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Tattoos and taboos

Five women photographers travel across the country to explore the many identities of women through their lens

From the strikingly brilliant tattoos that mark the bodies of tribal women to the busy, exhausting lives of women in the ladies compartment of a Mumbai local trains, the identity of a woman goes far beyond just gender.

In an attempt to explore the diverse facets that define our existence, five women photographers have captured the many identities of women through their lenses. Put together in an exhibition that holds true to its name – ‘Pehchaan’ (Identity) – it is a collection of spectacular photos that say it all.

These photographers have travelled across the country to document such stories that brings to our attention both the familiar and the peculiar. The photographs traverse the personal lives of the artists while projecting their individual sense of freedom.

Adoption blues

‘Resemblance’ is a response to the taboos and stigmas that surround adoption across the country. Artist Sukruti Anah Staneley noticed resemblances – rather, the lack of it — among family members of an adopted child. It became evident that people often impose a perception of themselves during adoption.

Through this series, Staneley aims to photographically explore the differences or similarities and is a response to the taboos and stigmas that surround adoption.

Meeting families across India, her own idea of identity continues to evolve. Through conversations with both parent and child, she came across several cases that challenge ideas of family resemblance.

“As per the recent laws around adoption in India, the one-on-one interaction time between adoptive parent and child during the process has reduced and photographs are often how parents first meet their prospective kid,” explains Staneley. “This directly raises questions about how we think about creating a family, how much does a photograph tell us about the child and what are we really looking for in a child. The sense of resemblance, or the necessity for it begins here, but does not end there.”

Skin-deep beauty

Photographer Shatabdi Chakrabarti documents tattooed tribe women in the series ‘Vanishing Art’, that features the Baigas from Madhya Pradesh, Ramnamis from Chattisgarh and the Mers from Gujarat.

Tattooing is one of the most ancient practices, that imparts a sense of belonging and identity in the cultural and traditional aspects of tribes and communities across India. Yet, for several reasons this practice is slowly fading away.

Shot in black and white, the photographs add to the narrative of highlighting the state of this dying art form.

“India is known to have the largest number of tattooed tribes, but this permanent art form is disappearing here. Looked upon as an uncivilised and pagan culture, these practices in the tribal spaces have steadily declined. These indigenous people all across the country have been suppressed, forgotten or been discriminated against for their refusal to discard this so- called ‘primitive’ practice. Very soon, as the last of these tattooed bodies succumb to mortality, this ancient practice and its bearers will also disappear,” says Chakrabarti.

Forgotten cultures

In a similar project, noted documentary filmmaker Anu Malhotra hopes to heighten awareness and appreciation of the wisdom and traditions of the tribes from North-east India and Tibet.

Titled ‘Soul Survivors’, Malhotra captured these images while filming her documentaries, ‘The Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh’, ‘The Konyak of Nagaland’ in 2000 and during her visit to Tibet in 2002.

The portrait of the Apatani women will bring you closer to the lives of the tribal women. “The series serves as an appreciation of alternative wisdoms, of customs and institutions that have remained valid over centuries, and of people that have intrigued and instructed hundreds of curious explorers over time and generations. “I have always sought to capture India’s rich cultural heritage and vibrant living traditions through my films. Today, when wise living traditions are dying and a stressful urban lifestyle is leading us into discontent, we need a reminder of the value and wisdom of our time-tested ways of life that are wholesome and fulfilling,” says Malhotra.

Commuting chronicles

Moving to a starkly different style of living, photojournalist Anushree Fadnavis’s work is set in the ladies compartment of the Mumbai local trains. ‘Train Diaries’ is a realistic depiction of the daily lives of women commuters in a local train.

“Women are always surrounded by men, be it at home, at office, in public spaces. This series is my personal work that looks to explore how women behave in a space that has been specifically designed for them. This is a space devoid of men and she can use this space to liberate herself from the male gaze. This series also looks to explore how humans make themselves comfortable with a space and try to familiarise themselves by forging relationships with complete strangers and often end up becoming close friends,” says Fadnavis.

The photographs display various scenes from the local train which every commuter can relate to. “I feel sometimes that it also resembles a theatre, where various actors come and act out their roles and I along with the viewers of the images are the audience who seek to learn about our own lives through the lives of others.”

Beyond gender

Pushing past stereotypical gender norms, ‘Leela’ is an exploration of the identity and lives of the transgender community residing in North India. Photographed by Kannagi Khanna – the series highlights the prevalent taboos attached to the community.

“To fight that, they have found performance art as a tool to dress up as women at religious events, under the guise of portraying Hindu gods and goddesses. My project is an exploration of the interesting relationship that they have formed with religion, which allows them to express their true inner selves without facing any form of harassment,” says Khanna.

The exhibition is on display at Wonderwall Gallery till March 31.