photo roll

The real tastemakers: Photos of Indian men and women whose labours put food on our tables

An exhibition of portraits by Pakistani-American researcher Sarah K Khan is currently on display in New York.

On a sweltering Sunday in June a few years ago, Sarah K Khan was invited to a simple Rajasthani breakfast of masoor dal, freshly-made chapatis and a mound of hot rice covered in powdered jaggery. The little feast had been made by a young man who works as a spice porter on weekdays at Gadodia Market, Asia’s largest spice market located in Khari Baoli in Delhi’s old city. He, along with other spice porters who live and work in Gadodia Market, spends his weeks carrying heavy loads for spice-trading companies but Sunday is when these porters wind down and relax.

Khan, a Pakistani-American researcher exploring food, culture, migration and sustainability, has been photographing the market since her first visit to India in 2001. “The source of flavour and taste, this center of spices in Delhi motivated me as did knowing that my father and his family walked these same streets before Partition,” said Khan, whose father’s family lived in Old Delhi. The stories she heard growing up was one of her major draws to the city. “Documenting the lives of the porters in portraits has been a long-term project. Most tourists came, walked around, looked at the views, took photos from a distance of the men labouring. I kept showing up and the porters became more open to me. And one porter said if you want to spend time come on a Sunday, when we rest. It is easier to interact.”

A spice porter working at the Gadodia spice market, Delhi. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.
A spice porter working at the Gadodia spice market, Delhi. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.

Untold stories

The images that she captured in this Delhi market, alongside the ones taken during her research meeting and speaking with many women farmers, found their way into a solo exhibition titled In/Visible: Portraits of Farmers and Spice Porters of India currently on display at New York University’s Kimmel Windows Gallery. The exhibition of 13 portraits has been curated by Grace Aneiza Ali, a faculty member at the university’s Tisch School of the Arts at the invitation of Pamela Jean Tinnen, director and lead curator of Kimmel Galleries.

Even though Khan has been photographing the market for almost 17 years, it was between 2014 and 2015 that she really got to know some of the porters. “A large majority of them come from farming background,” said Khan. “These men become the designated family member to travel to the city to bring in some cash while the rest stay behind and tend to their farms. The reasons for migrations are many and Old Delhi and Khari Baoli overflow with much migrant diversity. I want to highlight that most migrants anywhere work hard to make a living with dignity, and I wanted to capture them as individuals with vibrant personalities.”

To that end, none of the images show the men toiling or as beasts of burden. Instead the portraits reveal them striking a pose in their best. “For many of them it was their quiet time,” said Khan. “They would be hennaing their hair, shaving, cooking. A lot of them were resting or talking on the phone to their families. Many would see my camera and request me to take their photographs. I photographed them as they preferred, as they wanted to be seen.”

“There was one young porter, who called me ‘didi’, who was so eager to be photographed,” said Khan. “He planned the location, background and his serious gaze back at the camera. He struck different poses, and angles, fussed with his collar and took it very seriously. He would then take me to other porters, to their shops and godowns where they rested. The younger porters spent time getting ready, while other porters did not want to talk about where they were from, or their backgrounds. Instead they wanted me to take several photos of them in different poses with their friends close by.”

A woman farmer from Nagaland. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.
A woman farmer from Nagaland. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.

Invisible women

Also in the exhibition are portraits of women who Khan met while researching and documenting the lives of women farmers as part of the Fulbright Scholar Programme. “There are 95 million women farmers in India,” said Khan. “Their informal labour and their extraordinary contributions are undervalued. They are encyclopedias of information and ecological knowledge about a specific place. The women I engaged with are seed savers, growers of crops, foragers, hunters and food processors, and culinary experts. I worked with Mirasi caste singers in Rajasthan, Siddi women farmers in Karnataka, women rice farmers in Nagaland, Adivasis in Telangana, millet processors in Andhra, and women street vendors in Delhi. All of them struck a chord with me.”

Here, too, Khan’s photographs’ central theme remains the strength of these women outside of their work as farmers and as resilient working individuals. She remembers meeting one such farmer in Nagaland, who had been elected to the village council, but being a woman, she was expected to make tea for the male members. Instead of refusing to make tea, which she feared could be used as an excuse to dismiss the meeting, the woman simply said that she will make tea before the council meeting starts, so that she is not excluded from the proceedings.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.