Capturing the unsung heroines

Enduring strength

Capturing the unsung heroines

Urmila Devi, hailing from the small town of Ghazipur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is a most unusual cover girl. The penetrating gaze of this middle-aged, mother-of-three at once conveys the strength, poise, and spirit of the Indian woman.

In fact, it was the “surprising self-confidence” she displayed while she posed for German photographer Nicolaus Schmidt, that prompted him to splash her face on the cover of his latest book of portraits. ‘India Women’, published by Kerber, in cooperation with Terre des Hommes, Germany, “illustrates what day-to-day life is like for Indian women in remote villages and in the slums of the megacities caught between tradition, religion and the modern age”.

Nicolaus, who was in Delhi earlier this year for the formal launch of the book, shares, “In the wake of the spate of violent crimes against women in India, I think this book brings back into the focus their strengths. It gives readers an opportunity to step into the everyday world of Indian women and see what it’s like to be them.”

Nicolaus has worked extensively in the US and Europe, while he was a chairperson of
Terres des Hommes, an NGO that works to eliminate child explotation. He says that India has always been on his mind and had in fact studied  the  human development indices of
Indian women three decades ago. He finally got his chance to see things up close when he landed in the country in 2011.

At the time, what came as a big jolt to him was the fact that nothing had changed for them in the years gone by. He says, “there is perhaps a little change in the lives of urban women, but life for their rural counterparts, regrettably, is much the same”. On his maiden trip to India, he made his mind to come back and capture them photographically.

Strength immortalised

In 2011, he began his six-week journey in Mumbai and slowly made his way through Latur in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, Delhi, Kolkata, Rajasthan, Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, and Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. He travelled through these places looking to
understand the lives of rural women staying here. In Delhi, he took one of the “most
memorable shots” – of young, confident Savita behind the wheel of a taxi. “When Savita pulled into the drive at my hotel, I was quite startled to find the male staff looking at her as if she was a giraffe in a zoo!” he recalls.

 Nicolaus describes shooting in an Indian village as akin to “travelling 100 years back in time”. He observes, “Although, on the one hand, the setting is absolutely picturesque – the hamlets are beautiful and in every region the women dressed in their traditional, colourful attire – yet, there are some people, who insist on holding on to their age-old orthodox mindset that particularly represses the womenfolk.” 

He also realised how different things are for Indian women than, say, their European
counterparts, “In my country, you see women and men walking together, standing at the bus stop together. But here you see women standing on one side, while the men seem to dominate every possible space.”

In Rajasthan, Nicolaus  came across  Class 12 student Pinku Kumari, 17, who attends school by day and teaches little girls in the evening. She represents a section of women, who, Nicolaus believes, see themselves as agents of change. For him, it is girls like her who ended up adding a whole new dimension to the image and perceptions of the desi woman. “Initially, they were all just faces behind a veil. It is when they lifted this barrier that one got to see their true vigour and vitality,” he admits.

There is a whole range of new thoughts and actions that define the Indian woman of today – Nicolaus’ camera does these unsung heroines justice.


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