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Reality in black and white

The recent one-day exhibition of photographs on `Women and Work in Rural India' by P.Sainath, photo- journalist, held at the Stella Maris College, portrayed some of the harsh realities of rural life.

A ONE-DAY exhibition of photographs on `Women and Work in Rural India' by P.Sainath, a journalist who has already won accolades as a writer-reporter, was held at the Stella Maris College, Chennai on December 20 by the All India Democratic Women' Association (AIDWA) and the Department of Sociology, Stella Maris College. The pictures on display were shot in ten States — chiefly Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkand, and Tamil Nadu from 1993 to 2001 and were in essence a tranche de vivre of the women workers of rural India.

The idea was to document Visible Work, Invisible Women. The B&W photographs, big and small, and in matt finish were presented as 10 parts of twin, black cardboards.

Laid in newspaper format, each recalled a magnified sheet of the familiar dailies. Each spread was a photo essay complete with visuals, text and headlines reported to inform.

Though the pictures numbered more; the less of text, nonetheless, is important. Sainath said that he did not believe in viewer-reading of visuals in such instances.

The sheets were meant to be viewed in a linear fashion; the main title was reserved to the last perhaps, to avoid hectoring.

The headlines of the photo essays were self-explanatory: `Bricks, Coal and Stone'; `A Life time Bending' chiefly on the agricultural task force; `A Field But Not Ones Own' underpinned the plight of landless women workers, ill-paid agricultural labourers and young girls hunting for hideous pests; `Mud Mothers and Man Hours' on the incredibly long hours of work amidst discrimination in wages, of their being compelled to traverse long distances by foot to reach the work spot, that too, after attending to domestic chores.

`Visible Work Invisible Women'— here artistic silhouettes and against-light effects of photographs prevailed over the difficulties encountered in the routine fuel-collection expeditions; `And Gathering Their Lives'; `To Market To Market' — captured women walking long distances with heavy or unwieldy loads.

`Home Again Home Again' showed young girls who ought to be in school involved in domestic food processing like pounding ghetto roots at Palana (Jharkand ) or a salwar suit clad Tamil teenager preparing palm jaggery.

`Till Cows Come Home and Cleaning Up' — both on one spread — recorded the common chores connected with the making of cow dung cakes, rural women ignorant of the danger to their meagre income that would result from the speedy switch to petroleum based fossil fuel all over the country;`And Getting Ownership' captured happy moments as of an unique event at Pudukottai (Tamil Nadu), and amidst is a woman joyously learning to ride a bicycle during a Cycling Camp. The delightful pictures impacted as a documentary only through accompanying texts, statistics and pointers. Clearly the exhibition was meant for the literate.

That the translation of the English text was provided in the vernacular Tamil is to be appreciated and bespeaks the seriousness of Sainath's intent.

Quite a few were soft-pad sections, focussing on the ordinary and normal as unique and bothering.

For instance, one could easily draw a parallel of rural women walking long distances to the work spot or to fetch water or collect fuel to women in the cities rushing to office by negotiating the crowded roads and commuting in packed buses.

Yet the point was made, that invariably women's work goes unpaid, unrecognised and unnoticed in the eyes of Law.

Gender bias, exploitation, violation of minimum wages stipulations, outdated laws, Sainath brought all these out — through pictures, but more with words and numbers. The most engaging photograph and bewitching visual was that of three innocent young girls carrying a bucket trekking through the fields in Anantapur (Andhra Pradesh) hunting for pests.

A kilogram of red hairy caterpillars would fetch them Rs.10! Ignorance is Bliss; Innocence is Delight!!

The exhibition in its present form was put together for AIDWA at the time of its National Congress at Vishakapatnam some months back and has since been taken to various places both rural and metro across the country.

RAMAA NARAYANAN

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