Ramabai Ranade was a pioneering social worker, who advocated women’s rights and equality in the early 1900s. Ranade’s husband was a reformer – in fact, she belonged to the early generations of Indian women who were schooled by their husbands. While she was an enthusiastic learner, this also stemmed from a desire to please her husband and conform to his authority.

Accompanying him on his tours, she would write letters on his behalf and execute instructions, while also cooking special savouries for him and massaging his feet with ghee at night. “In Ramabai’s example, the reformers found the model of the new Indian womanhood, the one who could be modern without relinquishing the virtues of a traditional Indian wife,” reads a little card in Enter Sultana’s Reality.

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The animated project, by Goa-based artist Afrah Shafiq, is a captivating Alice in Wonderland-style adventure exploring the relationship between women and books in India. Using gifs, music, videos, statistics, comics, and little hidden notes of history, she tells the stories of women who challenged societal conventions – there’s Kashibai Kanitkar, the first female Marathi novelist, Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to get a degree in Western medicine, and Savitribai Phule, who started the first school for Indian girls in Maharashtra, among other revolutionary women.

The project was born out of a fellowship by the India Foundation for the Arts, as part of which Shafiq got access to a wealth of archival images at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. “I liked the fact that the images in the archive were very varied – there were lithographs, oleographs, Kalighat paintings, folk art, oil paintings and photographs,” she says.


While she wasn’t specifically looking at books or women while going through the archives, she discovered that the images of the women in the artwork could be broken into a kind of thematic visual imagination.

“There were certain recurring ways in which women were imagined – sitting by the window and looking outside, flying away or floating out of towers and windows. In another collection, there was one where a man with a book is explaining something to a woman in the frame – what I call mansplaining in the project,” says Shafiq.

Whenever she came across an image of a woman with a book – in some images, women were into the books, in some they were annoyed – there was an urge to decipher the story behind it. “I started looking at the images as research material, and decoding how visual history and textual history can speak to each other.”


[Enter Sultana’s Reality at the Kochi Muziris Biennale]

A fascinating nugget in the project reveals how some of the women were “unwilling to study,” and perceived as blind traditionalists. Shafiq writes that this resistance came from the fact that education was often thought of as a decorative need – women’s agency was not an instrumental factor in the process and nor did it absolve them from household labour.

In fact, women who read were often resented by older women in the house.

Ranade’s sister-in-law Durga – who was widowed at 21 and wasn’t educated like Ranade – believed that education, while useful, was a frivolous activity for women. An intelligent, hot-tempered woman, she would tell Ranade to ignore her husband’s advice.

“Reading was something extra women had to do in addition to cooking and cleaning… it wasn’t so they could have control, acquire knowledge and be their own people. It was a safe and decorative ability, for the men. Like husbands who say my wife stitches very well and sings beautifully, but wouldn’t want her to showcase her work or perform at a concert,” she says.


Shafiq has also highlighted the struggles women underwent to acquire an education. Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain – whose Sultana’s Dream was an inspiration for Shafiq’s project – would study in secret at night and opened one of the first schools for Muslim girls, where they had access to subjects like chemistry, botany and gymnastics. Savitribai Phule had garbage thrown at her when she walked to school.


[Afrah Shafiq]

“It’s important for younger women and feminists to acknowledge that these were things women had to fight for and were called out for.

They pushed to make their space in the world, just like we need to continue pushing to make those spaces.”

A chapter in Enter Sultana’s Reality also delves into the zenanas or andarmahals – women-only spaces in affluent households that men had no access to. Shafiq imagined zenanas to be restricted places that were limited to one part of the house, with barely any interaction with the outside world. But the images she saw were of playful women relaxing and laughing, like “gangs of sakhis in a surveillance-free zone.” This led her to reimagine, and reinterpret, what transpired in these spaces, resulting in elements like Yo Pati Jokes and a band called The Bhava Ranis.


[Enter Sultana’s Reality at the Kochi Muziris Biennale]

“I was also looking at the tradition of popular women’s performances that happened in the zenana, and people from working class families who were allowed inside to sell things, or to render certain services. What kind of things did they bring in in terms of stories, what were the themes of stories and jokes that women told each other in these spaces. A lot of this was very rich in its imagery and poetry, but also very lascivious, irreverent and open in its humour."


[Enter Sultana’s Reality at the Kochi Muziris Biennale]

Enter Sultana’s Reality was also turned into a physical installation, and was showcased at the recently concluded Kochi Muziris Biennale. While Shafiq says that the work wasn’t imagined for an installation, it was interesting to convert an interactive web experience into a physical one. “I played a lot with the idea of what it’s like to immerse yourself in a virtual space where you can really indulge in exploring, or research as an exploratory journey. I only stayed for a week after it was set up, but it was interesting to see visitors’ experiences. Some had a curious peek, while others stayed for an hour, fiddling with the icons and reading the stories.”


The artist had another work on display at the Biennale – st.itch, where she imagined the inner lives of women sewing in Victorian England by digitally pairing historical depictions of them engaged in the activity with their cross-stitched fabric. This project too was the result of her research into archival images of these women, where she used a lot of the women’s unpublished writings, like diary entries, journals and letters.

“I’m very interested in women’s lives, and exploring what was going on in their minds – how did they negotiate their lives, create mechanisms to cope, how did they create protest?” she says, adding, “Sultana’s Reality and st.itch are both looking at women’s inner minds, the former from a more factual point of view, while the latter is emotional. In both, I’ve used women’s writing as an entry point to something else.”

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Shafiq is now preparing to take st.itch to Texas next month, and also mulling over ideas around transformation and the moon. She’s fascinated by how the moon connects to time and has a significance across cultures. “I’m also looking at the connection between the moon and marriage, or festivals like karva chauth. Why is it so central to that kind of festival? What does it mean when people say aadmi shaadi ke baad badal jaata hai? Through this line, I want to explore how different genders come together, change, dominate or merge.”