The first thing that strikes a visitor at Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts’ (IGNCA) is the stark contrast between the calm and poised countenance of the woman in a black-and-white photograph on the walls of Twin Art Gallery-II, and the fiery word “Angareywali” printed to describe her. The epithet, used to paint a radical picture of prominent Urdu writer of the 20th century Rashid Jahan, is borrowed from the explosive and then-banned book Angarey that she co-wrote in 1931 with three other young Urdu writers. Last week, as author Rakhshanda Jalil released her book titled A Rebel And Her Cause: Life and Work of Rashid Jahan (Women Unlimited, Rs 395) at IGNCA, she did so with an accompanying exhibition of never-seen-before photographs of Jahan. The exhibition that comprises 30 black-and-white photographs displays Jahan’s life in a different light — of her with family and friends, and a few intimate as well as light-hearted portraits.
Writer, doctor, political organiser and founder-member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, Jahan became a controversial figure after Angarey, an anthology about social inequity and oppression of women, was banned by the colonial government for hurting religious sentiments.The title ‘Angareywali’ was consequently bestowed upon her by the vernacular press. Jahan died at the age of 47, childless, barely leaving behind any primary sources. Jalil came across these photographs a couple of years ago when she wrote an article on Jahan. “A stranger from Australia contacted me and told me he read my article and that he has old negatives of Jahan lying in his garage,” says Jalil. The stranger turned out to be Jahan’s husband Mahmuduz Zafar’s distant relative, Shahid Najeeb. The photographs, found in a poor condition, were scanned, corrected and sent on a flash drive, and Jalil reprinted them for the show for the first time. She, however, is not sure if the original negatives exist.
The undated photographs show Jahan donning various roles — draped in heavily embroidered clothes , in a white sari she had worn at her wedding, another in one of the many costumes she had donated to Lucknow’s Indian People’s Theatre Association, and a rollicking few with friends and husband. “The exhibition is unconventional and I’m not a curator in that sense. These pictures are here more to tell a story along with my book. After Rashid Jahan co-wrote Angarey and it was banned, she became more of an urban legend. Most people don’t put a face to such a figure and I wanted to show her as something more than ‘Angareywali’,” says Jalil.
After Delhi, Jalil plans to take the photographs to cities Jahan has had a strong connect with, including Aligarh (where she was born) and continued…