German photographer Karolin Kluppel’s photo-documentary "Kingdom of Girls" (or Madchenland) is among the most critiqued series to come out of India in the last two years. Winner of six major awards this year (including a gold at the Felix Schoeller Photo Award in Germany), the "Kingdom of Girls" has been exhibited at 15 venues around the world in 2015, mostly in Europe and China, and was on show at the Delhi Photo Festival till November 8. Next, it will be displayed at the Shillong International Photo Festival beginning November 16.

The photo-documentary captures girls in a hamlet called Mawlynnong in Meghalaya, which is described as the cleanest village in Asia. Its pristine beauty – the waterfalls, gardens and living root bridges – would be any photographer’s delight. Kluppel, however, was attracted by another feature. While in Goa, she heard about the indigenous Khasis and their matrilineal system and decided immediately to document the village as a feminist wonder story.

The result, photographed during a nine-month stay in Mawlynnong, has met with scathing criticism. Some believe that the "Kingdom of Girls" is too beautiful, a set-piece where beauty, innocence, hidden dangers and notions of female power mingle too seamlessly. That it is too idealistic to be true.

In one captured moment in the series, a girl is seen balancing a pot on her head near a kitchen, her legs stretched to a wall to prop herself up, in a half-Nataraj posture. Another moment has a girl with a garland of dried and salted fish dangling around her neck, and yet another has a girl stretched out on a rock with her feet dangling in the water, languid but striking.

Critiquing the series in Raiot, a webzine from Meghalaya, Ezra Rynjah wrote: “From what I can observe, the only aspect of Kluppel’s work that depicts matriliny and what it does to girls lies in the context behind the pictures. Without that background, this is, sad to say, a blatant exhibitionism of the girls of the village, culminating in a series that doesn’t quite capture the empowered status of these girls but antithetically subjugates them to the desired outcome of the viewer who in this case is Karolin Klüppel and a media hungering for the exotic.”

Separately, in Meghalaya, a campaign has erupted questioning the inclusion of Kluppel’s work in the Shillong Photo Festival. An open letter to the organisers written by Mary Therese Kurkalang, a former festival director of the Cultures of Peace Festival of the Northeast, casts doubts on its portrayal of the community. The letter says:

“It came to my attention when it was recently featured in an Indian e-magazine titled Homegrown. I was deeply disturbed by the series, and the comments from viewers (which included 80% of non-khasis) echo this, with remarks on how ‘staged’, ‘exotic’ and most disturbingly on how the series was almost ‘pornographic’ in nature...”

Unlike Kurkalang, most critics and experts are not in favour of censorship. Nevertheless, those who have studied the matrilineal system do feel that the documentary is an “outrageous representation” of Khasi women and that of their imagined role in society.

Patricia Mukhim, editor of Shillong Times and a well-known chronicler of Khasi society, told “The one who owns the camera also holds the power to interpret the pictures taken in the manner he/she chooses. It is sad that such visitors don’t ever come back to share their views, which more often than not are coloured and depend on how they wish to interpret this matrilineal society. Many of these western visitors want to romanticise Khasi matriliny. Women in Khasi matriliny still see themselves from a patriarchal worldview and accept unquestioningly the fact that they are excluded from the grassroots political institution – the Dorbar Shnong.”

Early on, Kuppel was aware that her photographs had invited disappointment from Meghalaya. She told the New York Times that her intention was not to capture a culture but just the joys of young girls who were inheritors to land, and other wealth. To show the milieu was not her intention. “I decided to make a portrait series of the girls because I was so impressed by their self-assured appearance and thought this must be how matriliny becomes visible,” she said.

But Rynjah points out that the picture is incomplete. In the region, women are not allowed to attend local body meetings and considered to be shibor (one unit of strength) while men are khatarbor (12 units).

According to Patricia and Rynjah, Khasi women still struggle under a patriarchal system despite the fact that wealth and assets pass on from mother to youngest daughter. Rynjah says the effect would have been the same if boys were photographed in the same way. “The poses offered by the girls are often languid and bizarre and even forced at times. Unless explicitly stated that these were spontaneous postures taken up by the girls, what would be the difference in asking boys to pose similarly? How does this series therefore capture how matriliny impacts girls’ behaviour?”

The writer is the author of a book on Meghalaya, Under a Cloud: Life in Cherrapunji, the Wettest Place on Earth.