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‘Refocusing’ attention on working-class women in India

By Xenia Tiajoloff ’16

February 6, 2014

The year was 1937, and Pranlal Patel was just recently approached with an offer to capture on film moments of labor and independence in the lives of a workforce that had been considered to be invisible and under-cared for by many: women. Up until this documentation by the commission of Jyoti Sangh, a social organization whose agenda in furthering the quality of life for Gujarati women colored the series of photographs, women in India’s economy were subjects that had hardly been given a face or presence. Through Patel’s work, they are suddenly explored in ways that offer audiences insight not only into the basic economic pressures women were under, but also interior social conditions of the work environment, and in a few rare cases, the lives and personalities of the women themselves.

Ultimately, Wellin Museum’s Refocusing the Lens: Pranlal Patel's Photographs of Women at Work in Ahmedabad is successful in its ability to combine both the historical importance of the photographs’ depictions with a few highlighted photographs that truly stood on their own. Curated by Associate Professor of History Lisa Trivedi and Assistant Professor of Art Robert Knight, the photographs show women in different professions creating, transporting and selling products in textile and household goods.

There exists in this exhibition inexplicable replaceability between many of Patel’s photographed women. The dynamisms of a strong diagonal composition, starting in the upper left corner and following down to the lower right, are strongly featured in many pieces including “Knife Sharpening” and “Carrying Goods.” Intruigingly, none of the women bare their eyes through the camera lens to develop a sense of individual connection between themselves and the audience. These transcending similarities between each of the portraits allow for parallels and comparisons to be drawn between women in all sectors of the economy and suggest that the specific women of each photograph are less important than the fact that they are women. In some way, the show itself suggests that these women are and can be interchangeable, although that is not to belittle their gross value in their marketplaces.

In a well-conceived manner, the women in the photographs never overshadow the work they are completing. Their contributions to their economy through their work are always the main focus. Their work is also never overshadowed by the exterior world. Even when the outside world makes a few rare appearances in the work with the potential of overtaking the image, such as in “Selling Rope,” the kinetic energies of the excess subjects are frozen in a way that only enhances the stability and permanence of the working women. This retains their prominence in the piece.

Arguably, the most successful pictures are individual portraits taken in interior spaces. One such portrait is “Cleaning Seeds.” Here, the girl is sitting alone in stark room, behind an old world cast iron machine. It is through photographing her triangular pose with an intricately staged collection of square shapes that we see a binding of stark forms and shape with humanity. The forms become one mass, one shape of small details. Here, both woman and economy are one.The machine would not work without her, and her existence is dependent upon her work.

The greatest tragedy of this show is that Patel never saw his exhibition come to fruition; he passed away on Jan. 18, 2014, two weeks before the show’s opening. However, the success of his final black and white photographs cannot be ignored.

This is the sort of exhibition that one might feel inexplicably drawn to return to. Viewers will yearn to return to its levels of complexity in historical context, artistic licenses and pioneership in not only documentary photography but in the capture of strength and mutual contribution in India’s economy. It asks us to reconsider what we previously held to be true as prescribed in our westernized understanding of women’s culture and work sphere, while delving deeper to understand what being an integral and functioning member of 1937 Guajarati society entailed.

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