Every day seems to be Something Day and today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. I don’t think it should be necessary to set aside certain days for particular causes or ideas, but I do have some interest in this one since I am in the middle of my Women of India project. This is an ongoing project which gives me even more motivation, as if any were needed, to seek out interesting tales from India, to photograph the people involved, who in this case are girls and women, and to summarise their stories.
So I have encountered tea pickers in Kerala, young female cricketers in Himachal Pradesh on the edge of the Himalayas, and trainee girl boxers in Manipur in the northeast. I’ve photographed a beautiful Assamese bride and tribal women in Rajasthan, female petrol pump attendants in Delhi and a charming dancer turned designer and entrepreneur in Pondicherry.
There are a lot of negative stories being told to the outside world about India and how women are treated there. There is a lot of bad stuff going on in what is a very patriarchal society. I don’t intend to ignore the bad stuff, but I hope my stories give a counterweight to the negative impressions. There are lots of gutsy women doing interesting things on a day to day basis, not necessarily celebrities or leaders, although there are plenty of them too.
I’d like this to turn into an exhibition and even a book eventually. But meanwhile it seems like a worthwhile thing to do for its own sake, and at my own expense. So in celebration of International Women’s Day, you are looking at a few of the stories so far…
The tea plantations of Munnar are a spectacular and beautiful green patchwork quilt spread across the valleys and slopes of this part of the state of Kerala. Life isn’t always so beautiful for the women tea pickers, and tea picking is a gruelling task. Each picker can collect more than ten kilos of tea every hour. Women have demonstrated and protested against poor working conditions and low wages in recent years, but the health, housing and school facilities provided by the dominant Tata company make this a relatively attractive source of livelihood. The Kerala pickers have been demanding an increase of the minimum daily wage for a tea picker from 350 rupees – less than 5 euros – to 600 rupees.
Rahana Hasam Husain and her daughter Nasma live in a village at the foot of the Himalaya foothills, close to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. Nasma runs a charming homestay (Home in the Himalayas), Rahana spends much of her time in peaceful meditation. Rahana was one of a dozen siblings born into a Muslim family in the later period of British rule, a decade before Independence in 1937 (her birth was undocumented). Her father was a barrister, a landowner in the time when a feudal society still existed in India. They lived in the small town of Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh. There was rioting in nearby towns at the time of partition in which her grandfather was killed, but Fatehpur was peaceful. Up until partition, Muslims and Hindus lived quite harmoniously together, celebrating each other’s festivals, as they generally still do today. There was a strong sense of community. “Her father – my grandfather – was a practicing Muslim, but Rahana’s upbringing was not especially religious,” says Nasma. “My mother hates rituals and superstition, and so do I. If you want something, you work towards it, we believe, you don’t try to keep the Gods happy. My mother is very unconventional in many ways. Very down to earth and carefree.” Rahana’s husband and Nasma’s father, who died in 1999, was the radical Marxist journalist, Najmul Hasan. An especially happy time of her life was in Delhi in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Delhi was a real cultural hub. “In their house, before I was born, there was a lot of poetry and music,” says Nasma. “My mother was tutored by Begum Akhtar, a well-known Indian singer of Ghazal, Dadra, and Thumri genres of Hindustani classical music. Rahana still sings but she doesn’t like an audience! She experimented with drinking and smoking. She liked to throw parties. My parents were not very conventional. My father had his Communist Party work and studied Farsi and Sanskrit. She was balanced in her views but supported his causes, and he made sure that she went through college.” Now they live far from the choking air of Delhi, beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar sub-Himalayan range. “I’m here with her, she likes me being around,” says Nasma. “We sit and chat and talk about old times and she tells me a lot of stories. We have huge family albums but we don’t have any shelves to put them on yet!”
Meghalaya in northeastern India is home of the Khasi people, believed to be among the largest cultures that still adhere to a matrilineal system. Traditionally, the youngest daughter of the family inherits ancestral wealth and the mother’s family name is taken by children. Matrilineal does not mean matriarchal, however, and abuse and exploitation of girls and women still occur in vulnerable communities. The Faith Foundation was co-founded by Shannon Dona Massar, pictured here with her baby Amenia, her mother Nelifa and mother Mary (from the Monpa tribe of Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast of India) – four generations of ladies – in the family home in Shillong, the state capital. Although the name implies a religious link, the NGO works on preventive strategies, promoting indigenous collective rights in communities and empowerment of girls and women.
I travelled to Imphal, the capital of the northeastern state of Manipur close to the border with Myanmar, to visita boxing academy for both young men and women. It was set up by Indian boxing champ Mary Kom, who claimed a bronze medal in the London Olympics in 2010 among her many titles and is one of the most famous women in India. I wanted to meet and shoot Mary herself but that wasn’t possible, so I met the young students who are inspired by her and had fun shooting and talking to them instead.
Former classical dancer Vasanty Manet is the founder, designer and owner of the Via Pondichery fashion boutique and business in the south-east coastal city of Pondicherry. Her shop on Romain Rolland Street in the French quarter of the city backs onto her beautiful 17th century wooden-beamed house. Vasanty’s ancestors made the choice offered to them in the 1880s to take French citizenship along with a French name. She studied in France but her mother was a Tamil language teacher. She professes to be comfortable sitting between the French Christian and Indian Hindu cultures. Her bags, pashminas, bangles and necklaces combine Indian elements with modern European style. Her entrepreneurial spirit is an example of the kind of modern, cosmopolitan Indian woman whose actions speak louder than words in the face of Indian society’s prevalent patriarchal tendencies.
Bishnoi tribal lady in a village in Rajasthan. One of the traditional tribal tenets is for new mothers to be separated from the rest of the villagers, with their newly born children, on the grounds of impurity for a month after childbirth. A tribal legend about the Bishnoi from the 18th century tells of Amrita Devi who tied herself to a tree to prevent a forest being felled by the Maharaja of Jodhpur who wanted the wood to build his palace. The tale has it that 362 of Devi’s fellow villagers joined the protest, and all of them were slaughtered by the Maharaja’s soldiers. Amrita Devi, an early Indian environmental activist.