EXHIBITION: The show “Subjects and Spaces” shows the journey of women from Colonial India to the modern-day private studios

Projecting a female body in seductive frontal displays, women bathing or set against romanticised European-inspired landscapes, luxuriating figures were hard to imagine in the 19th Century public sphere. An exhibition by Tasveer Foundation at Moonriver studio, on till February 5, takes one on a journey of women from Colonial India to the private studios of the 20th Century through photographs.

The theme of the exhibition, “Subjects and Spaces”, focuses on women occupying the physical spaces while being photographed. The subjects shown in domestic, outdoor, group and performative spaces, are represented exclusively through the male prism. It brings images of women of diverse and contrasting backgrounds, casting a light on the historical trajectory involving women in a Colonial era.

“We wanted to focus attention on photographs of Indian women and how they were being represented. The bulk of 19th and early 20th Century photography in this country is made up of portraits of men and topographical views of architectural sites, and so on. This bias interested us and so we began to pull out some of the more interesting photographs that did include women, to see what kind of narratives and themes might emerge,” says Abhishek Poddar, founder of Tasveer Foundation.

The 70 images displayed have an aesthetic appeal while introducing the feminine identity through the lens wielded by British and Indian photographers. The portraits of women adorned with jewels and ethnic costumes are pictorial representations of places like Kashmir, Bengal and Maharashtra.

The pictures are from the archives of the Foundation. Abhishek selected images of women shown in the different physical spaces they inhabited, such as women in studios, with children, in groups, posing with flowers — all showing how they lived and were perceived. He has also included famous photographs of women from India’s photographic history — from Watson and Kaye’s “The People of India” (1868-75), the Nautch girl photographs by E. Taurines (1880s), the anonymous studio photographs of normal people, and Hindi cinema images, such as the original lobby card from the 1955 movie Shree 420 showing Nargis and Raj Kapoor standing in the rain.

Besides portraits of royal and political families, the pictures of film stars such as Nimmi, Vyjayantimala and Saira Banu depict modernity and feminine boldness, breaking out of the straitjacket society prescribes for them.