When the camera yielded to their charm


In the year 1920, a lady draped in a Maharashtrian-style saree climbed atop a bicycle and looked up to be requested by the photographer to smile.

Her high-voltage grin matches the intensity of the camera flash as her endeavour to intrude the
male bastion gets captured in the realms of history.

Her name is etched as ‘First Lady Cyclist’ on the walls of Moon River store as part of the
travelling exhibition ‘Subjects & Spaces, Women in Indian Photography’.

Most of the displayed snaps are sans the photographer’s name, like the hidden identities of women who are shot, yet fascinate the onlooker due to their heritage value and of course the detailing that comes forth at a closer look. This can be validated with the manner in which women cover their heads with pallu in different parts of the country in various group photographs of – Parsi ladies, South Indian, Marathi, Bengali, Rajasthani and Kashmiri  women.

“In 2012, we were sifting through the foundation archives of the Tasveer collective, which promotes and showcases contemporary photography, and discovered that there are very few vintage photographs depicting women,” informs Nathaniel Gaskell, creative director of Tasveer which decided to curate the show with shots, from 1850s to the 1950s, since the subject was unexplored. 

The regional identities of women in group photographs are recognisable with the aid of their dresses but it is the elegant attires of the royalty which are breath-taking. A huge portrait of Maharani Gayatri Devi captures her composure while the  
affluence of Princess Rafat Zamani Begum are inevitable to an onlooker.

While these women held fort in the bygone era, it was the leading ladies on the celluloid who defined the contours of an ‘Indian woman’. “Cinematic womanhood was
idealised and in a way defined how a woman should be. There was a lot of material available in form of lobby cards of films which was used for promotion,” adds Nathaniel referring to a long panel displaying portraits of Saira Banu, Nimmi, Nargis and Vyjayanthimala from various movies and more significantly stills from female-oriented films like Humari Betiyan and Dahej.

Besides, there are also portraits of Nautch Girls which were primarily captured by Britishers. However, their presence in a concept store instead of a gallery adds an other dimension. Certain images reflect in the store’s glass and metal interiors, creating an illusion. “There are a lot of objects and corners in the store which provide a rare glimpse into another time and creates a synergy between the two,” opines Radhika Gupta, owner of Moon River.

The exhibition is on display at Moon River, Defence Colony till February 5.

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