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Stories Of Indian Women: Resistance, Resilience, and Transcendence

Stories Of Indian Women: Resistance, Resilience, and Transcendence
Exhibits at the Mingei International and the Museum of Photographic Arts explore women's issues in India and throughout the world.


Stories of Indian Women: Resistance, Resilience, and Transcendence

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 7 p.m.


$5 Members, $7 Students, General $10

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): India is in many respects a modern country. It is the world's largest democracy, it has developed nuclear weapons and it is a major player in the world economy. But old traditions die hard in a country as ancient as India and the status of women is still a disturbing problem. Two art exhibits on view in Balboa Park are linked by their focus on girls’ and women's lives in India. At the Mingei Museum, the clay sculptures of Sonabai Rajawar are on display, a woman who was kept a virtual prisoner within her own home for years, and at the Museum of Photographic Arts, images of older, abandoned Indian women and the faces of young girls, the beloved daughters of India. Joining us to talk about these two exhibits are my guests. Stephen Huyler, is the Sonabai curator at the Mingei Museum. And, Stephen, welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN HUYLER (Sonabai Curator, Mingei International Museum): Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Carol McCusker is the “Beloved Daughters” curator at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Carol, welcome.

CAROL MCCUSKER (“Beloved Daughters” Curator, Museum of Photographic Arts): Thank you.


CAVANAUGH: And Uma Lakshman is president of SDNari. And welcome to San – to These Days.

UMA LAKSHMAN (President, SDNari): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Let me start out with you, Dr. Huyler, Stephen, if I may. Tell us a bit about Sonabai Rajawar, the artist who is the focus at the Mingei.

HUYLER: Sonabai is no longer alive but lived in central India in a very remote community. Her husband, when they were first married, built for them a home way outside of his community, something that’s very rarely done in India, and then basically walled it off or there was – there were no exterior windows. There was one door, he shut the door and did not allow her to leave her home for 15 years or to see or be seen by anyone other than him and their infant son who grew up to be 15. During that period of time, she, although she had no training as an artist at all, began to take clay from the edge of her well—there was an interior well—and to sculpt, make toys for her son out of clay. And she loved the sculpting process and began to apply those sculptures to her wall, inventing a style of art that had no precedent in India’s 5000 years of art.

CAVANAUGH: Now, did you say there were no windows as well?

HUYLER: No. No, but there was an interior courtyard so she…


HUYLER: …could see the sky…

CAVANAUGH: I see what you’re saying.

HUYLER: …but she couldn’t see out into the – well, there was no community right there but she couldn’t see or be seen by anyone.

CAVANAUGH: Now, is – Do we know what might have been the reason for this?

HUYLER: No. She would never speak about it and her son and community don’t talk about it. I spent years working with them and with her. But I believe it was really the psychosis of her husband. I think that the message of what she – then she did with her life in that seclusion to express herself so eloquently and beautifully in a way that was not – wasn’t dark or dismal but actually were creative expressions of light, whimsy, color, beauty, humor. And then actually after she was allowed out after a number of years of—because it’s a very remote village—she got national and then international attention, was given India’s highest award, something similar to the Nobel Prize for what she has – had done with her life, and that has had a profound influence on her community and that region.

CAVANAUGH: I read that when the neighbors were finally allowed into this conclave that Sonabai was held in for all those years and saw these beautiful works of art, they were surprised. They were…

HUYLER: They were, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …dumbfounded.

HUYLER: And today in her region, the entire economy has changed in a way because of her vision. And even the relationship of women to the community is stronger. I mean, they are in a better position now because of what she chose to do with her life in remarkably repressive conditions.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about two art exhibits on view in Balboa Park, one at the Mingei, one at the Museum of Photographic Arts, that focus on the art and the – the art created by women in India. And I’m speaking right now with the Sonabai curator, Stephen Huyler. And describe for us, if you would, some of these remarkable little clay sculptures that Sonabai has made.

HUYLER: Well, she covered her walls with bas relief sculptures that showed flowering trees, monkeys in the trees picking fruit, scampering around, leaping gazelles, man – men playing and women playing instruments and dancing joyous – joyous figures, colorfully painted, that really transformed the walls. She had a strong innate sense of negative space as well. While those of you who know many Indian temples will be familiar that people may, particularly in south India, sculpt sort of every facet of the temple. She had a sense of negative space so not everything was covered. She would have big areas of blank space that would offset, not necessarily even symmetrically in a very contemporary way.


HUYLER: So I’ve tried to feature her as a contemporary artist working in a traditional – well, actually not a traditional medium, it was her own medium, but within a traditional society. And that is trying to show the capacity of humanity to act and live and think outside the box.

CAVANAUGH: And just a technical question. Where did she get her colors?

HUYLER: She invented her own in her kitchen initially. Then once she received attention, actually was brought here to La Jolla in 1986 for an exhibition. She saw – was given poster paints because – and she loved those bright colors so she began to implement those. And her son and daughter-in-law, who now sculpt, and other villagers now use those bright, bright poster paint colors.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. I want to bring Dr. Carol McCusker into the conversation. You’re curating the “Beloved Daughters” exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. And tell us, if you would, about Fazal Sheikh, is that how you say it?

MCCUSKER: Fazal Sheikh, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Fazal Sheikh. That’s a photographer and activist whose work is on exhibit. Tell us a little bit about her.

MCCUSKER: That’s right. Fazal Sheikh has made a career for the past two decades through what he calls a kind of human activist photography. It’s very socially concerned. He has traveled in the Americas, through Mexico, into Brazil but then also through Africa. And he uses his camera as a way of rendering his subjects after spending several weeks and sometimes months living with them before picking up the camera and photographing them in a most austere but full of dignity and a kind of rapport with his subjects that is very rare. And then he allows them to also speak their stories, and they’re very much a part of a collaboration with him where the portrait is on the wall as well as their story in their voice.

CAVANAUGH: Now in that question I just asked you, I made the assumption that Fazal Sheikh was a woman because he’s devoting his attention to women of India. How unusual is it for a male photographer to find his subjects in what is perhaps – could be described as the plight of women in India.

MCCUSKER: Well, that’s a good question. There was a woman, a magnum photographer who still works today, Mary Ellen Mark, who has done something somewhat similar. She did it back in the 1980s on Falkland Road, which is the place in Mumbai that is the section for the prostitutes, and it was a very different story. She got inside the brothels and was in a very intimate and very graphic way in which she photographed the prostitutes. But for Fazal, what he has done is sort of pulled back and possibly it is because he is male and he’s being very respectful and very slow moving in getting his subjects to trust him and to also have this reciprocation where what he’s doing is about them. And I think that did necessarily take time, whereas perhaps for female photographers, that might not be the case.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the first part of the exhibition, “Beloved Daughters,” is called “Moksha,” if I’m saying that correctly.

MCCUSKER: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: What does that mean?

MCCUSKER: Moksha is a Hindu word that means heaven, essentially, and it is about release from the rebirth and the death cycle so that if you pray to Krishna and eventually you get moksha, you are released from this earthly existence.

CAVANAUGH: And what do we see? What are these photographs of in that part of the exhibit?

MCCUSKER: For the most part, they are portraits. They’re portraits of the women. As I said, he takes a long time to get these photographs. They are very dignified, very quiet, they’re black and white. And, you know, it’s a wonderful contrast to Stephen’s exhibition because Stephen’s exhibition is color and this one is black and white. And it’s not the black and white photography that we associate with Ansel Adams. It’s not about high contrast or graphic black and white photography. A lot of it is in platinum printing. Earlier in his career, he was doing platinum. For the photographers who are listening, that is a kind of printing that allows numerous shades of gray. There’s no high white, there’s no deep black. And there’s a kind of beautiful metaphor in this in that he’s allowing the gray areas to exist and I think that that’s showing the fact that these people’s lives and the world in general is very complicated and that it’s gray. It’s not black and white. And what he wants people to understand is the complexity of these women’s lives.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit. What kind of stories about these women do these photographs tell us?

MCCUSKER: Well, in the beginning part, there is moksha, which is about these widows who go to holy cities and devote their lives to Krishna and they make their money just by begging in the streets or doing alms for special favors. Going to the temples, living very, very simply; they are dispossessed. They have been abandoned by their families or they’ve chosen to leave their families for various reasons and they go to these holy cities and just continue the rest of their days in prayer.

CAVANAUGH: Now, that’s very interesting, talking about being abandoned by their families because I think that’s the aspect that sort of connects with what we’re talking about here. A lot of these women don’t do this thoroughly voluntarily, it’s something that’s the only thing that’s left to them after having been abandoned by their families. Why don’t the children of these widowed women take them in?

MCCUSKER: Well, it’s very complex, and I’m sure every family has its own set of dynamics.


MCCUSKER: Very often, it comes down to economics. That is the driving force through probably most of the world right now, is the economics of how a family lives. There’s also the dynamics of adopted families, you know, the mother not having space within the family structure to be able to support or for them to support her. So there’s abuse. It’s physical and emotional. And there is, within the women of moksha, I think a kind of strength that we can see. And, in fact, in the green room before we came on, we were talking about the inner strength of a lot of Indian women to be able to move into a space in which they can provide for themselves, take care of themselves, even if it’s on the most meager subsistence level.

CAVANAUGH: And so you talk about the women of moksha going to holy cities. What do they find at a holy city like Vrindavan?

MCCUSKER: What they would find there are small spaces in which they can exist. There are ashrams. There is a support system because in that particular city, Vrindavan, there are 20,000 dispossessed widows and so there is a sense of a community. And I think that there are several of these probably throughout India. I know that Uma can speak to that more than I can. And in that, there’s a kind of sisterhood.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about two exhibits on view now in Balboa Park, one at the Mingei that features the clay work of Sonabai, an artist, a female artist in India, who created these remarkable objects while she was virtually kept prisoner within her home, and also at the Museum of Photographic Arts, the – two linked exhibits by photographer Fazal Sheikh about the women of India. And my guests are Stephen Huyler and Carol McCusker. And I’d also like to bring in my third guest right now, Uma Lakshman. She is president of SDNari. And tell us, first of all, what SDNari is, if you would. Welcome, Uma.

LAKSHMAN: Hi. Thank you. And it’s great to be here. SDNari is a woman’s organization empowering South Asian women. It was founded in 1997 by Dr. Manjit Goyal (sp) and it’s sort of been passive for a while but then we are, again, trying to revive it. And we feel a strong need for an organization such as this in San Diego mainly because we have seen the immigrant population – the Indian immigrant population has increased over the years and there are bicultural issues. And, again, you know, so – And we do see there are women who need help who are in abusive situations and relationships and we feel that there is a need to keep our doors open to help them.

CAVANAUGH: Is there a sense, when women immigrate from India to the United States that perhaps they don’t want to deal with the issues of India anymore, that they want to become American and not have to deal with perhaps the problems that they’ve left behind?

LAKSHMAN: I think it is twofold. When immigrants do come to this country, they are mostly on their own. They have to first fend for themselves and get themselves established. So, I think, in the process they forget about – they do want to – It’s like closing one door and opening another door, and it takes a while but I do see that a number of women, once they are successful and they are up on their feet, they do open the door that they have closed behind them and I see many of them wanting to go back and help or trying to help in their own ways, yes.

CAVANAUGH: I know that we’re – you’re going to be having a discussion tonight and we’re going to be talking about that, taking place at the Museum of Photographic Arts, that sort of links now the whole question of women’s issues in India with these two artistic exhibitions at the Mingei and Museum of Photographic Arts. I want to speak more about that and more about these individual exhibits when we come back. We’re going to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue our discussion. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guests are Stephen Huyler, curator at the Mingei Museum’s Sonabai exhibit. Carol McCusker is curator of the “Beloved Daughters” exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and Uma Lakshman, president of SDNari. We’re talking about two art exhibits on view in Balboa Park, linked by their focus on girls and women’s lives in India. Carol, we talked about one part of the exhibit on view that features the photographs of Fazal Sheikh, and tell us about the other half or perhaps even the major part of that exhibition called “Ladli.” What are these photographs about?

MCCUSKER: Ladli is also a Hindu word that means beloved daughters, which is the umbrella title of the exhibition. The larger part of the exhibition, after you move through

“Moksha,” which is about the dispossessed widows, is a project that Fazal Sheikh came upon after finishing “Moksha.” He was there photographing these women and started to realize that the deeper issues about India and the economic opportunities for women start at a very early age. And he won the MacArthur Genius Award in 2005 and I have to say MOPA had something to do with that. I wrote a letter on his behalf for the MacArthur Award, and when he received that we naturally wanted to have the fruit of his labors at MOPA, which is “Beloved Daughters.” So he took the funding from the MacArthur and went back to India and started investigating through NGOs and street action groups what was happening to the youngest girls and also the babies that were not born, and understanding that there was abortion if a woman was carrying a female child because a male child is valued. And then there’s also what happens to them in the street. Because of certain economics and class systems, many of them are sold. They’re sold into sexual trafficking. They’re also on the street trying to support themselves, and very often left there by their parents while the parents go back to a smaller village to work the land. And the children are begging in the streets or providing small services. And, of course, that leaves them totally vulnerable to any sort of abuse.

CAVANAUGH: And so the title “Beloved Daughters” is sometimes ironic and often bittersweet.

MCCUSKER: Right. Right.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask the both of you, Stephen and Carol, if I may, did you see a linkage in these two exhibits before you decided on them? Or how did that – Is this just serendipity that you both decided to feature an Indian artist in – and an Indian woman artist in…

MCCUSKER: It was serendipitous that those things happen, and it was wonderful that it did because…

HUYLER: It happened, yeah.

MCCUSKER: …it introduced us to one another’s projects and then also to create more awareness in this community.

HUYLER: Yeah, it’s great. The two museums are so close to one another in Balboa Park and to have these two subjects there to interplay and with tonight’s symposium on – or discussion about the identity and conditions of Indian womanhood is just marvelous to be able to…


HUYLER: …to work on that together.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand, Stephen, that this – curating this exhibit is not your only contact with the works of Sonabai. You’ve done a book and a documentary on her artwork, is that correct?

HUYLER: That’s right. And actually the film just has been getting awards. Santa Fe Film Festival for Best Short Film, etcetera, so it’s been quite exciting. And it’s going to be in film festivals around the states the next – this year.

CAVANAUGH: What fascinates you about this Indian woman artist so much?

HUYLER: I’m going to backtrack a second. I – My work for the last 10 years, or actually 38 years in India, but 10 years focused, has been on women’s identity in India, broadly throughout the subcontinent. I am a cultural anthropologist and a photographer so I interviewed over 10,000 women for that over decades, for that book on Indian womanhood, and chose 20 to focus on for the book “Daughters of India” that came out a year and a half ago. And one of those women was Sonabai.


HUYLER: And I found her story so compelling I couldn’t sleep at night. You know, I just kept thinking, my God, her – what she has done with her life has such meaning, not only for me. I felt that it could evoke something in others beyond its inclusion in a book, a broader book, about Indian womanhood and so began to work on a book just about her, a film about her and this exhibition, which is really so exciting to have been able to do at the Mingei. The Mingei’s a marvelous small museum and they gave me really full latitude to explore. So it is an exhibition of her clay works, as you said, of her sculptures, but also very much a photographic exhibition of, I think, 170 photographs so…

CAVANAUGH: Uma, you left India and came to the United States in 1991.

LAKSHMAN: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you would tell us what it was like to be a woman in India when you left, although you must have been a child, and what it was like to be a woman in India today.

LAKSHMAN: When I left India, I grew up in the cities, in the city so it’s probably a bit different than growing up in the rural villages but my mom grew up there and we would go back there on vacation so I pretty much – I can tell you the difference between both. Growing up in the cities, it’s – you know, for example, my parents, they both don’t have a degree but they both came to the big city to find a job and to be on their feet and – but they were exposed to all the greatness in life. You know, there is a huge contrast in Bombay, you know, the very rich and the very poor. So you sort of aspire to be up there, and my parents said education was a big thing. And my mom, though a very intelligent woman, she could not go to school. She was not allowed to go to school though she had had an application to medical school, she was not allowed to go. And so she always made sure that me and my two sisters always had the best education possible. She sacrificed everything she could to give us the best. And so higher education was always at the top of the list. But I did see – But growing up, we grew up, you know, I would say middle class but right surrounding us, you know, that’s how it is in the cities but you have the slums and you have – So I have – I see – I’ve seen women in very abusive situations and most often than not I have seen it was related to alcoholism, husbands being into substance abuse, into alcoholism, that seemed to be the biggest problem. But you still saw a radiance in these women, especially one such women (sic) who came to our home to help us with some of the chores. She still always had the radiance and we would all sit together, sometimes drink tea, you know, have food together. Her daughter would come over as well, and even under those circumstances she had huge expectations of her own daughter. And so you saw everything around you. You grew up seeing really a poor cobbler just outside your home, mending shoes and, you know, and the children just running around very close to the gutters, you know. So all that has a deep impact on you. And you see the struggles of my own mom, you know, who sacrificed everything so that, you know, we could – so the success, though we were daughters, and they all constantly worried about dowry but it never stopped them from giving us our best in having to move ahead and that’s what brought me to this country, is my mom’s dreams.

HUYLER: Umm-hmm.



CAVANAUGH: …thank you for that. And I want to ask you, Carol, too, because what Uma says, a lot of the photographs, the portraits, also talk about the dreams that these women have. Tell us a little bit about that.

MCCUSKER: Well, I would say that probably one of the first things that they dream of is security and physical security, to get out of harm’s way and to be able to escape that is not an easy or a clear cut route. There are organizations that Fazal Sheikh actually – You know, you should know this about his work and the publications of his books, is that all of that money goes right back into the people that he photographs. And he has started a human rights series in which all of his endeavors are about this kind of activism to empower these women specifically. And it’s not an easy way out. I mean, that is one of the things, again, we were speaking of in the green room, and what we hope to discuss and sort of find a hopefulness tonight in this symposium is what do we do? What do we do here in the United States about it? What can these women do? What is the solution? And I think part of the title of the symposium here is about transcendence, to move beyond the specifics of these conditions to help these women realize, first of all, a physical safety dream, a dream of security where they can make their own living, where perhaps they can pursue education or their own families in a kind of safety, and an economic mainstream that is supportive.

CAVANAUGH: And before we get too removed from the problems in the United States in contrast to the problems of India, we do, of course, have homeless women here in the United States. This is not just an Indian problem.

MCCUSKER: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: Uma, I wanted to ask, there – you know, India is progressing in such dramatic ways.

LAKSHMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: The way I talked about it when I introduced this subject is the world’s largest democracy. Its economy has been booming. I don’t know what kind of toll the worldwide recession has taken on it. But yet would you say the conditions of women and female children are not progressing in the same way?

LAKSHMAN: I would say so. You know, I was in India actually in June and I thought with all the richness and with all the progress that the country has made things would be different. But I was shocked to see still kids running around the streets begging for food, and there wasn’t – it wasn’t any less, so that was shocking to me. So there’s a clear – So it really goes to show that the theory that we’ve always learned and read about, the have and the have-nots, it is definitely deepening. And it sort of shocks me to see, I mean, the inflation in the country and it all goes back to, again, the economic factors, you know, the inflation in the country, and I keep wondering how the poor people are even suffering and making their, you know, ends meet. I know that the government is taking a lot of strides, the Indian government. Even when I did research on the internet, there were like tons and tons of grassroot organizations, you know, sort of cropping up every other, you know, so – very so often to help the people but it’s probably the population is so huge, it just seems like they aren’t effective enough. And is the infrastructure, is of the law and order system? Not quite sure.

MCCUSKER: You know…

HUYLER: Well, can…

CAVANAUGH: Please, go ahead, Stephen first. Yes.

HUYLER: Thank you. I’m sorry. That was very important, what you were saying, Uma. And I also think in answer to your question about the contemporary conditions, I would say that there has been a tremendous change in the empowerment of women, the vocalization of women among the middle and upper classes in India, and there has also been a responsive backlash among the lower economic and lower social—perceived social brackets—of India, social classes, where I think the men have been so threatened by what they perceive as a tremendous challenge to their own values that women are in many ways in worse conditions at – in those areas of Indian society than they were 30, 40, 50, 60, 100 years ago. And so it goes both directions. There’s a great positive change and there’s a responsive negative.


MCCUSKER: Well, it’s possibly in that transition where the threat is felt the most because there is change coming and possibly, you know, that the darkest hour is before the dawn, you know, that…

HUYLER: Hopefully, hopefully, yeah.

MCCUSKER: …hopefully that this is – I think entering the 21st century, as we said, you know, India has enormous, you know, industry, that the world is taking its services now and that there’s possibly more people coming into India and observing this, that we can hope that in the 21st century that with all of this attention that there would be more rigorous application of laws. And as Fazal Sheikh has written in his book, there is no lack of laws to protect women; it is implementing them. And what we were also saying earlier is that part of perhaps the change is to address the fact that women do not need to be or they need to take the risk of not remaining silent.


MCCUSKER: And in that conjunction, there could be empowerment.

CAVANAUGH: And yet there is this radiance that Uma spoke about. Would you say that that is a word that sort of links your two exhibitions?

MCCUSKER: Absolutely.

HUYLER: Yes, absolutely.


HUYLER: I think, you know, again, in the green woman—the green woman—green room that Carol was referring to, our discussion, we were talking about the fact that in Indian cultures throughout history, for thousands of years and definitely present today, is the belief that women are stronger than men, that the definition of strength in India is feminine. There’s this aspect of self empowerment among Indian women that is remarkable and is omnipresent. It’s everywhere. Whether it’s allowed its manifestation depends upon individual circumstances or – and sometimes societal circumstances but, nevertheless, it’s something that strikes people who visit India wherever they go, is that you just spoke about the spark or the…

CAVANAUGH: The radiance.

HUYLER: …the light, the radiance of Indian women and children is deeply moving, deeply moving even in the worst ghetto. I think one of the problems that I had with the, for example, with “Slum Dog Millionaire,” for example, was it showed the ghettos of India, the slums of India, as being almost hopeless while as the experience—I’ve spent really years in Indian slums, months of many years—is what I feel there is that sense of hope, that they’re moving beyond their circumstances. Uma, you spoke. Maybe you would…

CAVANAUGH: I think that we’re going to have to end it there. I’m so sorry, but I think we’ve given listeners just a taste of the kind of discussion that’s going to be taking place tonight. And let me tell everyone what’s going to be happening. Both the Museum of Photographic Arts and the Mingei are presenting “Stories of Indian Women: Resistance, Resilience and Transcendence.” And that’s going to be happening tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Museum of Photographic Arts auditorium in Balboa Park. Stephen Huyler, Carol McCusker and Uma Lakshman, thank you all so much for being here and talking to us about…

MCCUSKER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …these amazing…

LAKSHMAN: Thank you.

HUYLER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …exhibitions.

HUYLER: Thank you so much.


CAVANAUGH: And good luck tonight.

MCCUSKER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Anyone who’d like to comment about this segment, please go online, And thank you so much for listening.