Photographer Deepti Asthana Is Sharing The Hitherto Untold Narratives Of The “Women Of India”
- IWB Post
- February 9, 2019
For Deepti Asthana, photography has been way more than a profession. Apart from being a source of cathartic relief, it has helped her pave a path to her soul as she goes about finding pieces of herself in all the stories that she covers.
“It has been a very personal journey for me,” she tells me. Self-taught in her vocation, Deepti began her journey as a travel photographer but as she went on exploring the field, she found what she had been seeking all her life and her series Women of India was born.
Talking to me about her foray into photography and the genesis of her project, she shares, “I grew up in a small city with a single mother. My father died when I was just 3-4 years old. So in that way, there were many things which were buried deep inside me which never got a vent.”
Deepti stumbled upon serendipity as she sought a release for her long-repressed anguish and photography found its way into her life. Deepti shares, “It was kind of accidental. I got introduced to the camera through one of my colleagues when I was working in the UK way back in 2012 and it struck me that it was something that I could pursue since I was not very content with my job.”
Post the catastrophic cyclone in 1964, Dhanushkodi was declared ‘unfit to live’ and abandoned by the Government. Getting even the most basic of amenities required hard labor. Every week, women dig well using their bare hands, in search of sweet water for drinking and domestic purposes. There are no toilets or bathrooms, just temporary structures of thatched wall. Many defecate in the open sand or behind bushes, but a constant fear lurks, of being harmed by insects, reptiles or sharp corals that are swept up by the sea waves. Stories and text by @deeptiasthana
93 Likes, 6 Comments – Women of India (@womenofindia) on Instagram: “Post the catastrophic cyclone in 1964, Dhanushkodi was declared ‘unfit to live’ and abandoned by…”
That is when Deepti started experimenting with the lens and learning the nuances of photography. She tried everything right from fashion to wedding photography but constantly had a lingering feeling that she was yet to find the right thing for herself. Her search for her true calling led to a lot of traveling which opened new avenues and possibilities for her.
As she recollects, “It opened an entirely new world to me, and exposed me to new experiences which I was devoid of while growing up. I soon realised that there was way more in photography than clicking pretty pictures of pretty flowers.”
Deepti’s travelling led her to rural and tribal areas where she felt a strong pull as soon as she started interacting with the women. She shares, “I realised that I connected with these women on a very profound level. I felt like their story resonated with what I had gone through, with what my mother had gone through on some level and that helped me in reaching out to them and form a bond. There was a new sort of comfort and I could empathize with them.”
It didn’t take her long to realise that there was nothing that filled her heart as much as these experiences, the stories of these women, and the travelling. That’s how she started collecting the stories of women from rural India.
As her “Women Of India” series received a great response and she got featured on platforms like the BBC, Huffington Post, First Post, The Hindu, Better Photography, The Quint, Scroll, etc., it motivated her to further explore the stories that women from rural India had to offer.
Nirmala, 9 lives with with her grandmother Lakshmi Amma, as her father realised he is not able to manage the expenditure of having four daughters. Nirmala and Lakshmi share a special bond, which is beyond the limits of parenthood. They are the support of the pillar for each other. Nirmala is a shy kid and often doesn’t mingle with other children. She sits with her grandmother in the shop after the school. Lakshmi hardly gets time to leave the shop and cook; she fears to lose the business, which is anyway very limited. While Nimala eats lunch in school under the mid-day meal scheme. Lakshmi is constantly worried about her and Nirmala’s safety as the other sons harass her for money after being drunk. I asked Lakshmi Amma if she should file an official complaint, she responded if you have a nose, you would also have a cold.
130 Likes, 5 Comments – Women of India (@womenofindia) on Instagram: “Nirmala, 9 lives with with her grandmother Lakshmi Amma, as her father realised he is not able to…”
It also worked for her for the catharsis that it brought along. She says, “I feel more and more at peace with my own past as I pursue these stories. It has really helped me emotionally.”
A major concern of Deepti’s photography is capturing the difference between the rural and the urban world. She explains, “I have been fortunate enough to experience both of these worlds. I grew up in a small town, but I have also lived in places like Mumbai and the UK. When I compare the two worlds, I feel like the gap between them is jarringly great. While in the urban world women are exercising their rights, embracing feminism, when we think of rural India, it is a different phenomenon altogether. I am trying to bridge this gap by telling their stories.”
Her aim is to tell their stories to the world through her photography. Deepti says that while everyone might have a general idea about what has been happening there, expressing it by the medium of a story creates an entirely different impact altogether. “There is so much work that needs to be done for these women and I have been trying to do my part through my photography. My aim is to bridge the gap between the two worlds.”
Sharing one of her most emotional experience till date, she recollects her visit to the saltpan workers of Gujarat. After reaching the place, as she was looking around, trying to comprehend the entire process and what goes into it, an enthusiastic little girl approached her and offered to be her guide.
Deepti shares, “To my surprise, after a while this girl stood up and started doing the same work. She started filling these heavy saltpans and putting them into trucks. I was really shocked looking at that little girl doing such arduous work. So I ended up asking why she was doing that. She told me that it was her father who had asked her to do the same.”
On 11th of October, the world observed ‘International Day of the Girl Child’ to support more opportunity for girls and increase awareness of gender inequality. However, I do wish for a day when there’d be no need to observe a special day for girls since there wouldn’t be any inequality based upon gender in any sphere of life for them. I want to share the story of Bharthi, which led me to start this project two year back. My first thought after meeting Bharti was, that since her parents were coming to work they might not want to leave their children behind at home, and hence she would just be a spectator to the activities around her. But to my surprise, Bharti joined the work along with other adults on the salt plant after a while. I saw her lifting the heavy pans full of salt which were way too heavy for her thin arms. Her repeated movements of lifting salt and filling the tractors were fast, painful and yet she was smiling when our eyes met.
155 Likes, 5 Comments – Women of India (@womenofindia) on Instagram: “On 11th of October, the world observed ‘International Day of the Girl Child’ to support more…”
She adds, “These people do this work generation after generation. They just cannot escape this cycle of labour. The realisation really broke my heart because in her I saw a beautiful, smart girl who could be anyone she wanted to be in future if she got the opportunity to do so but somewhere deep in my heart I knew that it was very difficult for her to escape this vicious cycle.”
It was actually this story which catalyzed the entire project for Deepti. She wanted people to read these stories and help her in impacting a change which she had started. As she travelled across the length and breadth of the country for the project, Deepti noticed the varying colors of patriarchy in different regions. She was also in for a little bit of surprise.
She shares, “I was very surprised to realise that women in rural areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Himalaya, had much better hold of their rights in comparison to the states that we think of as more progressive and modern. In fact, these so-called progressive states are the ones with more regressive rules for women.”
During one such visit to Tamil Nadu, Deepti got to meet two fisherwomen sisters who had seen a life of extreme hardships. The interaction left Deepti really moved and inspired. She shares, “Their struggles didn’t hamper their zeal for life. They are going out, working hard, earning their own money, and sending their children to good schools in hope of a better future despite all the odds they are still fighting for the kind of life they want. I think that was very inspirational.”
Deepti’s quest is for similar stories of hope and creating them where they don’t exist by raising awareness through her photography. Till date, she has travelled to rural places in states like Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Gujarat and is slowly and leisurely soaking in all the experiences and the stories that these places have to offer. She is in no hurry to fathom it all as soon as possible and is pursuing it at her own pace “one story at a time.”
A remote land, covered with white sand, bordered by the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean on either sides at the southern tip of India, Dhanushkodi is a forlorn place. Once a bustling sea port, it is now in ruins after the catastrophic cyclone of 1964, which reduced it to rubbles and approximately 1800 people died. Post this, the place was declared “unfit to live” by the Government of India and since then, has been in a state of total neglect. However, almost 400 fishermen families continue to live here and see this barren land as their only home. Some of these fishermen are cyclone survivors and have been living here for 50 years.
83 Likes, 4 Comments – Women of India (@womenofindia) on Instagram: “A remote land, covered with white sand, bordered by the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean on…”
First published on Oct 26, 2018.