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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Saraswati Chakravarty On Being A Photojournalist In A Sari And Getting Hit During A Protest

  • IWB Post
  •  July 10, 2018

It was while watching the Republic Day parade in 1980 that Saraswati Chakravarty noticed something that was to change her life forever. The realisation that there was not even one woman photographer to cover the parade inspired her to venture into an all-male domain and change the dynamics.

Originally from Kerala, Saraswati had a steady job as a stenographer in Delhi when the seed of becoming a photographer was planted into her head. She approached her photographer friends, ventured into the dark room, played with the camera and started covering social events with a borrowed camera.

“But if I had to cover the Republic Day parade, I needed accreditation. Going to Mathrubhumi office was the first step towards it, and I thought that my Keralite identity would help me,” she said in an interaction with The News Minute.

In 1982, with no formal training in photography and the experience of a novice, she entered the office of Mathrubhumi, the prominent Malayalam daily in Delhi, seeking some assignments to cover.

She sought government accreditation which would enable her to cover major events. Legendary journalists, VP Ramachandran and VK Madhavankutty were the ones who received her at the office and asked “What we need is results. Will you be able to deliver?” She answered, “I am not asking for a job. You give me assignments and pay for the photos I shoot.” She was thus sanctioned to cover the 1982 Asiad, a major sports event.

“Though I portrayed a confident self to them (Ramachandran and Madhavankutty), my heart was beating fast. I had never covered a sports event before!” she recollects.

But the woman had taken up the task with a determination to complete it, come what may. She shares, “I hired two cameras. Those days we had to change the film camera rolls and the Asiad being a big event, one camera wouldn’t work. My first picture was that of elephants being arranged gracefully for the inaugural event. Mathrubhumi carried the picture prominently, and I gained a lot of confidence from it.”

At the event, she got the opportunity to interact with a number of photojournalists. She also showed her photos to a photographer from The Hindu who gave her some valuable feedback which she diligently followed. She shares, “He told me that I needed to get more close-up shots, since it was a sports event. I internalised that.”

Once the event was over, the pictures were carried by various prominent newspapers including Mathrubhumi, and Dinathanthi in Tamil. After the stint, she went to the Press Information Bureau to give her accreditation, which she was duly granted.

What followed after that, drastically transformed Saraswati’s career and her life. She had to leave a comfortable job, she had two kids to take care of and she was not allowed to wear anything but saris. To top it all, when it came to work, her male counterparts didn’t really appreciate the invasion. “Let us see how long she will continue in the profession,” they would tell each other.

She says, “Each time I heard that, I reassured myself that I won’t quit the profession for as long as possible. What’s more, I was wearing a saree all the time, as my in-laws wouldn’t allow me to wear a salwar. Later, things changed. When I would step into a place, male photographers began to say madam has come, give her space. I am short which was an advantage as well as a drawback at the same time, as a photographer. I needed space at the front to get good clicks, but at the same time I wouldn’t trouble others since I was short.”

She soon gained popularity and even political figures began to recognise her. Indira Gandhi would often tell the other photographers to follow Saraswati’s lead, whenever they pestered her much for the poses. “Look at her (Saraswati), she would come, simply finish her work without me even realising it and go,” she’d say.

Saraswati dearly loved and respected her work. She shares, “I had to do everything quickly, take pictures, develop the films in the dark room and rush to the airport to send the pictures to Kerala, to Indore, to Chennai… In the 80s, there were numerous freelance photographers who were ready to give a picture for Rs 20. But even at that time, I was not ready to do so. I gave one picture for Rs 100 because I believed that we should give dignity to our work. That is the basic lesson for women, never underestimate or under-sell your work.”

It was an accident that made her rebel against the family rules of always wearing a sari. She was covering NT Rama Rao that day. “He was arriving at the airport, everything seemed organised. But when he finally arrived, his party members and fans – all those who had gathered there – ran towards him. What I later witnessed was total chaos. After it was over, I noticed that my saree was not on my body and a cleaning worker was holding it. She even scolded me for being absent-minded while working. That day I countered my in-laws and decided to wear the salwar to work,” Saraswati recollects.

Her job had both its ups and downs and a major setback came in 1988. She shares, “January 1988 marked a big turning point in my career. There was an agitation between the police and the lawyers. Kiran Bedi was the Delhi Commissioner of Police. While we were covering it, Bedi ordered and said maro unhe. I was hit on my head, my camera which I had bought from Singapore with my hard-earned money, was broken. My editor’s name was also Bedi to whom I elaborated what had transpired. I was even admitted in the ICU for three days. My editor, who personally used to dislike me, fired me.”

She adds, “I had covered Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. But the impact of the trauma the PTI incident caused still haunts me. As my son told me once, I worked like a dog and what did I get in return? I fought a legal battle, the lower court judgment was in my favour. They approached the high court, three years ago, the verdict came in their favour, that was the final blow. Till date, I don’t know what crime I committed.”

Despite the setback, Saraswati continued freelancing and harbors a dream now. She shares, “My dream is to bring out a book, be it about the Kashmiri women who are very hardworking or others. But it will be on women.”

H/T: The News Minute

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