The Visuals are the Heroines

The women’s movement in India through posters

Written by Nivedita Menon | Published:May 12, 2012 3:33 am

Book: Our Pictures,Our Words

Author: Laxmi Murthy & Rajashri Dasgupta

Publisher: Zubaan

Pages: 232

Price: Rs 695

“…cupboards and trunks and bed boxes — all the places where women store things…”

Those are the places where Zubaan,the feminist publishing house,entreated women’s groups and individuals involved in the movement to search,when it embarked upon the project of archiving the women’s movement in India through its posters. After about a year of collaborating with,eventually,160 groups and several individuals,the Zubaan team had collected some 1,200 posters — and they’re still coming in. From these,an exhibition was created of about 220 posters of 12 major campaigns,covering four decades of activism,and taken to a number of places.

Since then,the Poster Women project has grown in several directions that Zubaan did not originally envisage; for instance,travelling exhibitions of traditional crafts and art forms such as the madhubani of Bihar and the phad of Rajasthan,woven fabrics and embroideries that have gone into posters on issues such as violence against women and dowry. Then the digitising of this rich visual archive which is in the process of being uploaded on the website http://www.posterwomen.org,along with the fruits of the research that tracked the provenance,date,campaign and artist for each poster.

This book takes the project forward,making the collection available to a different sort of audience,hopefully,a younger generation of feminists seeking their own histories,as well as general readers curious about the women’s movement in India. Arranged around four themes — body politics,community politics,societal politics and politics of access — we find a colourful,sumptuous feast of posters in many languages — Hindi,English,Tamil,Oriya,Malayalam,Bangla,Gujarati,Telugu,Kannada — around the issues of rape,domestic violence and sexual harassment,land rights and reproductive rights,health,environment,political participation and citizenship.

The moods of the posters vary. Militant — “Mujhe apni zindagi jeene do!!” an anti-Sati poster,depicting a woman in bridal finery resisting being dragged to a funeral pyre by priests,designed for the World March of Women 2000,and produced by the National Alliance of Women,Mahasamund,Madhya Pradesh.

Reflective — the immortal lines,“hum toh thehre ajnabi…”,from Faiz Ahmed Faiz,on a poster for communal harmony by the Voluntary Health Association of India.

Cheeky — “This Valentine’s Day,send the Sri Ram Sene a pink chaddi,because chaddis are forever”,the words inscribed around a large,baggy,resplendent pink chaddi,for the wildly successful Facebook campaign protesting the Ram Sene’s attack on women in pubs in Mangalore.

Challenging —“A lifeless body can enter a mosque,but why the disrespect to a living woman? Why are we,with our life and all our senses,kept out?” a poster in Tamil produced by the Tamil Nadu Women’s Jamaat against the discrimination faced by women in traditional religious communities.

Accompanying the visuals in this beautifully produced book is a running text that contextualises different issues and campaigns in their time and place. With a remarkable economy of words (the visuals are definitely the heroines),Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta outline some complicated debates in the women’s movement,such as,for instance,around commercial surrogacy — does it involve exploitation of reproductive labour and reinforcement of patriarchal notions of women as wombs; or can it pose a challenge to the purity of caste and religious identity and the stability of heterosexuality? Or,around the selective abortion of female foetuses — the need to protect women’s right to safe and affordable abortions while preventing sex-selective abortion; the question of whether pre- natal diagnostic techniques should be used to abort foetuses judged to be disabled. As Murthy and Dasgupta remind us,“…it is the powerful who decide who or what is abnormal,and who has the right to be born.”

These debates are not settled in the movement,and reflect the way in which feminists constantly seek their ethical bearings through conversation and dialogue and — let’s not be coy here — outright quarrels with one another!

The brief introductory section on feminist understandings of patriarchy and gender is scholarly,multi-layered and always accessible,bringing into view the ways in which Indian feminists have struggled to understand both these ideas in terms of class,caste and more recently,queer identities.

Murthy and Dasgupta reflect also on the imagery of the posters themselves. Many of the early posters,they say,depict sensuous,full-bodied women,but the visuals from the “maturing (and mainstreaming) campaigns tended to be more sanitised and asexual”. Was this due to a conscious toning down of the erotic aspects of the female body,they wonder,or did it simply reflect a more mainstream,urbanised and standardised aesthetic?

“As delicate and risky as holding a moonbeam” is how the authors describe this task of chronicling a movement which is no single movement but a “myriad histories that have many versions”. Whether you consider yourself part of the movement or not,it is an exhilarating and intensely inspiring experience to travel on this journey with them,and with the countless women and many men who have blazed these trails.

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