School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University

Bengali Language Initiative

Grant Period: Over two years

The School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, was formed in January 1988 with Professor Jasodhara Bagchi as the founder-director. Its focus is not only to add a women’s perspective to traditional disciplines but to transform them through considerations of gender. The School experiments with interdisciplinary forms in order to dispel contrived barriers raised by traditional academic disciplines. By facilitating research and extension work, it seeks to enhance the visibility of women and gender issues within the academic community and society at large. The School will collect, archive and read the economy of photographs and photographic practices and their modes of representing the lives of urban middle-class Hindu/Brahmo women in Bengal from the 1880s to the 1970s. The photographs will be acquired from sources as varied as neighbourhood photo studios, private collections and family albums. The principal investigator will be Hardik Brata Biswas, a PhD fellow at the School of Women’s Studies. His M.Phil thesis was titled ‘Camera Femina: Women’s Photographs in Private Collections in Kolkata’.

Building an archive of this nature is an original endeavour, although scholars like Siddhartha Ghosh and Malavika Karlekar have done related work. “Except for a few historical or critical interventions in the history of photography in this region, there is a dearth of archives and research that deals with photographs of urban middle class women. The huge repository of photographs and related material since the late 19th century in various corners of Bengal, especially in the city of Kolkata, has largely remained untraced,” says Biswas. The proposed archive is an attempt to rescue old photographs and curate them in a way that will aid the analysis of the photographic cultures of urban middle-class Bengali women across two centuries and spanning nearly 90 years. The project will also explore the possibilities of countering the dominant modes of representation of women’s photographs. It will try to examine the ‘aesthetics of display’ and the logic of that display. Biswas argues that the wide range of women’s photographs “are played out in spaces that are potentially colonised, infiltrated by patriarchy into private spaces of consumption, reproduction, leisure and entertainment”. He will try to re-contextualise women’s photographs in relation to the past, and the study of photography as an institution. He will further try to forge connections between the photographed subjects, the cultural world that they inhabit, as well as the interplay between the photographer, the image and the scantly theorised exploration of the background and foreground within the architecture of the photographic space.                                             

This project has been visualised in two phases. The IFA grant supports Phase I. This phase will document, digitise and archive photographs from various sources like families, private collections, and studios in and around Kolkata and other districts of West Bengal. Classification and digitisation will take place simultaneously. The outcome of Phase I will be an archive housing roughly 10,000 photographs. This phase will produce critical essays pertaining to photographic cultures and the lives of urban middle-class Bengali women. The archive will be housed at the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta (CSSSC. CSSSC has agreed to give the necessary training to the archive staff of the School of Women’s Studies for documenting and archiving the material. A ‘Global Positioning System’ (GPS) will also be a part of the archive. The GPS will map extinct yet historically important studios like Bourne and Shepard and Bengal Photographers, and also other studios that have contributed to the archive. It will also document lesser known neighborhood studios that might have an equally important repository of women’s photographs. The second phase will focus on dissemination. An exhibition of the photographs and a book in Bengali are envisaged.