Unveiling the Invisible: Chennai Photo Biennale vies for a feminist discourse in photography

The exhibition at Govt. Arts College brings to the forefront the process of reclaiming women’s spaces, bodies and role in the society.

Srinjoy Dey

Chennai, March 1: An almost life-sized photograph of a woman gazes at the passers-by. The lines beneath her eyes suggest exhaustion, the curves of her pressed lips are an indication of an imminent trauma inflicted outburst. She is holding a passport-size picture of a man in his early thirties – her dead husband.

Rajitha holding a photo of her husband P.Ramesh, a tenant  farmer in Bhupalpalli Village, Telengana – who committed suicide in 2016 due to an outstanding loan of Rs. 2,30,000.

The portrait of the widow is one among the 20 picture series by Gurgaon-based writer and photographer Vijay Jodha. The Chennai Photo Biennale exhibition feature in the Govt. Arts College called ‘The First Witness’ captures the process and the consequences of bear witnessing a farmer suicide. The image scale “subverts visual culture in India where large hoardings are a monopoly of the famous and powerful,” says the artist’s note, “the project seeks to contribute towards ensuring that eventually no farmer is left without means or dignity. In that sense, this project is driven by hope rather than despair.”

The Chennai Photo Biennale has the potential to emerge as a landmark photography event in India, with a footfall of over a lakh visitors in its first edition in 2016. Stellar names like P.Sainath, Nalini Malani, Gauri Gill, Atul Bhalla, Anna Fox, National Institute of Design (NID), National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology were associated with this year’s edition from February 22 to March 24.

The work of P.Sainath, who emphasizes on recognizing rural women’s contribution to the economy, was also presented. The project, titled ‘Visible Work, Invisible Woman,’ journaled the stories of rural women who are largely neglected in the public discourse.

P. Sainath’s work is a collection of photographs shot in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The series questioned the existence of rural welfare schemes for women and the societal challenges that mar them. He critically examines, for example, the all-women panchayat in Madhya Pradesh whose powers are limited due to the deeply-rooted social stigma. He also chronicles the journey of women manual scavengers, herders, wood-cutters, gatherers, seed-sowers and land-tillers. He also highlights the condition tribal and Dalit women as the victims of the worst kind of oppression and the administrative failure to acknowledge the issue.

The Mumbai based Aishwarya Arumbakkam, explored the misconceptions and taboos attached to gender through a popular female Cambodian folklore character – Ahp, . In her retelling of the myth, she changes the narrative by portraying the story through Ahp – whose isolation and public perception is symbolic of a larger culture of misrepresentation.

A more direct subversion of gender role was portrayed in Indu Antony’s ‘Manifest’ where the 13 queer subjects were unbound from their archaic positions in the society. The Bangalore-based artist’s work encapsulated the discourse of gender performativity. “Queer or straight, women perform their femaleness both within and against societal gender rules that dictates what women should be. In a patriarchal society we work harder to establish our womanhood against norms that trap us in limited boxes of “feminine” self expression,” she says in her note.

Shah’s work is an exercise in introspection of the past, and how far along the society has come, and the path forward.

Tejal Shah’s ‘Hysteria’, on the other hand, explored the classical art trope of the ‘mad woman in the attic’ – symbolizing the Victorian perceptions of the woman as an emotional being, incapable of rational thought. Present in classics such as Jane Eyre, the trope is popularly used by feminist critics to highlight the multi-layered oppression that subliminally indoctrinated within the individual. The series show the male dominance manifest in discourses such as psychology and literature before the waves of feminisim that has brought about a much needed change and crafted space for women to enter and widen the structure of knowledge.

“I am happy to see a wide variety of representation of women in the event. It is crucial for our voices to be heard for the society to move towards inclusivity. One must understand the importance of counter-discourse as a driving force,” says Akshaya Mohan, a former research fellow at Christ University, Bengaluru. With at least 18 independent women artists and a few collectives with women members participating, the Biennale has already become a space for discussing gender and questioning the existing gender norms.

An evening of differently abled stars

Babli Ramachandran enacting the role of a court dancer in one of the performances. |SWAPNAJIT KUNDU


Chennai, Feb 28: A casual glance at the audience showed moist eyes, choked voices, and a busy applause. Narada Gana Sabha staged a theatrical performance by a group of disabled members of Ramana Sunritya Aalaya(RASA), an organization that focuses on the holistic development of each individual through experiences of music, dance, drama, story telling, arts and crafts. This structured methodology is called Theatre for Holistic Development (THD), and was developed by Rasa’s Founder-Director, Dr. Ambika Kameshwar. To celebrate the 30th year of their foundation, RASA staged a two hour long performance, called ‘Arulin Mozhi- The Voice of Grace’, performed entirely by the disabled participants.

Rekha Ramachandran, co-director and founder of Down Syndrome Federation of India said, “It is an honour to cross this journey along with RASA for 30 years. Initially, the press was not interested in our works. But now slowly but surely we are gaining recognition. This is a family which has faced a lot of storm, and now it is time to showcase the talent of these people.”

The performance was divided into four acts. The first act narrated the story of a hunter, who chases a bear and injures it eventually. The bear takes shelter in the hermit of a sage, where the hunter goes and demands his prey to be handed over to him. The hunter pleads that killing the bear is the only way he can provide food for his family, leaving the sage is a confusion. Eventually the sage chooses to spare the bear’s life. The second act was that of Ramayana, where sage Viswamitra takes young Ram and Laxman along with him on a journey.  The third act dealt with the Jallianwala Bagh incident and the stories of Narasimha completed the last act. The four acts, though telling different stories harped on a common objective.- the main crux of Arulin Mozhi, which says that there will be a point in life when everyone have to choose one of the two options available, and that one should listen to his or her inner voice while taking that decision.

The performances were spontaneous, competent and free flowing. Babli Ramachandran who was born with down syndrome ended the show with a spectacular dance performance. It gave a stage for the disabled people to showcase their talent and send a message to the society. Kanriappam, father of one of the performers named Selva Kumar, said, “It is an immensely proud moment for me to see my son performing on stage. Even today, whenever he goes out, people look at him in a different way. It hurts me to see my son being treated like that. He and others like him are very much normal like us. I hope this theatre gives him a scope to make others understand his value and potential.”

Dr. Ambika Kameshwar, the brain behind RASA and Arulin Mozhi hails the success as a result of a collective effort. “Everyone involved has given their blood and soul for this. All this has happened because of the love and support we receive and by God’s grace. We hope to continue this beautiful journey, with more shows like this.”

To commemorate their 30th anniversary, RASA unveiled their new logo named Ekatva.

Haryana’s folk artists and performers dissatisfied with Government

By: Ashmita Mukherjee

Chennai, February 22: At a folk festival in DakshinaChitra museum, artists and performers expressed their discontent with the government for not effectively aiding them to earn a livelihood and gain access to education.

DakshinaChitra is a living-history museum located 25 kilometres to the south of Chennai. The Navyug Haryana Art and Culture Centre organized the Navyug Haryana Sanskriti group to perform at the museum for a nine-day festival which commenced on February 16. The festival also includes an exhibition of wood craftsmanship of Mahavir Prashad Bondwal and his son, Chander Kant Bondwal from Bahadurgarh, Haryana.

Navyug Haryana Sanskriti group performers from Haryana

Every February, DakshinaChitra museum hosts a national festival for over a week informed Sahana Rao, program officer.

“Last year the focus was on the culture of Goa and next year we plan to bring in artists from Nagaland. The museum is a project of Madras Craft Foundation, a non-profit organization. We get funds to pay every artist a daily fee of Rs.800.”

On the contrary, Rahul Bagdi the head of the folk music and dance group said,

“All our expenses are paid for by the Ministry of Culture which includes food, travel, daily allowance and accommodation cost.” Bagdi informed that the Navyug Haryana Sanskriti group was created by him six years ago, “to save folk music and culture. We wish government did better to conserve Haryana’s folk culture. The Ministry of Culture spends more money for classical musicians and dancers by booking them flight tickets and paying them a better daily allowance. We are made to travel in train by sleeper class and our allowance is much lower.”

Mahavir Prashad Bondwal, a wood carving artist who was honoured by the government with one national award in 2004 followed by an award by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the same year said that he used to work on ivory carving until the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 1991 banned the trade of ivory. Since then he has been working on carvings made of sandal wood, kadam wood and ebony wood with his family. He said,

Award winning wood carving artists, Mahavir Prashad Bondwal and his son, Chander Kant Bondwal from Haryana

“But with the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we are forced to pay 12 percent Goods and Service (GST) Tax on import of wood. The taxation is based on sale and it does not take into consideration the money we spend on labour and the hours of work.”

Sandeep Singh, 24 a folk dancer who has been performing since the age of 16, finds himself unhappy with the lack of investment by the government on impoverished youth in Haryana. He said,

“I had been fortunate enough to complete my graduation (Government College of Education in Bhiwani, Haryana) but the others have not been so lucky. Several young men from poor families join the folk troupe because they lack technical skills and have no education. They learn folk dance or song to earn a livelihood. The older generation of singers cannot get other jobs because they are not able-bodied for manual work and lack education for any work that requires any qualification.”

Rahul Bagdi added,

“The Lok Kalakar Union sent an application to the government of Haryana with a list of demands asking for better artists’ pay, access to education through scholarships and introduction of folk music and dance in the academic curriculum of government schools and colleges. We observed a peaceful protest this year as we danced and sang through the streets of Haryana.”