Navratri Reminds Us Of A Goddess Within All Women: Visithra Manikam
October 10 marked the first day of Navratri. While we worship nine different avatars of Goddess Durga, we need to ask ourselves if we’re really serving the real purpose. 38-year-old Visithra Manikam, a photographer and artist based in Malaysia, is doing her bit in creating a wave of change.
In 2016, Visithra, in synchrony with Navratri, created and worked on a project named “Goddess Within” with nine wonderful women. It showcases strength, capability and flaws of women who are standing up to societal constraints. Through this, she also intends to show how there’s a goddess in every woman. SheThePeople.TV spoke with Visithra about photography, the Goddess Within project, gender-based notions and more.
Photography and self-teaching
Visithra, at a young age, got her first digital point-and-shoot camera with manual settings. She began learning by solely shooting in manual settings. “This helped me learn how to control light through aperture and shutter speed. I spent a lot of time reading about techniques, light manipulation and practised them. I also joined critique groups on Flickr where we critique each other’s photos and that helped me grow,” she reveals.
“Sometimes the best camera you have is the one that’s always in your hand”
She is an avid believer of the fact that it’s the person’s view which is more important than the camera device.
“A lot of time people see an image and say ‘oh you must have a DSLR’, but it’s really not all the equipment that you use. That was why my first exhibition was done with photos taken with a digital point-and-shoot camera even though I had a DSLR camera. Photography technique and knowledge enables you to take a good photo with any device. Today, you see people taking amazing photos with just their mobile phones. At the end of the day, the device is a tool you use to show what you see and that’s what sets photographers apart,” she reflects.
The Goddess Within Project
As interesting as it sounds, the ‘Goddess Within’ represents the very idea of laying an empowering impact. Visithra conceived this idea out of frustration and anger. “Over the last few years, pages were sprouting on Facebook policing women on what they do or how they dress. A lady decided to shame a girl for wearing a sleeveless salwar to a temple and her son decided to shame her online and people joined him,” she narrates.
“All I wanted to do was to inspire other women and to tell people they cannot and should not focus on what they deem is a person’s flaw”
Also, an incident, where a mother-daughter duo was brutally murdered in their home, had a major impact on Visithra. “This was just before Navratri. I was thinking here we have a Hindu celebration where, while we celebrate the goddess, our women are being killed, their every move dictated etc. That’s why I decided to do this photo series for Navratri to let everyday women talk about the different issues they face while dressing them up as goddesses in an urban, modern context,” she explains.
On selecting women and their stories
Visithra decided to work on the project just a week before Navratri. She posted the call on Instagram and Facebook and received responses from ten girls. “I did not pick my goddesses, I said yes to the first ten girls who approached me,” she recalls. Visithra, who did not know their stories, shared her idea and vision with them. She did not plan any of the social constraints that she featured. “It all came from conversations and back-to-back messages. Every photo represents their individual style and beauty,” she shares.
Challenges and learning
Every step, from the conception of the idea to its implementation is never easy. Something Visithra realised while shooting was that there were countless stories that go untold because not everyone is able to share these serious issues. Interestingly, most of these women were being photographed for the first time. Visithra shares she hadn’t met most of them before, so there was also a trust she had to build.
“If you can change 1 person because of your efforts, I think that itself is a big success”
Visithra’s interaction with each woman she photographed turned into a personal learning experience and joy. “Each session turned into conversations that I did not expect to make. Some shared personal stories, insecurities and struggles, a lot of which was not shared in their final stories, but they are stories I remember,” she says, adding that we all need someone who believes in us and that’s when we can confidently realise our true potential.
On changing gender-based notions
Women have been subjected to preconceived notions, regardless of the country they’re living in. Visithra feels these notions will only break when women stand together and support each other. “Many times it’s not only men who force down constrictions on women but women themselves who have been successfully brainwashed by patriarchy. So, for starters, we need to support each other, not put down another woman and stand up for women when they are wronged,” she urges.
“It’s not an easy process, but let’s start somewhere.”
She believes parents need to significantly teach their their children about the importance of equality, respect and consent. She says that support also equals to standing up for women who are trolled online for how they dress. This includes supporting women who take legal action against these people. Visithra believes, especially with the current #MeToo wave riding, that there’s even more need for everyone to come together to believe the survivors. She says women must relate to each other’s stories and know that they are not alone.
“Photography allows you to connect to strangers that you would generally miss on a daily basis.”
She exhibited her first solo photography exhibition in 2009. She also went on to document a school in India the same year. These experiences, she says, have shaped her beliefs too. A lot of Visithra’s photography involves people and, therefore, exhibitions, for her, are an interesting platform for discussions and new concepts.
“You could walk past the same road every day and miss so many things. It has opened me up to interacting with perfect strangers and giving them something that is actually precious – time,” she says. Interestingly, she also engages in a conversation with people she photographs on the streets even if they don’t speak the same language. “Sometimes we laugh, sometimes they share concerns, sometimes they look away. Each experience is different and you need to open yourself up to these experiences,” she adds.
Visithra, who has also done wedding photography earlier, decided to leave the segment since it took her time away from indulging in what she loved – documentary and street photography.
On what lies ahead
Goddess Within was not Visithra’s first attempt to re-educate society on the constrictions they place on women. She has been writing on these subjects for a long time now. She’s now working towards creating and pushing her messages across platforms. Visithra has also been been trying to get her project exhibited in a public space so more people can witness her intentions. “It’s an ongoing process that hopefully will see the light one day,” she concludes.
This Navratri, let us all find a goddess within each one of us; let us learn to respect women as we respect goddesses. And this does not limit to nine days alone, we need to understand and value the thought every single day. Let us not dilute our Navratri but gain a new perspective and collectively come forward to break taboos surrounding gender. Because if we don’t value the women in our lives or anywhere around us, for that matter, there’s absolutely no point in praying to the goddess above.