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Posted on 20th November, 2011

Review of 'Women Changing India' exhibition,

 at Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea (Sep 2011).


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I don't know if I had been spoiled by having just visited the Steve McCurry exhibition at Chris Beetles Fine Photographs. Perhaps I was annoyed at having been soaked to the skin in getting there. Perhaps it was because I was tired and my leg was aching. But most likely though, perhaps it was my pre-conceived ideas of what I was about to see. Whatever it was, I'm afraid I did not feel good whilst touring this exhibition, commissioned by BNP Paribas from Magnum. I went with big hopes, having a deep fascination with India and its people, born out of five visits to the amazing country. But, apart from just one image, this quite sizeable exhibition just didn't relate well to what I've seen, what I know, and most importantly, what I've felt.


Having said that, I can have no complaints. After all, it is clearly described as 'focusing on the vital place that women hold in Indian society today', and, for someone whose main interest is in social issues, it does that well. In fact, it does so in abundance, featuring women in roles in corporate management, local governance (panchayats), the media, science, law, and Bollywood. Considering the massive number of Indians now attaining a university education, that is also featured of course. And at a more modest level I suppose, there were women achieving positions impossible not too long back, in the security industry and as taxi-drivers. What I did wonder when seeing these photographs, and which I didn't notice on any caption, was the influence or otherwise of the 'caste' system on the achievements. Have these women now been able to enter jobs that their caste would previously have denied them? Or, are they jobs that were always theoretically open to them, but only men would have carried out?


As I suggest, plenty to think about if social studies turns you on, and obviously, I have certain feelings and opinions about such things: quite simply, you can't come away from India without having you mind moulded to some degree or other. But what if your main interest is photography, as is mine? Well, for me, virtually all images come across as purely record-type shots, as they lack features that inspire a reaction, feeling, or emotion. There's little of the demonstrative hand gesture, the soulful facial and eye expression, dramatic lighting, or dramatic location. This is particularly so I think, with the set of images depicting corporate icons. Although they are wearing traditional Indian dress, these women could have been pictured anywhere in the world, being in sterile, soul-less and bland boxes that would match nicely with Milton Keynes for instance. Yes, I know that the MD's of this world have big offices, but I really wish the women had been shown in a different context somehow. Perhaps being with the people, places and things they and their businesses are operating amongst would have helped. And if more dramatic lighting had been used, rather than the very bland 'camera-club-portrait' style, that would have added greatly to the impact of these shots.


I should make it clear that there were a small number of pics that did raise my interest a little. For instance, images of Meghwar and Rabari embroidery-makers, in villages of the Kutch area of Gujarat. These women work at a fantastic skill-level, but they've so far not reaped the financial reward it justifies. But that's changing, as a group called Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), working with an umbrella organisation called Self-Employed Womens Association (SEWA), now gives them information, training, and financial help to exploit markets better. I just hope that the know-how they pick up doesn't cause them to use machines instead of their manual skills: that would be a disaster.


The embroidery images were interesting then, but just one image was brilliant. This was of Nazleen Babusheikh, sitting in her taxi on Marine Drive, Mumbai. Not exciting in itself, but raised to the exceptional level by the pleading eyes of a little beggar girl staring in through the far window. A la Steve McCurry I know, but even so, I'm really sorry to say that it was the only pic in the whole exhib that gave me a tingle.


So, should you visit? If your main interest is in the social status of women in India, or you have relationships with / experience of such issues, this exhib will interest, inspire and move you. If your main interest is in seeing great photography, I think you'll be disappointed.


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