first night in the shelter wasn’t comfortable but I grew to like the place as I warmed up to the people and their cause.
At Saheli, I was introduced to Alokji who encouraged me to take up photography. He gifted me a camera on my birthday. I had never thought that I’d be able to operate a camera by myself. The same day I cut my hair.
The camera and a book called Maa, changed my life completely. I learnt how to operate a camera myself, with some photographers to turn to in case of any query. My first experience of capturing an image was during a students’ movement at DAV College. They let me take pictures even though they had refused other male photographers. The photographs didn’t turn out well, but it gave me chance to learn further and instilled pride in me for being a woman photographer. Initially, it was difficult to survive as a photographer as the costs of developing and printing films and for the other arrangements were high. I became a beautician to make ends met and keep the camerawork alive, even if it involved remaining hungry in order to save money. However, intermittent praise for the work published in various newspapers and magazines was a source of joy.
I had seen discrimination against women since I was a child. I had grown up seeing my mother being beaten up and things weren’t any different with my sister-in-law. Why are women treated as second-class citizens? Household work is given no importance only because it is not economically viable, but it is still extremely important. Why is it that while talking about women, history and statistics are perhaps documented but not the ‘story’? I was already battling with these questions when I went to Gujarat to cover the drought. When I saw women queuing up for water at four o’ clock in the morning, it struck me how despite the hard labour, they’re still dependent on their husbands for even the smallest decision of their lives. It was here that I decided to actively document women’s stories.
My first exhibition, called ‘Women in the time of flux’, was displayed in Bhopal in 2000 and in Delhi in 2001. While taking the pictures, I had focussed on the optimism of women despite all the pain they have suffered and continue to suffer in life. For instance, one of the displays compared the smiles of a tribal woman and a model.
Now, even though professional photography is not the most viable option given the internet age and instantaneous influx of images (good/bad quality) on the web, I plan to stick with the women’s cause. I am planning to document the lives of working women as the struggles undertaken by urban and rural women are quite different. Apart from this I also do a little bit of counselling for people who come to me for help. I really like the way Saheli functions but unfortunately there is an obvious problem of funds.
If I think about the changes that have occurred in the women’s movement, I notice that the passion towards the cause has decreased substantially. I agree that the women have been somewhat empowered but that has only led to the increase in responsibility. They’re still dependent on men for decisions. Also, the influx of money in order to support the movement has led to the division of groups. To revive the drive we must come together as a stronger force. Earlier, while capturing pictures at protests one could clearly see the anger on the women’s faces; now, I have to ask for adequate expressions.
Although the women’s movement is not at its peak right now, I am sure it’ll be revived and it will rise again. There are more brutalities being inflicted upon women now, female foeticide is on the rise, women like Sharmila are fighting for a cause for so long, and even in the media women are portrayed as repressed characters who are put up for display – there’s bound to be a lot of anger. There is a lot of potential for fire, it just needs a spark.