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Invisible Women, Visible Work: P Sainath's photos document the labour and lives of Indian rural women

N Kannammal’s voice is cloaked in an unmistakable wave of excitement when talking about the Pudukkottai cycling movement. Vividly recollecting every facet of the movement of which she was an organiser, Kannammal says it changed her life – and many others. “At Arivoli Iyakkam (Light of Knowledge movement) in Pudukkottai, we decided to include mobility for women as part of our agenda. We knew the women wouldn’t come forward if we told them to learn cycling so we announced competitions. At least 60,000 women took part in the competitions. We ended up training about one lakh women.” There were slurs and snide remarks. “The men castigated us for ‘leading the women astray.’ They said it wouldn’t rain in Pudukkottai anymore. They laughed when we fell down.” But at 56, Kannammal couldn’t recollect a more gratifying moment in her life. “This happened in the early 1990s and today there is no woman in Pudukkottai who doesn’t know how to ride a cycle. Things have changed a lot. Women were able to go to some faraway places to pursue their education and were not dependent on men to go around locally.”

Kannammal is one of the many rural women featured in ‘Invisible Women, Visible Work – Women and Work in Rural India’ – an exhibition of photographs by eminent journalist P Sainath. In one of those extremely rare photographs that women are seen widely smiling, Kannammal is teaching a woman to ride a cycle. The exhibition is now part of Chennai Photo Biennale at Fine Arts College in Egmore. On a visit to Chennai to see the exhibition, Kannammal is at once moved and enthralled. “I am in two photographs – teaching a woman to ride a cycle and in another photograph on educating the quarry workers. The photographs are a testimony to the success of Arivoli Iyakkam. It was stupendous,” she says.

The exhibition, documenting the ‘astonishing labour that poor women put in every day of their lives and the gigantic – yet unacknowledged – contribution they make to national economy’ was first inaugurated in the winter of 2002 at a conference of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Visakhapatnam. “It was put together in its current form by AIDWA,” Sainath says. “There was a rally of 30-35,000 landless women, including some of the women in the photographs themselves. The women in the photographs were from the village Budathanapalli in Vizianagaram district some 80 km away. I had spent much time in that village and I think some of the best images in the exhibition are from there, including that lead photo on the panel 'A Lifetime Bending.’,” he adds. The exhibition was inaugurated by four of the women in the photographs — who launched it with a song from the fields.

 Invisible Women, Visible Work: P Sainaths photos document the labour and lives of Indian rural women

From 'Invisible Women, Visible Work – Women and Work in Rural India'. Image courtesy People's Archive of Rural India/P Sainath

“It was astonishing — people from that village came down in busloads for the rally but also to see their own exhibition! The agricultural workers unions and other unions had helped set up a small shamiana for the exhibition — because it was otherwise quite windy. Every woman who came there wanted to see the photographs. They would not let us take it down even as it grew too dark. "My sister is coming, my mother is coming, they should also see, no?" So then we used hurricane lanterns and such like sources of light and they kept streaming in, so many that we sometimes feared the shamiana would come down. But it held up,” Sainath reminisces.

He says the entire exhibition was curated by a friend Dayanita Singh ‘one of the finest photographers in the world’. “She, in fact, went through thousands of negatives in my collection and chose every picture that went into the exhibition. Without her, it would not have happened.”

Since then, the exhibition had travelled so much throughout the country and outside, that it has become difficult to keep count. “Totally five sets were made of the exhibition because of the huge demand for it,” he says. “That’s also because it is designed not for art galleries but for actual public spaces. We have displayed it at railway stations, bus stations, factory gates, for locked out workers, and most importantly — in the villages of some of those women themselves. For instance, in Pudukkottai — it was inaugurated by Palaniamma, then leader of the Women Quarry Workers Union. You can imagine how many women quarry workers lined up to see it — indeed they set it up in a couple of the villages there.”

From 'Invisible Women, Visible Work – Women and Work in Rural India'. Image courtesy People's Archive of Rural India/P Sainath

From 'Invisible Women, Visible Work – Women and Work in Rural India'. Image courtesy People's Archive of Rural India/P Sainath

The five sets spread out with different groups, and one of the sets ended up in the United States where it still makes the rounds through Indian groups in universities. “The four in India — up to 2014 — at least 7,00,000 people had seen them, I repeat, at least. We also had 38 comments books (large ruled registers) where people have commented on it in over a dozen languages. In Tamil Nadu, in a couple of villages where several of the older women could not write — Arivoli Iyakkam volunteers listened to their comments and took them down in the registers. Two characteristics: The overwhelming majority of the audiences were rural villagers. And women viewers outnumbered men. After 2014, we have kept no systematic count. I just don't have the bandwidth for it.”

The exhibition had also travelled to Canada (Toronto, Nova Scotia, London Ontario, etc.) the United States (over 40 odd campuses), Japan (at half a dozen venues including two universities and the International House of Japan, Tokyo); in Geneva at the World Summit on Information Societies; in Finland, The Netherlands, and a few other places.

Wherever it went, the exhibition had almost always evoked a mixture of reactions. “Invariably, women stop at one photograph and laugh between themselves – this particular photograph where all women are bending for their work and men standing over, watching them. I have had many women tell in many languages that it is the truth! One of the most moving was in a Women's College in Jaipur. A young girl, moved by the photos (and the text translated into Hindi by Neelabh Mishra) wrote a two-three page poem on the whole theme and how it impacted on her. Yes, there was a range from landless labourers to university professors, but overwhelmingly, the exhibition has been viewed by the rural poor, by the kind of people who will never get to enter a gallery to see exhibitions. That's what I find most satisfying.”

P Sainath with Kannammal at the Chennai Photo Biennale. Image courtesy the writer

P Sainath with Kannammal at the Chennai Photo Biennale. Image courtesy the writer

There are women giggling over an attempt to ride a cycle, and then there are women who bend in different ways for their work, and then there are women who carry things that could possibly be heavier than them. Divided by their locations and nature of work, the women are united by oppression and invisibility. After close to two decades, has life improved at all for these women? “For some, it has, for some it's worsened,” Sainath says. “I believe the women quarry workers of Pudukkottai changed their world — with their unity, solidarity and struggles in organised unions. But for some, like in parts of Chhattisgarh (Surguja) things may have worsened.”

But he still feels the exhibition at its current form needs no update. “I should probably follow it up with other exhibitions. I did a small one on victims of farmer suicides in AP in 2005. This should be the way it is because it captures a period in time. More or less the first decade of the economic reforms — and it stops on the cusp of the National Rural Employee Guarantee Act (NREGA). After that a lot of things change in wages, costs etc.”

At People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) – of which Sainath is the founding editor – the exhibition has found a cherished place. It is perhaps the ‘first of its kind fully digitised, curated still photo exhibition'.

For Chennai-based documentary filmmaker and photographer Kombai Anwar, the exhibition offered different, varied perspectives on lives of rural, working women. “I saw his photographs for the first time in Chennai Photo Biennale and was stunned by its intensity. It was focussed, in-depth and was reflective of Sainath’s passion for the issue. He had chosen to show them in black and white, which was ideal for the subject. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But the text near every photograph in the exhibition made it more powerful.”

Chennai Photo Biennale is on till 24 March.

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2019 10:21:00 IST