Poster power

By Poster Women and Roman Gautam

11 September 2012

A visual testament to the women's movement in India.
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Images courtesy Poster Women; text by Roman Gautam.

Images courtesy Poster Women; text by Roman Gautam.

Our Pictures, Our Words is a lucid, engaging primer to a topic that can at first seem intimidatingly broad – the women’s rights movement in India. The book is a ‘visual map’ through the various campaigns that have shaped the contemporary movement since its inception in the 1970s, compiling a broad and careful selection of campaign posters (and occasional photographs) from across India, selected from the larger archive of the Poster Women project from the feminist publishing house Zubaan.

The book’s structure and accompanying texts add greatly to its educational value. The posters are thematically organised, dealing with a host of relevant issues ranging from sexual harassment and health to religion, women’s political participation, and the overlap of the women’s movement with environmental, labour, and other social struggles. Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta’s (Murthy is Consulting Editor for Himal, while Dasgupta sits on the magazine’s editorial board) texts and captions introduce the history and beliefs underlying the movement, before contextualising each issue in the circumstances essential to understanding it in the Indian case. The captions are clear and perceptive, and suggest various interpretations of the wealth of visual material on offer without imposing any monolithic reading. The writers close each chapter with a timeline detailing the milestones – scandals, laws, protests, reports – of the movement’s achievement on each issue. Though not exhaustively detailed, these chronologies are welcome reference material in shaping narratives of women’s struggles, and, perhaps most importantly, they offer readers the hope not of high rhetoric, but of concrete action and achievement.

Still, the book’s greatest strength are the posters themselves. Striking, innovative, spanning a range of styles from modern to traditional, this is a superb collection even on artistic merit alone, and an important record of Indian poster art. As Murthy and Dasgupta point out, the posters also circumvent the ‘institutionalisation’ of the voices of the Indian women’s movement in recent times. The posters are presented as primary sources for the reader’s own consideration, in the form that they were produced by artists and women’s collectives responding directly to the issues and events most important to them in the places they live.

We see how feminist ideas have been assimilated and translated into many local vernaculars – both visual and linguistic. With a clear sense of audience and political awareness, the symbols, styles and themes are all locally relevant – ‘organic’, as current parlance would put it. Their purpose is to instigate action, to educate – as, for example, in posters illustrating the steps to report rape – and to empower. Take, for instance, the recurring symbol of the feared, revered, multi-armed goddess, transplanted from mythology to the present day and celebrating the multi-tasking woman who supports an entire family, her many arms holding a bucket, a broom, a baby, a book. Recurring scenes of domestic abuse and sexual harassment remind us that the home and the streets are still the frontlines of the movement in India, though posters addressing gender inequality in the office show that the sites of struggle are always changing. Gone are the religious, communal and political divisions that customarily divide India; the posters make no distinctions in the suffering of women whether from the Northeast or the south, whether Muslim or Hindu or Christian. Some optimistic posters celebrate the professional woman, and see a future where women can ride the bus without fear of harassment, and where the social see-saw tips steadily away from patriarchal dominance toward equality. The book is a testimony to suffering as much as a record of resistance, though here the suffering is not simply bemoaned, but acknowledged, denounced, and defied through art. The posters’ languages and geographical origins span all of India, bearing testament to how widely feminist ideas have taken root, while making the book a truly pan-Indian compendium and, given India’s scale and influence, also an important record of Southasian women’s history. Our Pictures, Our Words seems an especially apt title.

~ Our pictures, Our words: A visual Journey through the Women’s Movement is available from Zubaan


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