Vibrant, dynamic, spirited and forceful. The contemporary women's movement in India, which began in the late 1970s, protested against the dark times, violence and misogyny. It also flamboyantly celebrated liberation, solidarity among women and a joyous breaking of the shackles of patriarchy. It sang, performed and painted to draw attention to the burning issues of the time. Quite literally: dowry death, widow immolation, acid throwing and rape. Over the past three decades, the women's movement has matured and broadened to include a gamut of issues related to women's health, sexuality, the environment, literacy, the impact of religion and communalism on women's lives, political participation, globalization, displacement, labour rights, disability rights, class and caste issues, and so many more. Indeed, feminism meant looking at the world through women's eyes.
This book constructs a pictorial journey of the complex and multilayered campaigns for women's rights through its posters. Other forms of visual representation such as drawings, pamphlets, reports, brochures, stickers, wall writing and photographs have also been included. The posters reproduced here a:re part of Zubaan's Poster Women project, which has attempted to locate and archive as many posters as possible to be able to visually map the women's movement and its concerns.
In May 2005, Zubaan embarked on an exciting project called Poster Women. We wanted to map a visual history of the women's movement in India through its posters. It was, and remains, our belief that while the political poster has received considerable recognition across the world, both for its aesthetics and its politics - as a tool to mark an occasion, mobilize support and confront opposition - it hasn't had much attention in India. And yet, different forms of political mobilization have made use of posters, and many campaigns, such as the struggle for justice for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy or against the Narmada dam, are remembered as much for their actions and strategies, as they are for the posters that accompanied them. This is also true of the Indian women's movement- some of its posters have taken on an iconic status.
Zubaan - and before that Kali for Women - has been an integral part of the women's movement in India as a feminist publisher committed to bringing out books by and about women and as an active participant in the campaigns and issues of the movement. Our interest in this project was fuelled by this involvement.
Looking back, since the early 1970S - the period identified as the start of the contemporary women's movement in this country - it was clear that virtually every campaign had been marked by the production of interesting, colourful, eye-catching posters. For the many feminist/women's groups that were born at this time out of student, left and peasant movements, the poster played an important role and remained crucial for mobilization. Tragically, however, much of the history of activism and of organizing, of the euphoria of the early days of street-level protest, has been lost because of the ephemeral nature of the poster: its use as something "of the moment" and, therefore, not worth storing as a "formal" document, one that can contribute to an alternative archive of social movements. This was the starting point of our search as we set out to chart the movement through the posters and other visual material it had produced.
We began by contacting as many women's groups and individuals as possible, asking them to look into their cupboards and trunks and bed boxes - all the places where women store things - and seek out posters, documents, pamphlets, ete. We were surprised and overwhelmed by the response (although there were some clear gaps, and more on this later). Thus began ayear-Iong exercise of collection, which involved cajoling, begging, hectoring, reassuring and holding our collective breaths till the promised posters arrived. It wasn't easy - the poster is short-lived, few groups preserve it. Even fewer document details of its production and dissemination, or its history in a particular campaign. But in the end, after a little over ayear and with the collaboration of over 160 groups and several individuals, we found ourselves with some 1,200 posters (and the number continues to grow as people still send them in).
Although we hadn't a time frame in mind initially, we were generally looking for posters from a 30-year period starting from the 1970s These were the years we presumed many posters would have been created by groups for their different campaigns. And this was indeed how it was, except that the response, however enthusiastic, was somewhat disproportionate. The unevenness related to issues. For instance, posters on violence and its different forms were perhaps the largest in number and came in from everywhere, testifying to how widespread this issue was; other matters, such as the anti-alcohol movement, were not as well represented, possibly because the campaigns were taken up by mass organizations that were largely rural and under-resourced. The variation was also geographical, although here the reasons were different. Groups from southern states, as well as from the north-east and Kashmir were unable to send in many posters. For many, the problem was one of storage, when their nomadic existence in rented offices and members' homes made systematic documentation difficult. Others were caught up in campaigns of the day and, being short staffed, could not spare someone to hunt through whatever resources there were to locate posters. Instead, the issues at stake had a more immediate urgency. Some languages dominated - Hindi, for example - while in others such as Assamese, Manipuri and Gurmukhi, we found fewer posters. Once again, it is difficult to draw any definite conclusions from this, and it was our sense that it was mainly a problem of documentation rather than anything to do with the nature of the campaigns and movements. But this was, as we have said, only an impression, and clearly more work is needed in order to understand these differences of geography, language and politics. We found also that in the later years, from the mid-1980s onwards, there were many more institutionally produced posters, deliberately designed to provide information and be put up on office walls, but not necessarily meant for mobilization for action. This led us to speculate on the entry of international (the UN, the ILO, etc.) and Indian (the government, various ministries) institutions, as well as the changing nature of the political poster, a subject we hope to explore in a more exhaustive study of political activism and the visual media.
From the posters we collected, we created an exhibition of some 220 of them, focusing on 12 major campaigns covering the last three to four decades of activism. This travelled all over India and was known as the Poster Women exhibition. Alongside this, we produced a catalogue, a CD with around 1,200 images, as well as other material like T-shirts, postcards and notebooks.
Through all this, the effort was to involve women's groups at every step of the way and to make the posters as widely available as possible, giving credit where it was due. However, we soon realized that this wouldn't be enough to disseminate the collection to a wider audience. An exhibition, after all, has a limited existence, and as it wasn't light and easily portable, we were only able to take it to a limited - albeit reasonably large – number of places. We needed to find a way to take this wonderful collection of the history of our movement further, to a wider audience. Thus, the second phase of the project was conceived of.
In this phase, we brought in a number of activities that contributed to and enhanced the overall aims and objectives of the project. First, we decided to create a digital archive of all posters in our collection and put them on the web, which can be accessed at www.posterwomen.org. With a little more time at our disposal, we began the process of trying to get as much information as possible on the provenance, date, campaign and artist for each poster. This would then be uploaded along with the poster, accompanied by a translation in at least three languages. Second, in the course of collecting the posters, we came across an unexpected treasure trove of artistic expression. These were the works of traditional and folk women artists from all over the country that carried, in one way or another, content that related to issues such as violence against women, dowry, HIV/ AIDS, etc. AS we talked to the creators these scrolls, paintings, phads, embroideries and woven fabrics, we learnt of how, generation after generation, women have used different traditional and folk art forms to tell their stories, and in doing so, have not just countered the traditional roles assigned to them, but also broken out of the stifling restrictions imposed upon them by society with the help of their creativity. A travelling exhibition of these paintings, embroideries and other such visual media was designed and taken to various places within India, highlighting how crafts have always been a strong, and sometimes the only, medium of expression and communication for women. These are also available on the Poster Women website.
Over the years, the Poster Women project has grown - and grown. When we began, we had no idea of the many directions the project could take. Indeed, we saw the poster as only one of the different resources - others being items like diaries, letters, grey literature and unpublished memoirs - that women's history increasingly draws upon. Other issues and questions confronted us as the collection grew. A particularly knotty one was how to deal with the copyright issue: who owned them> Many were anonymously produced - not always with deliberate anonymity, but they lacked any information about name, place or date. Several drew on images created by other artists, other posters, other campaigns. To whom then d id copyright belong? Some groups explicitly rejected the notion of copyright, while others, especially individual artists, wished to hold on to it. In the end, after consultation and discussion with as many groups as possible, we decided to follow a policy that we hoped would be both fair and just. For any posters used commercially, as on our T-shirts, we sought permission from the copyright owner, and acknowledged and compensated them. For others, we made it clear that images might be used for educational purposes (and sometimes we had no control over how that might happen, for example, in an NCERT textbook, without our permission). but if there was a commercial element, a fee had to be paid, which was passed on to the group in question - assuming that group was traceable However, we remain open to other suggestions regarding how to tackle this difficult problem.
As we come to the end of the two phases of the Poster Women project, we find ourselves looking at a host of new ideas and directions. Annotating and digitally archiving all our posters is one; starting to think of an archive of women's history is another; looking at ways to use the poster as an educational tool is a third.
This book grows out of this final concern: it feeds into Poster Women's efforts to document the posters of the Indian women's movement and, through them, to present the journey of its campaigns and issues to a younger audience and the general reader who may be curious about Indian feminism but may not know where to look. We hope this book will help familiarize readers with the struggles and successes of this movement, which has consistently been working towards creating an egalitarian world for all. We do not claim to have a comprehensive archive of the products and documents of the women's movement, but we hope to have begun the process of establishing the importance of at least one such historical source - the feminist poster - as a valuable tool for the writing and recording of women's histories.
Copyright of this book rests with Zubaan, but we encourage the use of the material provided here for non-commercial purposes. We would only like to be kept informed so that we know how widely the posters and the information have travelled.
Throughout history, scores of spirited women have rebelled and resisted the dominant norm. Most of these heroines have remained unnamed. Records of these struggles too are more recent. Among the oldest images are the sepia tints of the brave women who defied families and loved ones, broke barriers of tradition and defined new paths. The 19th century reverberated with the exhortations of enlightened and feisty women like Pandita Ramabai, Savitri Bai Phule, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Madame Bhikaji Cama, urging women to become educated and aware, for that is where the road to liberation lay.
The few pictures available of these stalwarts are sombre. Vignettes of the freedom struggle in which women are similarly depicted, as studio portraits or in rallies and dharnas with their fellow satyagrahis, are precious snapshots of women stepping out of their homes and participating in momentous social change. Some of these images were even reproduced as postage stamps. These early visual renderings of lone but strong women, produced in studios and in government printing presses, contrast with the later photographs depicting the collective energy of women active in struggles for land rights in Telangana, for example, or against the price rise in Maharashtra in the 1970s.
The images of the contemporary women's movement are similar courageous women breaking new ground and going against the grain. There are individual portraits as well as snapshots of demonstrations, and vibrant posters with energetic women straining to burst out of the frames Slowly, bright hues being to appear - the striking red of the sari of a bride burnt for dowry, the yellow of the flames engulfing women, and the green and khaki of the rapist police. The early 1980s saw bold posters and placards, prominent at every demonstration. In 1983, Kriti, the inspirational workshop on creative expressions in Delhi, opened up myriad possibilities of communicating feminist consciousness. Together, women fashioned dramatic posters, placards, skits, songs and a fusion of several genres to tell women's stories. The vivid posters that emerged came straight from their hearts - boldly expressive, stark, yet playful. Posters that encapsulated at once the misery of women's existence as well as the potential trapped within: the dreams and the visions. The images of the time are a rich narrative of that tumultuous period. There are few "personalities" depicted in the posters and photographs of the contemporary women's movement - there is a conscious attempt to project the collective rather than leaders or eminent individuals.
Like subaltern readings of history, there is perhaps a case for "reading" posters differently, with the perspective that distance lends. To what extent is poster art representative rather than prescriptive or aspirational? With the "mainstreaming" of the women's movement, the government, directly and through its women-oriented schemes and programmes, rode on Its back to communicate its "messages". As the movement grew more professionalized and saw the setting up of specialized NGOs dealing with specific themes rather than a broader activist orientation, posters tended to be more educational and Informative, rather than an appeal for action. Mass-produced and machine-printed posters - rather than hand- drawn ones on newspapers and recycled paper - made their appearance. Most of these were stylized and standardized, and somewhat bland. With UN agencies also going local, country-specific and region-specific posters in the vernacular appeared. The message was uniform, but language and visuals were adapted.
The styles of the posters vary. There is the raw energy of line drawings and hand-drawn art, each one of them unique. These stark renditions, drawn both at the peak of a struggle as well as those used for longer-term advocacy, owe their origins to the left legacy of posters as pedagogical tools. Some images and ideas were also inspired by the international feminist movement and adapted to local contexts, while others were examples of a unique "Indian feminist" style that evolved. There is also the Amar Chitra Katha style of "realistic" literal drawings of the standard Indian woman, whose appearance and apparel, it was thought, the common person could relate to. Folk art specific to region and state also found itself being transformed into the campaign poster, for example, Adivasi art with the minimalistic Warli figures and the colourful and adorned Madhubani paintings Questions about the manner in which feminists worked with traditional women artists, and some say even appropriated their work, is a debate that must be included in larger concerns about representation. Who represents the women's movement and, as important, the "common woman"?
What is notable in a majority of posters is that the woman's form reflected, perhaps subconsciously, the popular notions of women - sari-clad, long-hatred, buxom and fair. Working-class women were also depicted in this manner, though their skin colour might be shown to be a little darker and they might be barefoot, with more "rural" garments. While one argu ment was to represent women that the "common woman" or masses could identify with, it served to reinforce the "standard" woman. And this model was metropolitan, upper- caste and usually dressed traditionally in a sari and a bindi, with few variations of region, community, class or caste. The "goddess" image of omnipotence was also a much-used one in posters, pointing to the default setting or even perhaps the composition of women's organizations at the time, which was predominantly Hindu upper caste.
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