Central & South Asia

An Artistic Snapshot of Indian Women


June 30, 2013 04:45 EDT

In India, culturally and socially, women are seen as burdensome.

Five single Indian women stare at me. All of them are wearing bindis (a traditional piece of forehead decoration), and four of them are dressed in bright, colourful outfits. One is sporting thick-rimmed glasses, two of them are wearing shirts instead of saris and one has a perfect hairdo except for a strand of loose hair that might have escaped. All five women look clever, ambitious, and maybe even hopeful.

I am looking at a photograph dating back to the 1970s or 1980s. It all seems rosy until I read the caption scrawled across the top left corner of the image: “And then our husbands came to our lives”.

Life Finishes After Marriage

"I was looking at that photograph and thought to myself, 'little do they know that they will get married soon and their lives will change forever,'" explains Nandan Ghiya, the artist behind the photograph, whose collection was showcased at the recent Art Basel Hong Kong  the first Art Basel in the city and the Asia Pacific region. His entire collection plays with old photographs by adding layers of acrylic paint, giving them a comic, pop art feel – a nod to some of his idols, like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

That sharp juxtaposition between the optimistic image and the ominous caption in this particular photograph attempts to mirror the contrast between the modern Indian woman’s expectations and the realities of social paradigm. “For a lot of women in India, life finishes after marriage. [Marriage brings] a whole lot of responsibilities  they are expected to submit to their husbands and their new family,” says Ghiya, and many do not have much of a choice in the matter.

All the positive stories that pour out of the subcontinent  increasing literacy, higher life expectancy, decreasing birthrates and so on  paint an optimistic image of the country. Unfortunately, that image differs dramatically from a reality crippled by rusty old societal structures and beliefs, such as the primacy of marriage, that still remain stubbornly in place and eat away at freedoms and progress, particularly for women.

According to the National Family Health Survey, conducted by the Indian government, 47 percent of women were married by the age of 18 in 2009. Although the tradition of marrying at a young age is more common in rural areas (56 percent versus the 29 percent in urban locales), the grass isn’t exactly greener for the modern working woman living in the city. A Gallup survey found that between 2009 and 2012, only 25 percent of Indian women overall were employed or seeking employment regardless of their education levels, which lags far behind the 70 percent of women employed in neighbouring China. The report states that: “Traditional cultural expectations have played a part in keeping educated women out of the labour force.”

Within the elegant wooden frame of Ghiya’s work is encapsulated quite succinctly the fact that despite India’s shining success story, for the majority of women, like the five in the photograph, marriage still dangles like the sword of Damocles threatening to put an end to the lives they know and their aspirations.

May You Be Blessed With a Hundred Sons

In another one of Ghiya’s works a young girl, probably about six-years-old, in a red frock and polished black shoes looks pensively into the distance. A thought bubble hovers above her head that reads: “I oughta be thinking something feministic or women’s rights kinda things. But considering my age, I should just focus on barbies and air hostess dreams.” As with the previous piece, the obvious tongue-in-cheek tone of the caption stands in stark contrast with the innocent image.

“Rapes, feticides, child molestation are just some of the things we are witnessing in India today,” explains Ghiya. The horrific gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old girl in New Delhi last year gripped the world’s attention, sparking protests across the country and catalysing a change in the law. The sad truth, however, is that the Delhi case wasn’t a one-off occurrence; sexual assault has been occurring for a long time. National records of reported crimes against women between 2006 and 2010 show an increase in rape, dowry deaths (even though dowry is illegal), molestation and sexual harassment.

“A young girl is so ignorant and free of any of these notions… but being born in India she will eventually have to witness one or more of these someday. It’s a scary thought,” says Ghiya.  

The two threads that Ghiya’s works explore – inevitable marriage and physical abuse of women – can both be traced back to a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture. Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist, has long echoed this idea. In The Many Faces of Gender Inequality, Sen succinctly stated: “Many Indian mothers themselves seem to harbor [the ‘son preference’]. This form of gender inequality cannot be removed, at least in the short run, by the enhancement of women’s empowerment and agency, since that agency is itself an integral part of the cause… We must inquire beyond economic resources or material prosperity or GNP growth into broad social and cultural influences.”

Ghiya’s work does just that by drawing inspiration from his own environment. “The protagonist in my works is the one in my immediate surroundings – my mother, my wife, aunt, cousins, students… I am merely trying to visualize them.” The fact that Ghiya witnesses this bias within a relatively middle to upper class family like his own, serves as a telling reflection of the extent of an Indian woman’s cultural and social inequality.

India ranks 136th out of 186 on the Gender Inequality Index. Culturally and socially, women are seen as burdensome and, for lack of a better word, useless in the long run. In fact, a common blessing at wedding rituals is “may you be blessed with a hundred sons”. This is not only because of the dowry tradition, which is still widely practised, but also because sons are seen as the ones that can look after ageing parents and maintain the family lineage.

For these reasons, legal changes alone, such as the new sexual assault laws or dowry laws, will not and do not spur change or eliminate discrimination. Instead, a widespread, collective shift in attitudes is necessary. Until that happens, the childish innocence of the young girl in the picture  and all young girls in India  can only last for so long. Barbies and air hostess dreams must be traded in for self-awareness, caution and acceptance as soon as she realises she is a girl. “While it really makes me sad, there is nothing more that I can do except for making a work of art,” concludes Ghiya.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved


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