Abook of photographs on “Indian women” can be many things. It can be a kaleidoscopic hotchpotch of young and old, less privileged and affluent, heroic and servile Indian women. It can reiterate, in carefully constructed frames, age-old stereotypes of Indian femininity. It can also simply be about the photographer’s opinion—how she interprets that generic term. Ayesha Taleyarkhan’s Stree: Woman of India doesn’t exactly fall into any of these categories, although it comes close to the first.
The distinctive feature of this book of 125 photographs, taken all over Mumbai, is what’s loosely called “candid camera” in photography—the photographer catches her subjects in her natural surroundings. Taleyarkhan’s subjects vary from slum women to models and radio jockeys to pilots, and she tries to project the energy that these women bring to the spaces they inhabit, their daily grind and day-to-day joys.
Stree--Woman of India: Self published,207 pages, Rs2,500
Some of the best images in the book are the ones where the subject is looking into the camera and Taleyarkhan frames them carefully. There are two images that particularly stand out. Both are of old, frail women from a poor background. They seem amused, yet conscious and irritated by the camera’s intrusion while Taleyarkhan captures their close-up. In contrast, those taken at a film shoot, of actor Deepika Padukone rehearsing a dance step, or some images that just go by the label “a pretty face”, clicked casually, come across as photos from a family album.
Taleyarkhan is a Mumbaikar at heart, and it shows in her works. Her two earlier works, on Mumbai’s balconies and verandahs and the city itself, are suffused with love and empathy for the city. Here too, Mumbai is alive in her frames.
Through the book, Taleyarkhan’s empathy for her subjects and her celebration of their heterogeneity are obvious. “So much has happened to Indian women in the last decade. I wanted to document that change,” she says.
In that process, however, the photographer herself has got lost. Too busy capturing the unguarded smile or expression, we don’t get a sense of what the photographer really thinks of her subjects’ situations. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but what’s a work of art if it doesn’t reflect its creator’s heart, her world view? Besides, a subject such as this—which has been open to debate, interpretation and analysis for the better part of the 20th century—deserves much more than empathy and plain observation. It needs to be critically, even perhaps politically, viewed.
Random House USA brought out a similar book in 2000, of portraits by veteran American photographer Annie Leibowitz, accompanied by an introductory essay by the American writer and intellectual Susan Sontag. “A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women—there is no equivalent ‘question of men’. Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress,” wrote Sontag.