Thursday, October 11, 2007

Fazal Sheikh at Princeton University Art Museum

Kalyani Ghosh: Husband commits suicide in a drunken stupor - she was 23 - went to live with her mother in law - forced out - now lives in Vrindavan age 78
Renuka: Home alone - neighbour rapes her - husband can no longer accept her as his wife - cast out of house - went off to Vrindavan.
Jaida: Kidnapped at six and given hormone injections for premature growth of her breasts. Put to work as a prostitute when she was 11.
Kavitha: Mostly lives on the streets of Delhi. For about $17 / month, performs gymnastics on the road for passers by.
I had the good fortune of running into an excellent exhibition underway at the Princeton University Art Museum this weekend. Fazal Sheikh, an artist-activist who uses photography to create portraits of communities and in turn helps reflect the underlying economic, social and societal problems and mores that the community faces is quite a show to behold.

The show entitled 'Our beloved daughters' showcases two themes concerning the effects of societal mores on Indian women and their corresponding after-effects on society;

The first theme is Moksha. It focuses on an obnoxious five hundred year old practice played out in the holy city of Vrindavan in northern India. Vrindavan is a magnet for India’s dispossessed widows who are cast out by their families and condemned by strict marital laws, denying them legal, economic, and in some extreme cases their human rights. Due to circumstances that they could not control (like the death of their husbands), they now have to eke out their lives by the banks of the river, worshipping the god Krishna, helping them to cast off memories from their past life and prepare for a new and better life to come. Their ultimate dream is to reach moksha (salvation in heaven) where they will find freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth and live surrounded by their gods forever (apparently).

The second theme is Ladli (young girl), where he explores the devastating effects of enduring prejudices against girls and women in the Indian society. For all of the progress made by India, portrayals like Ladli reveal the hidden aspects of caste system, dowry, female infanticide and in some cases Sati. Longstanding custom in certain families/sects makes for girl brides being a drain on the family fortunes at the time of their marriage (the bride’s family would have to pay a dowry to the bridegroom’s family in return for ‘taking/accepting’ their daughters hand). Once married off, the same woman is further ridiculed in the event of their offspring being a girl - for the same reasons stated above, It is a vicious cycle that a lot of these women live in - in the fringes of their households in constant fear of their husbands - males who completely dominate the household ensuring that even a sliver of protest will be beaten back to the corner with ruthless force.

Fazal Sheikh’s photographs capture the city and his portraits of the women convey their sense of acceptance of life in a way that defines common sense and logic. He has spent time with his subjects, listening to their stories, which reveal the suffering caused by the traditions that still govern Indian society.

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