Just a pointer to the Poster Women exhibition, a display of posters from the women’s movement in India going back to the 1970s: it’s being organised by Zubaan and it's on at Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi till April 5. You can also see it online here.
I was at the exhibition a few days ago, and Jaya Bhattacharji of Zubaan Books told me that more than one visitor has asked about the “artists” responsible for the images on display. “But these posters weren’t made by well-known artists,” she laughed. “They were put together by ordinary people who were moved by a cause, not driven by the desire to create art.”
She’s right — despite the setting, this isn’t meant to be a display of artwork. But as you walk around the gallery, taking in the posters (or more accurately, poster reproductions), it’s easy to see why so many visitors make the mistake of thinking it is. Some of the drawings and photo collages are understandably amateurish, but many are imaginative, powerful, even stylish and witty. One drawing portrays the rural woman as a modern-day, many-limbed Durga — the twist being that the hands are all occupied in various household tasks and the lady doesn’t look especially empowered. Another, felicitating International Women’s Day, has a woman stepping tentatively out of her hut as she prepares for her first job outside her home. A group of Army women, with only a banner draped around their naked bodies, protest rape in the armed forces. Miss Displaced, Miss Poverty and Miss Landless stand forlornly on a podium, with an empty space for Miss Girl Child, unable to attend because she's been murdered. There are embroidered bedsheets, news item collages, a chart showing perceptions of the “ideal woman” — as filtered through the male gaze.
The posters are categorised by the causes they depict — among them domestic violence, elderly people’s rights, disability, lesbian rights and displacement. Though they cover a large spectrum, the ones on display in Delhi in fact represent only a small fraction of the total number (around 1,500) that have been collected by Zubaan over the past year. “We networked around the country, contacted hundreds of groups,” says Bhattacharji. Around 200 groups responded, sending posters to Delhi, and Zubaan got their studio photographer to make reproductions. Looking at the replicas, it’s hard to believe the original posters were in anything but sparkling new condition. “Many of the posters were falling apart when they came to us,” says Bhattacharji. “Others had mildew on them — we had to spread them out over our office for two days to dry them, before they could even be touched!”
But while the process of collecting and preserving was difficult, it was fun too, full of little discoveries. Like the time when Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan director, who conceptualised this project, walked into the office to find that one of the submissions was a poster she herself had made years earlier.
As Bhattacharji points out, in addition to speaking volumes about the phases of the women’s movement in India, the exhibition says a lot about the evolution of the humble poster over the decades. For instance, crowded designs — marked by self-conscious attempts to fit as much as possible into a frame — have given way to simpler, more focused drawings. “Most of us tend not to attach much importance to posters,” she says. “They are used for a specific purpose, in a specific context, and once their shelflife is over they end up in some dingy corner, under a bed, or in the garbage — which is such a pity.”
(The exhibition will travel next to Bangalore and Chennai. Zubaan has published a book of posters and put together a CD documenting all the posters collected. More here.)