One Photograph at a Time

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Thoughts from the Photography and Theatre Workshop at Manana, District of Samalkha, Panipat, on International Women’s Day

The first question I was asked on field was “So, which country are you from?” by a group of middle-aged women. A little thrown off, I replied “same as yours”, to which they all laughed and said “You and I come from very different countries”. While I did experience a second of surprise, I quickly conceded to the fact they causally stated. I looked around me; we did belong to very different countries. Classrooms with boards but no switchboards for light to go with it, hence the photography workshop we were meant to facilitate was relying on keeping the classroom door open and a window covered by PRIA’s tarpaulin posters. Nevertheless, the girls and boys (each group maintaining a safe distance from each other) were squealing with excitement chanting “Ma’am-this, Ma’am-that!” as we settled them into the classroom. Despite the excitement, I realized that the noise of excitement came from the upper caste kids we got from the villages of Namunda, Titana (Panipath district), Rajputh, Rajmu-Garhi and Mahra (Sonepat). The girls, specifically from the lower caste Loda Basti, also the host village in Samalkha, Panipat, remained contained – only letting the joy of it all escape from their big eyes but kept their tongues silent.

We began the workshop with each participant saying their name aloud and the boys from the upper caste villages said their names loud and clear with confident grins to go along with it, while the girls and boys from the host village simply spoke their names out. As the workshop began, that differentiation slowly diluted itself in the exciting concepts and secrets of photography as the kids waited to find a camera in their own hands. As the photography workshop went ahead, a few of us facilitators stepped outside to help with the preparations of the theatre workshop. As a group from the village began to perform theatre and attract a crowd, I noticed a clear space distinction between the upper and lower caste men and women in terms of seating. While the upper caste sat in the middle, I saw that the lower caste men sat around them but the women sat further away in a little group. The politics of space coincided with the politics of gender, caste, class and age – all in a simple agglomeration of people watching street theatre.

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While all of these activities took place, I noticed a few women looking at me and smiling, talking and debating something quietly. As I went to them and asked in a friendly manner if they were talking about me, they expressed their amazement at my nose pin which was apparently a traditional design taking from their village and its customs. One of them asked “did you run away from our village when you were young?!” and we all laughed – but I witnessed how the symbolism of “belonging” melted into the rural and urban, changing meanings with each border crossed on the map of India.

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As I spoke to a woman who must have been about 30 years old and a mother of five, she told me how it was impossible to send the girls from this community to school because it was a given that they’d get molested on their way by upper caste boys. There was no scope of interjection as they spoke from experience, and I wondered how different their reality was – where girls and their bodies were a matter of property, stemming from a sheer chance of birth in the right or the “wrong” family. One of the older men from the community told me that the girls should be educated just enough so that “if a letter came to the village, she could read it out loud to the recipient” and I found myself wondering how far we were from real structural change. Nevertheless, I realized that with PRIA and MFF’s association with the community for over a year, a sincere progress in terms of behavioural change was taking place as more women admitted they were child brides, were mothers at 16 and were wedded “while kept on a plate as a girl was born”.

The land these people live on is contested as Panchayati land (which was clarified by a CM’s associate later that it was not). Therefore, the people inhibiting it are not allowed to build their own toilets. Due to this, they practice open defecation at early hours of dawn where girls are molested and taken pictures of by upper caste boys for further threats and humiliation. The women were right; we belonged to very different countries.
As we went through our photography and theatre workshop, I looked around me, spoke to people and tried to understand their country. I realized there is immense work left to be done, but watching girls and boys from both, upper and lower caste villages take photographs of the world together made me realise… change may be slow, but we are walking towards it, one photograph at a time.

(The photography and theatre workshop was jointly organized by Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF) and Delhi Photography Club, on March 8, 2017, on the occasion of International Women’s Day.)

-Nilanjana Bhattacharjee
Programme Officer, PRIA

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