An exhibition in Kerala documents invisible women in social movements

A series of exhibitions put together at the Women’s College in Thiruvananthapuram shed light on women who were part of the Independence struggle, and gender and social justice movements.
An exhibition in Kerala documents invisible women in social movements
The News Minute
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Ever heard about a  women collective who called for fixed meal times in Assam - the Tezpur Mahila Samiti - so that women could limit their time spent in the kitchen and enjoy leisure time? Yellowing archival letters, minutes of meetings, hand-woven textile and curated photographs arranged as part of themed exhibitions at the Womens’ College in Thiruvananthapuram offer glimpses of women who were part of social movements in India but were mostly invisible

The exhibitions have been organised as part of the National Conference of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies.

On the third floor of the History Department, photographs of women, from the 30s, lead the way to more pictures and stories of passing decades, neatly curated by the Kerala Council for Historical Research. “We were told that the theme was women in movements and we decided to go to the sources – to people who have been part of these movements or have researched about them. Sparing a few illustrative images from the Creative Commons, we have managed to reach out to the sources,” says Gautam Das of the KCHR, who was part of the curation team.

It begins with the women in the Salt Satyagraha of the 1930 and the Telangana Sayuda Porattam (armed struggle) of the 1940s. A note alongside photos of women collecting salt in 1930 says, “Gandhi had walked to Dandi with a band of 79 men to break the colonial salt laws. Initially, women were not part of the campaign, but after the insistence of several women, including Sarojini Naidu, he eventually accepted their participation in the Salt Satyagraha.”

The next set of exhibits are images of the women’s movement in Delhi, between 1980 and 1995, sourced from photographer and activist Sheba Chhachhi. “They are like placards, these photographs. Sheba Chhachhi was part of the movement – a participant as well as a witness – and a most eminent photographer artist. She was generous, to loan these photographs for the exhibition.”

They are very telling images in black and white, a time when film cameras had to wait and pick the right moment to snap a picture. You can spot the patience and passion behind every click – a woman raising a photograph from amid a protest, a group sitting on the ground with messages of ‘Down with Dowry’, the aged restless in their quest for justice. Posters of campaigns of women’s organisations across the country adorn another wall, with a line as simple as ‘Women hold up half the sky’ pasted on a blue background lifting your spirits.

“We didn’t want only the regular images of women on a strike. Pictures of protests will not look distinct without the text. So we have chosen images which have a more meditative quality in them, including moments of laughter. For it is not always anger,” Gautam says.

He points to a room with photos of women half submerged in water, the other half raising a banner. It is from the Jala Satyagraha, held as part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) of the 1980s.

In the third and last room, it is not just photographs or text. It is an archive of a single woman’s organisation, displayed, through documents and handicraft, as mentioned before, of a collective in Tezpur. The Tezpur Mahila Samiti, formed in 1919 and registered nine years later, has a history of participating in the women’s movement in Assam and the larger Northeast. Anidrita Saikia, a historian who has curated the exhibition, says that these are non-state private collections, be it textiles or newspaper clippings or photos. “Throughout my historical training, we have been told archives have to be a colonial narrative. Through this exhibition, we are disrupting that thought, as well as the binary that it has to be just pictures. Assam is known for its tribes and various demographic differences. Tezpur is a very small town in Assam. How do we uncover marginal, feminist histories which haven’t been told?” she asks, and points to a pillow case that is exhibited.

That pillow case, she says, was woven by a woman of the lowered caste, to be exhibited to Mahatma Gandhi when he visited. Anidrita says that while there is the very disturbing question of lowered caste women working for the oppressor castes, it is also to be noted that weaving had, at the time, provided a source of income for women. Questions should not always be binary, she says.

You can also spot through circling the exhibition, the changes that manifested through the decades. It began from a few women meeting together in a paddy field and deciding to start a collective, inspired by Gandhi’s teachings, to become self-sufficient and support each other through many campaigns and activities. “I want to spread awareness about the larger history, how this small women’s collective played an important role in Assam’s history,” she says.

The exhibition ends on Sunday, September 10.

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