Two years after Ismat Chughtai penned the Urdu short story Lihaaf, in 1944 she found herself in the Lahore court answering charges of obscenity levelled at her for the short story that gained notoriety for the depiction of the relationship between Begum Jaan and her maid Rabbu, with sexual overtones. In the years to come, the Urdu writer extensively wrote about her appearances in court, and while she authored several other notable works hence, Lihaaf remained prominent, for in it the author had addressed a taboo, discussing the subjugation felt within conservative Muslim households.
Twenty five years after her demise, Lucknow-based NGO Sanatkada is celebrating her work in an exhibition alongside 39 iconic women from Awadh. Titled “Feminists of Awadh”, the show chronicles the life and work of these women, including writers Rasheed Jahan and Chugtai, first lady municipal commissioner of Lucknow Inam Fatima and Caption Lakshmi Sahgal. “They were all ‘modern’ in the true sense. They are feminists who did things out-of-the box and contributed to the society as a whole,” says Madhavi Kuckreja from Sanatkada, adding, “They have been forgotten in our history books. No one discusses their contribution, how will the new generation know about them?”
Printed on panels alongside archival photographs, the biographical narratives in the exhibition have been culled from a 2014 book Feminists of Awadh Par Salaam, where chapters on these women were written by an associate or a family member. While Begum Akhtar, known for her defiant musical style, is one of the most prominent women on the list, others include Gulab Bai, the first woman in Nautanki, Begum Aizaz Rasul who was among the first women members of the UP assembly; Kaushalya Devi, mother of Ramdas Sonkar, the first Dalit permitted to the Indian Administrative Services in Uttar Pradesh in 1957; and Bano, a domestic worker honoured because she had the courage to leave her conservative father and alcoholic husband and apply for a divorce in the 1960s. “These women took decisions that meant going against the acceptable norms, breaking stereotypes and exhibiting defiance,” says Kuckreja.’
The exhibition at Intach, 71, Lodhi Estate, is on till March 15.