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.