Rahul Jain: Photographs are the reason why thousands of books could ever be written. Enriching people with the knowledge of human civilisations, they have added to narratives and, at times, led to their construction. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this art of capturing life has been the emerging area of study of women’s history through pictures that Geraldine Forbes has been propounding like none other.
“A particular photo will deliver different meanings. You might think that you know what is going on by looking at a picture, but actually you may not in most cases,” says Forbes, a distinguished professor from State University of New York, Oswego, who is on a Fulbright Nehru Teaching Fellowship at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She was recently in Assam at the invitation of North East Network to deliver lectures on using photographs to study women’s history in Cotton College and Tezpur University.
Working for a number of years with family photograph collections and archives for research, she feels most pictures are without proper explanations, leaving out details on women and often not viewed in the right context. She took up research in this area following a visit to Calcutta from London in 1969 to study a society of Bengali positivists. “When I did not find what I was looking for in the National Library and West Bengal archives, I decided to contact descendants of leading Bengali positivist Jogendro Chandra Ghosh. I located his house through letters, met his descendants and was directed to his grandniece, Shudha Mazumdar.” It was a meeting with Mazumdar that changed Forbes’ area of research in I ndia while opening up a new field for others. “Then in her early 70s, Mazumdar welcomed me to tea and shared what she had gathered on her illustrious granduncle. She was a marvelous raconteur,” says Forbes.
IN COMMAND: Shudha Mazumdar (circa 1931) in riding wear. She learned to mount a horse at her husband’s insistence.
On her next visit, Mazumdar talked more about herself and her childhood. Forbes was astounded that the sophisticated and articulate woman had less than four years of formal schooling and was married at 11. Fascinated by the 19th century reform movement, Forbes kept asking questions and wrote papers on child marriage and the position of widows. That was 1960s, when the material available was limited. While reformers —men as well as women — documented the problems associated with child marriage, proponents of the custom painted the picture of the girl child being welcomed and pampered by the mother-in-law. “When I asked more questions, Mazumdar opened a cupboard and produced a 500-page manuscript. Perhaps you’d like to read this, it’s my unfinished autobiography, she said,” recalls Forbes, adding, “I hadn’t expected her to write a memoir or to get access to it.”
Forbes spent the next few years working with Mazumdar to edit her manuscript for publication. “Anyone who has read the memoir knows it is a lovely, charming account which brings to life a world that has disappeared,” says Forbes, recollecting how Mazumdar taught her to look beyond discourses on customs and practices. “She taught me to look deeply for small ways in which women were self-conscious actors in their world. While customs are often reified in social science accounts, real people accept, modify and discard them in accordance with their values and specific situations,” the researcher says. Since the last four decades, Forbes has been observing the changes India’s going through. “Like everyone else, I see a great deal of change in India but you must remember I have been coming here for 40 years. When I first came to India, the population was only slightly over half a billion, now it is 1.3 billion. Hardly anyone had a landline, now everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, adding, “India has changed and the theories and methodologies that influence how we study history have changed. I have changed in terms of the questions I ask and the way I approach topics and even my study has been impacted by technology.”
She denies her focus is women who were rich, powerful and presumed to be representative of Indian women. She reasons that they fell in neither category but belonged to educated families, with many even dying in poverty even as they didn’t classify as subaltern. “They took part in movements — political and social — that are the basis of contemporary India. I don’t think they represent all Indian women,” she says.
QUITE A DUO: Samuel and Rosa Perrine in 1895. Geraldine Forbes thinks this picture was clicked in Sibsagar.
Defending herself for concentrating on Kolkata and Mumbai, she says, “I think every historian approaches a topic from a particular angle, with assumptions, theories and methodologies. Bias is a personal and unreasoned judgment and I feel there is no place for it in research.” She stresses that every researcher must make her position clear to her readers. “I have tried to explain that I used the two cities because they were the first with photography studios. If I were studying travel, leisure or vacation photographs of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, I would be very interested in Darjeeling, Shimla and Shillong among other places,” she explains.
Stating the Northeast is also warming to the study of pictorial history, she refers to a conference on ‘Changing patriarchies and gendered constructs: Gender history in Northeast India’ in Silchar this January. It was an international seminar organised by the department of history, Assam University, in collaboration with Indian Council for Historical Research, Indian Council of Social Science Research and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata. Her research on Nagaland is no less a treasure trove though it is not related to women but focuses on missionary Samuel Perrine who inhabited the Naga Hills from 1892-1906 and was the first amateur to photograph the local people. “He was not the first to photograph them but the first amateur. I am learning about the Northeast and my research on Perrine is about how he presented the people he met in his writings, photographs and letters.”
She doesn’t forget to mention that the missionary, like others, rarely spoke of women. Not wanting to sound pedagogic, she exhorts researchers to take on missions aimed at the recovery and preservation of historical sources — family photographs, oral histories, folklore collection. “I know a number of projects are already under way, but I would like to see more efforts in preserving material to allow future researchers to learn about different histories of the Northeast. We now have the technology to scan photographs, easily record elderly people and things like these,” she says. She wants researchers to find the best methodology and theory to go about their projects as “one size does not fit all”. “The model for writing the histories of women, gender or the handloom industry in the Northeast cannot be chalked out by one expert or author. History has been called a craft, which I agree it is, but writing history also requires imagination. Be diligent researchers, read widely and be creative when interpreting the past,” she says, almost prodding one to retrace history with new lenses.