The visual of poverty is a layered reality and never neutral. The poor are invisible in India; and this invisibility is willingly constructed through intentional blindness towards the past, which the villages represent in an urban, aspirational India.
As a result, the poor are a series of popular images, dredged up from memory usually due to sympathy and sadness. Poverty is an unrooted, islandic idea that has never enjoyed the possibilities of truth, or the subjectivities of purpose. If it had, then poverty would have been an active part of the imagination of the average Indian; because then, the eyes would have built the bridge to cover the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Poverty is an unrooted, islandic idea that has never enjoyed the possibilities of truth, or the subjectivities of purpose.
For the past 15 years, the written word has been the fulcrum of my research on farmer suicides and rural poor. After four books of fiction and the latest non-fiction book, Widows of Vidarbha, Making of Shadows (Oxford University Press, 2018), the written word had vindicated itself for representing the poor. There is a lot that a sentence can do. For instance: ‘I wish I was the one who committed suicide,’ a widow had once said, ‘and not my husband. It is easy to die.’ Language can be visual. With training and practice, text can be used to regenerate the visual of the widow in the mind of the reader.
Invariably, however, something is lost in this translation from one medium to the other; from the text to the visual. I searched for ways to recover the lost stories, the stories that demanded to speak in their own voices. That was the beginning of my journey as a photographer of rural India. The training was abrupt and intense; it was amidst impatient farmers with no time to pose, and among children too grim to be playful. I had to quickly learn three lessons on how to picture poverty of our villages.
One, the lens is the channel with the subject at one end and the world at the other; and both demanded loyalty. The camera had to take a side, and the picture could not serve both the observed and the observer. Two, the visual is easy to internalize, and therefore, is a natural marketing tool. The challenge was to ensure that the observer is not a consumer, and the picture is not a product. Three, poverty is not a broken home or a torn garment; it is a lifetime spent in the absence of everything. It has to be felt, not merely shown.
The result is a set of photographs from the field that are on display at the show, The Nature of Things, Death and Dualism in Indian Villages. It is a visual narrative of the widows of farmer suicides of Beed district and is based on my findings of the seven invisibilities of the women. It was not easy to take the pictures of the women as they tearfully remembered the struggle of their husbands to help the family survive and their eventual surrender. Or let them speak with despair about their present condition.
Poverty is not a broken home or a torn garment; it is a lifetime spent in the absence of everything. It has to be felt, not merely shown.
The most difficult part was to photograph the silence of a widow. Several images in the present series capture it; it is not an empty silence, it is a silence filled with questions that the women are not allowed to ask of the state, of the system and of their own family. As the women connect with the camera, at first reluctantly and then directly, some of these questions are transferred to the viewer, along with the absence of answers and the desperation for them.
The power of the visual is not one-way; it is not just transference or situating the poor and rural women in the minds of the viewer. It also situates the viewer in her own narrative. Women – rural or urban, rich or poor, regional or central, and from any walk of life – face invisibilities of their own and battle against them constantly. The photographs also capture this battle of all women to be visible, their aspiration to be counted and their will to win against all odds.
Dr Kota Neelima is an author and researcher. Latest show #TheNatureOfThings, Death and Dualism in Indian Villages. On till Aug 29, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, and will continue Aug 29-Sept 29 at StudioAdda, H-10, Jangpura Extn, Delhi. The views expressed are the author’s own.