The Sisterhood of White

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Widows of Vrindavan - Dance

‘Lest We Forget, A Sisterhood Called White’, is a powerful and heartening exhibition of thirty-five large black-and-white photographs of the elderly widows of Vrindavan. The show opened on 3 January at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC) and runs till 19 January. “Twenty thousand widows – 90% of them are believed to be from Bengal,” live in Vrindavan, also called “the city of widows.” They go there to escape – “either from family life, forced or abandoned, in search of peace and devotion.” We are long familiar with the tragic circumstances in which they live.

This exhibition features the elderly women living at the Maitri Ashram. The sensitively wrought, close-up, and intimate photographs of the women on display underline that many of these elders can and do live lives of dignity and sisterhood, and are treated with respect, love, and care. They thrive in their new home where they “come alive again.”

White hanging saris drape the white walls of the expansive halls of the KCC. Some of the cotton saris have slim, coloured borders. The austerity of the venue and décor enables a singular focus on the women. We are invited to look into their inner worlds and pick up cues from their immediate environments. A white sari, with a large red heart is laid out like a carpet on the floor to express the heart – the feelings – of each of the women represented – women whose emotions have too long been socially ignored. A set of short textual pieces allows several women to express the circumstances that brought them to Vrindavan and how they feel in their current situation.

“As her parents’ only child, she travelled extensively with her husband and daughter, including Vrindavan. Tragedy struck when her husband passed away from a heart attack, followed by her daughter, Rumi, falling ill.

The financial strain from Rumi’s treatment depleted all their resources. Rumi’s final wish was to be in Vrindavan, where she peacefully passed away. Devastated, Rajkumari, nearly losing her sanity, found solace in Vrindavan, where the caring presence of Radha Rani helped her regain mental stability.

Since then, Rajkumari has chosen to make Vrindavan her permanent home as she always wanted to stay near her daughter.” Rajkumari Saha, 55 years old, “Originally from Dattapukur in Kolkata, she faced adversity early in her marriage. After just three tumultuous years due to her husband’s drinking and family issues, she found herself alone without a child. Rejected by her own family upon return, she forged a new path, working for 15 years as a caretaker at the Presidency Girls Hostel. COVID-induced closure cost her that job, leading her to Vrindavan. Now, content, and happy, she embraces the solace of her new life. Kalyani Rai”, 64 years old.

Kounteya Sinha and Rana Pandey spent two weeks shooting at Maitri this December and early January. Maitri was started by Winnie Singh in 2014. Appalled by the destitution and vulnerability that stalked the lives of so many widows, Winnie built a home so they could live with dignity and comradery. Two hundred elderly women live at the ashram where they have nutritious food, warm clothing, and health care. Their citizens’ rights are fulfilled – they have Aadhar cards, zero bank accounts and pension cards. Through counselling a handful have been successfully reintegrated back into their families. Many are engaged in skill-building programmes.

Kounteya and Rana took over 345 photographs documenting how caring, respect, solidarity and community have transformed the lives of elderly women who are widows. The images pulsate with hope. There are portraits and images of groups of women carrying out their daily activities – eating together, watching a dance performance, exercising, or going on a boat ride on the Yamuna. Other photographs communicate the strong bonds of care and friendship between the women. An arresting image for me was one where a pair of gnarled hands massage the wrinkled forehead of a friend whose head lies in her lap. None of the images are captioned. This allows the viewer to have a completely sensory experience without any textual intervention.

Widows of Vrindavan -- Jael Silliman Widows of Vrindavan — relaxing

There is a group of photographs from a trip where a few women went to see the Taj Mahal, only an-hour-and-a-half distance away from Vrindavan. One of the women told Kountenya that she wanted to see the Taj Mahal and Kounteya promised to take her there. He did, along with a group of women from Maitri. Seeing the photographs of the group against the grand and opulent tomb represented a study in contrasts – the simplicity of their white saris against the ornate and grandeur of the Taj Mahal. The grand monument built for Mumtaz Mahal as opposed to the frugal lives of most widows

There is a compelling image of Shovha Dashi holding images from her life as an artiste. Shovha was introduced to theatre as a young woman. She worked with notable Bengali actors including Kali Banerjee, Supriya Devi, and Ranjeet Mallik. She was a member of Shilpi Sangsad founded by Uttam Kumar. One can only imagine her thoughts, reminisces and pride as she reminisces about her past that is captured in a single frame.

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Widows of Vrindavan -- pictures

There is a group of photographs from a trip where a few women went to see the Taj Mahal, only an-hour-and-a-half distance away from Vrindavan. One of the women told Kountenya that she wanted to see the Taj Mahal and Kounteya promised to take her there. He did, along with a group of women from Maitri. Seeing the photographs of the group against the grand and opulent tomb represented a study in contrasts – the simplicity of their white saris against the ornate and grandeur of the Taj Mahal. The grand monument built for Mumtaz Mahal as opposed to the frugal lives of most widows. In these images, the widows and the Taj come together without any dissonance or incongruity. A metaphor for how widows can and should not be isolated but integrated into all aspects and every sphere of life.

Widows of Vrindavan -- Taj

Renu Ma graced the opening. She has lived in Vrindavan for the last decade with Maitri. There was a cake in her honour as she has just turned 106. Kountenya explained she is the oldest widow in India. This endearing tribute to Renu Ma epitomizes the warmth, thoughtfulness and kindness that infuse each of the frames. In our increasingly bleak world, it offers a great deal of positivity and possibility underlining that change is made by women like Winnie and photographers like Kounteya and Rahul.

All photographs courtesy: Kounteya Sinha 

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