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india at work | a woman's labour

a photo essay

What does a woman’s labour look like in India? These are just a few glimpses of the multidimensionality of that image.

1: An extremely old lady, working as a porter at a spice market in Uttar Pradesh. All her life she’s worked in jobs that have required heavy lifting, traditionally thought to be a ‘man’s job’. In India, women are often seen in these kinds o f roles, taking up jobs requiring immense physical strength. Every urban Indian, has seen the image of a woman in a saree, carrying heavy bricks/ bowls full of cement on her head, her young child on her waist.

2: Two women, who are sisters in laws, working on a field in village somewhere in the hills of Uttarakhand. Even in agrarian societies, women often tend to the fields all by themselves, whilst their husbands sit in the sun, gambling and gallivanting. Despite working so hard all day, all their lives, they still have to take on the dual burden of house chores and are often subject to intense violence and physical abuse from their alcoholic husbands at night.

3: A woman knitting a cardigan with her hands, in Landour, Himachal Pradesh. Women are often wearier of being photographed. I met this wonderful lady sitting along with other women in her family, just outside the hearth of her home. All the women were engaged in some kind of work husking, sewing. After conversing with them, I asked her if I could photograph her, and she replied cautiously saying you can take a photo of my hands, but not of my face please. I respected her wishes. She was not the only one to make this request; a lot of women I spoke to were apprehensive to be photographed, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to link it to the fear of being a woman in society; the fear of having your photographed used wrongfully, or to cause shame to you or your family’s ‘honour’. Being a woman, myself probably worked to my advantage in the case of those who agreed for a photo or even for the conversation in the first place.

While men are typically considered the breadwinners of a family, women are often equally and, in all honesty, even more enterprising, finding ways to earn even through smaller activities and businesses; weaving, knitting, handicrafts. They’re also the savers, in the household.

4: A kitchen counter, with a steel spice box and some freshly grown vegetables. No human being can be seen in the frame.

According to The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) Period Labour Force Survey (PLFS) for 2017-18, about 71% of Indian men are part of the workforce, when considering persons aged 15 and above. However, only 22% of the country’s female population is at work. Work, in these official statistics has a very specific definition, and one that does not include most of the labour carried out by women in their daily lives. Women’s labour is forcible made invisible, and they are denied credit for their work.

This morning I happened to chance upon an old episode of The Art & Ideas Podcast run by BBC Channel Three. The episode had a curious collection guests, two of whom I’ve had the pleasure of being in contact with previously. The episode from March 2019, was titled partition, colonial power and the voices of 16th c women, and had Rana Mitter in conversation with Artist Hew Locke and historians Suzannah Lipscomb, Aanchal Malhotra & Dr. Anindya Raychaudhuri (who is coincidental a educator at my University in my very own department) about using objects and archives to create new images of the past, from Guyana to India and Pakistan to women in C16th France.

Mitter, posed a question to Aanchal asking her about whether there was a gendering of objects with reference to the items carried across the border by migrants; was there a clear distinction between what women carried and what men did?

In response she said there was, in her observations women tended to carry items that kept in mind the future of the family; utensils to cook for everyone in, jewellery that was often sold off to keep the family going, while men most often carried things of personal value or legacy. Of course, this was not a generalisation but a nuanced observation in certain cases.

Women, in South Asia (and in other parts of the world), are the driving force of the family and the entire nation, but never actually deserve credit for it. Their labour is made invisible, forcefully hidden and goes unrecognised.

2019 saw the highest rates of unemployment in India in the past 10 years. Amidst this economic crisis that has been a troubling result of failed policy making, and an administrative failure by the government, this series aimed at capturing the spirit and diversity of work in the country, across class, gender and geography. I started putting these photos together early last year, but in the current context of the Covid 19 pandemic, ‘India At Work’ has taken on another dimension, one that looks into the loss of livelihood, for many of those who I had captured.  Along with that there is the question of privilege; who suffers the most in a situation like this? Despite the assumption that the virus can affect anyone regardless of socio, political or economic background, the fact is that though anyone can get the virus, not everyone has the same chance of survival or opportunity of receiving healthcare and support.

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