I happened upon an inspirational photographic exhibition in September, courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery at Sloane Square, London. Women Changing India. A focus on the changing role on women in Indian society. The energizing spicy tempera and henna colours made this exhibition so very much alive, but it was the vibrant light within the eyes of the women photographed, that captured my attention and inspired my imagination.
The essays which accompanied the exhibition were courageous. There is now a 94% successful repayment rate, from Micro-Banks lending loans to some of the poorest people in society. This has allowed Indian women to discover autonomy and the power of choice. Women have taken on roles formerly only taken by men, from petrol forecourt attendants, to women chauffers (who train their all female staff with self-defence classes). Women have created previously un-created roles for themselves in the film industry. And India is now leading the way with females in local democratic positions in politics.
There was however one board whose rich imagery moved me to immediate wonder and then by the third paragraph absolute despair.
Written by Tarun J. Tejpal
In the west they carved women out of man’s redundant rib: a mere accessory. They cast her a temptress, or as passive, unblemished maiden-the Madonna herself. If in the march of men, she was to have great agency – a Queen Elizabeth 1 – then it was best to fix her a virgin.
In India we always knew better. Well in time, we spotted her as the Devi, as Shakti, the divine female principle. Not merely the equal of the male, but without whom the male principle is cosmically sterile. She was Durga, saviour of the gods when the demons were laying them waste. She was Saraswati, in whom vested all language, learning, art, culture and music. She was Lakshmi, the wealth that men never cease to crave. She was Kali , destruction; Parvati, creation; Sita, devotion; and Radha, timeless love. In the greatest epic of the world she was also Draupadi, the pivot of five great heroes, singly their equal in courage, vision and amour.
In India, we knew she was the one; he, only the rib, the mere accessory. Then over millenia, we forgot it, and kept forgetting it. From physical might, we crafted a cheap narrative of domination and oppression. Of aadmi, the primary, and aurat, the secondary. We embraced widow burning, child marriage, dowry killings, female infanticide, and numberless forms of lesser victimisation such as female illiteracy and menstrual segregation. We remembered the clay goddesses; we forgot to connect them to the living ones.
Now, decade on decade, the memory returns. In the growing churn, in the million mutinies electrifying contemporary India. The great change is coming not from the man, but from the woman. With moral clarity, a clear sense of justice, and the coiled rage of the long-denied, she is shaping the contours of business and politics, media and art, academics and activism.
referring to Indira Gandhi I wrote: no man is ever the equal of a strong woman. It could be said of Sonia Gandhi today. It could be said of a million other women today.
It is the hope that beats the heart of India”
Repression of the female, within my observation has caused for some women an expression of a counter active way of tipping the balance. I want both men and women to embrace the fact that without male and female in perfect harmony, there is no harmony. ‘Being made from the rib of a male’, makes us no less than equal to a male, of female qualities, or him no less than equal to a female, of male qualities. One without the other an impossibility of the nature of humanity. We should never exploit the gift of the very sexuality of humanity, neither should we sanitize it to the point of androgyny. As soon as we may all celebrate our differences, rejoice our sameness and embrace our being chosen complete together as One, as soon as we learn to authentically Love and share, value and trust, and treasure them sacredly each for the other, our Holy Gods creation will unfold in perfect Love.
The exhibition sadly finished on the 29th September, but there is a book which you can buy with the essays written by women and the beautiful photography which you can sneak preview here Magnum Photos album. which accompanied the exhibition from Zubaan Books
Women Changing India by Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy (Eds)