Radhaben Garva: Painting the Women’s Movement

Nilanjana S. Roy & Radhaben Garva

In 1987, journalist Anees Jung travelled across India, collecting the stories of women in villages and cities. She had begun her journeys with a brief from the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) to explore the nature of the population problem in India; by the end of her travels, she had an acute understanding of how women’s lives in the country were changing. She started with the big shift that would change her mother’s home village: the building of roads and highways that cut like blades through rural isolation.

The arteries of India are its highways and its railway lines. It’s the buses and trains, however intermittent or sporadic the service, that form the connective tissue linking India’s villages to each other and to the cities. ‘Quiet continues to brood in the village, as it does in all the villages of India,’ she wrote, ‘it is no longer stoic, though. And it does not take a night in a slow bullock cart to reach. A pilgrimage for which my mother waited fifty years is now over in less than three hours.’

Jung went to Kesergere village in Karnataka and found the women of the village were gathering in a new community centre. ‘Here the women come to wash their clothes, their children, themselves,’ she wrote. This was just four to six years before the artist and historian Radhaben Garva began making her first sketches of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan’s community centre in Gujarat – a series that culminated in her book of illustration Picture This! The geographical and cultural separation between these two states is immense, but the role that these fledgling women’s community centres played was the same across the country. As Jung recorded: ‘Here women have found a place to meet and to talk, a place to be private, their own territory, managed and maintained by a group of them.’

In the villages Jung visited in the 1980s, she found a pattern: women would meet, talk, organise. They would almost always start by asking for small changes in health care, in water collection – things considered the business of women. As they learned to give voice to their concerns, their ability to group together and push for broader social change became stronger. In order to preserve more profits for the women who embroidered and stitched clothes in the community centre of Gujarat, for example, the KMVS collective had to learn how to cut out middlemen, how to deal directly with buyers from big cities, how to set up their own marketplaces and how to negotiate for better prices. What they wanted seemed so simple – water, fodder, fuel – but it led them to fight larger and larger battles. Behind each demand is a woman’s life, and the question of whether she and her daughters will have less pain and neglect to contend with than their mothers did.

 

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The 2011 census takers counted 254 families living in Baraya village. Not so far from the Gulf of Kutch on the West coast of India, Baraya is tiny by Indian standards, where a village in the central and northern states can teem with as many people as a large township. This is a terrain of blended grasslands and desert, flatlands sparsely dotted with thorn trees. The dryness is cut by the presence of a deep blue lake close by. The white sands of Kutch and then the swirling currents of the Arabian Sea are no more than a long bus ride out of the village. Every winter, Baraya’s inhabitants wait for the cranes to return and celebrate when the sky fills up with the arrow-shapes of the black-legged, sleek birds.

These birds are sketched in Picture This! In Garva’s fluid hand their shapes, drawn in squiggles of black and grey crayon, are simple but eerily lifelike, as though Garva memorized the birds’ expressions the way she does with the humans she draws.

Radhaben Garva comes from Baraya, where for over twenty years she has sketched the progress made by the women of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan. The KMVS is a grassroots network that connects roughly 20,000 women, from artisans to village political leaders, midwives to pastoralists to folk musicians. These networks spread across Bhuj, Mundra and other parts of Kutch, creating seven distinct rural women’s collectives.

Sushma Iyengar, one of three women who founded the KMVS twenty-four years ago, has spoken extensively about how it started. She returned to India from Cornell University with a degree in developmental communication in the late 1980s. The ‘ethnic look’ ruled fashion trends in Delhi, and the Gujarat state emporiums, which marketed handicrafts and other products from the state’s cottage industries, did brisk business. When Iyengar visited Kutch, she found that there was a more troubling reason for the sudden availability of hand-embroidered clothes from the region. ‘Ironically, this frenetic outburst was an outcome of distress – the third successive year of drought and mass-scale migration. Traditionally, the women of Kutch did not sell their embroidery but kept it as part of their dowry.’ She and her colleagues were initially met with suspicion from villagers, who thought they might be inspectors from the government’s CID wing in disguise, but the time they spent talking to women helped them understand what was needed.

Together with women from the local villages, Iyengar and her colleagues helped set up the KMVS, initially to act as a buffer between the women who produced Kutch’s colourful embroidery and the middlemen who sold these on to buyers in the big cities at much higher markups. The KMVS, like other women’s organisations of the 1980s, has been shaped by the women of the rural regions, its focus eventually shifting from handicrafts to drought and water collection issues, education and violence against women. They learned how to direct their anger at specific targets, how to force change when it wasn’t given freely. Their ire came in waves: sometimes it was aimed at the bus station masters, sometimes the primary health care centres, often at the government ration shop, and then at their own communities’ taboos on intercaste mingling or women working outside their homes.

Radhaben Garva joined the KMVS in its early years and began recording a small, essential part of the history of the Indian women’s movement with sketches on paper and wall murals in the local KMVS office in Baraya.

‘Kunjal, as the common crane is lovingly called in Kutch, returns to the arid grasslands every winter, all the way from Siberia, and the region welcomes her back, this daughter of theirs. Her arrival warms their winter hearts, and cheered by her presence, they share with her the joys and sorrows of the year gone by’, Sushma Iyengar writes in Picture This! ‘We try and emulate their flight, spreading our energies to the many thousands who fly with us, sharing our responsibilities and taking turns to lead.’

 

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The women in Picture This! are sketched in brilliant splashes of colour, bringing back the familiar image of the Gujarat and the nearby Rajasthan countryside: the desert’s sandy browns and greys are lit up by the exuberant yellows, greens, reds and pinks of the long-skirted women. But what I love most is the expressions on their faces. Garva draws each one from memory, and they radiate mischief, intelligence, friendship, determination, scepticism, individuality.

Radhaben herself is also present in the pictures, bespectacled, peering with friendly interest at the reader, neat in her green sari and the magenta blouse. If only all artists would sign their work with such self-portraits, looking out at the world that looks back at them.

The lightness of her sketches, drawn in crayon and felt-tip pen, the form they take – simple line drawings with a deliberately naive sensibility – and the colours she uses reference a style instantly recognisable across India. They resemble the government-commissioned posters resplendent with messages promoting ‘national integration’ and the family values that were everywhere when Radhaben Garva, now in her mid-sixties, was a child in newly independent India.

The figures sketched in quick lines, each panel telling a clear story, play on the iconography found on the cyclostyled, smudgy posters that carried pictures of Women At Work or instructions that helped children to be An Ideal Boy / Girl.

The familiarity between her work and the posters makes me smile, but behind the simplicity there is a wealth of technique. The camels and the keekar thorn bushes, the wells, goats, peacocks, charpais, tractors and ploughs, the thatched houses, the rabbits and mongooses who visit from the nearby scrub, the river near the village, the boundary walls, the herds of cows and the magic road that carries women off to their first view of a city: these also echo the style of classic Indian miniature painting. ‘Indian paintings have been . . . described as layered objects in which one thing, or thought, is gently laid upon another,’ writes the art historian B.N. Goswamy. Garva’s paintings borrow the Pahari miniature school trick of placing people so that the background tells one story, the foreground and the central characters another. As with the miniature tradition, the bright colours and the classically arranged frames don’t restrict the artist – all of everyday life is here, including its injustice and violence.

In one sketch, the daughter-in-law of the village’s former headman is found inside a newly-bought refrigerator, her body crumpled, hands limp as lilies, a smudge of blood congealed in bright maroon crayon along the hairline; her dead eyes stare up at the clock, the voltage stabiliser, past the glass bottles and condiments that promise change and modernity. In another, Malji, a sheep rearer, thrashes his young bride Sarli; she lies on her side, her mouth turned downwards at the corners in dismay and pain, cartoonish drops of blood staining the earth as the cows watch. She is in colour, her assailing husband and the silent cows in outline; and so are the two women who watch and who will go back to tell the rest, three splotches of vivid pink and leaf green connected by the thread of gender and solidarity.

Alternatively, many of the happiest sketches are about the journeys the KMVS women make once their movement has grown apace. The women are depicted leaving the village, riding on the back of a tractor, their red and green odhnis and wide skirts and the blue of the tractor’s sides providing a vivid splash of colour in an otherwise brown and white sketch. ‘Wherever we went,’ Garva writes, ‘we stared and were stared at – for we were now claiming spaces that were not considered ours.’

In my favourite painting / drawing, a woman holds on to the passenger’s bar in her first autorickshaw ride, her striped blouse and silver payals as bright as the three-wheeler’s painted headlights. She has curled into the frame of the vehicle, compressed by the pace the rickshaw driver has set, and made it her own, as though she is a brightly coloured calendar goddess and the rickshaw her steed.

‘Stepping out was stepping in,’ Garva and Sushma Iyengar write, ‘The more we travelled out, the more we met ourselves. Our thoughts, emotions, values talked to us with ease during these journeys we made to bond and learn from other women, in other regions.’

 

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Radhaben Garva and her colleagues, in Baraya and in other parts of the district of Munda, have varied occupations; Rural women in Gujarat handle housework, water-gathering and child-rearing as a matter of course, but they also stitch and design clothes, work as dairy farmers and as agricultural labourers (it is estimated that women contribute 55 to 66 per cent of the total labour on farm production across India), fish on the coast or become honey gatherers and gum collectors, harvesting the forests.

In one of Radhaben’s early illustrations, made for the collective’s tenth anniversary, a six-armed woman stands like an exhausted goddess in the centre of a time wheel. In each of her arms is an implement – a pot to collect water, a sickle to cut twigs, a broom to sweep the house – and a child holds onto one hand, demanding attention: ‘Our day stretches nineteen hours of continuous labour,’ Garva writes. This is one of the few bridges that connects the lives of rural and urban women in India – both are time-starved, both have to fight to exercise the right to control what they do with the hours in the day.

In 1992, backed by the KVSM, Garva started an eight-page magazine, Ujas. She was the editor; Dhanuba Jadeja, Nanduba Chauhan and Kamalaben Gosai were the first managers and reporters. They broke caste lines by being on the same board – Garva is from the Dalit caste, as are many families in Baraya, which is considered far beneath the high-caste Rajput clans that Nanduba and Dhanuba come from. It didn’t matter to the women, and it gradually ceased to matter to their fellow villagers.

 

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I grew up in cities, like a growing number of Indians in my generation. For my father, this was not the case: he and his brothers were among the first in their village to travel from Cuttack, in Orissa, to Bhubaneshwar and then to Delhi in search of stabler lives and better jobs. For me, the idea of the village is carried in language, and it is in Bengali that I first started to understand how deep the attachment between people and place might be: the word for ‘my native place’ and for ‘country’ is the same – ‘desh’. The closest that I can come to expressing this in English is through the word ‘land’, but Bengali has no need for qualifiers such as ‘homeland’. You went home, you went to your country: it remained, for decades and perhaps even centuries, exactly the same thing.

When I write ‘village’, what do you imagine? In the late 1980s, on my first visit to England as a seventeen-year-old, I walked around a small village outside Oxford not knowing that it was one. Nothing about its quiet greens, the pub, the neat lanes or the church matched the palm trees and ghats of the Bengal villages I had seen, or suggested the pragmatic, dusty mud houses, courtyard wells and insistently generous hospitality of the Uttar Pradesh villages that ringed Delhi.

In February 2015, veteran journalist P. Sainath launched the People’s Archive of Rural India online. He wanted to create a ‘living archive of the world’s most diverse and complex countryside’ – 833 million people who speak between them well over 700 different languages. The ownership of the histories or interviews recorded at PARI, a collective project, rests first with the person who shares her history or offers his views, and then with the archives.

It is an unusual corrective in a country where most reporters, Indian or foreign, are city-based, and where the headlines of the day are filled with metropolitan news. The assumptions made about villages are often true, as Sainath writes: ‘[There is] much in rural India that is tyrannical, oppressive, regressive and brutal – and which needs to go. Untouchability, feudalism, bonded labour, extreme caste and gender oppression and exploitation, land grab and more.’

But as PARI’s archives and Indian history attests, to see only this is to miss the energy and richness that also thrives in Indian villages. It’s easy to ignore the long histories of activism, engagement and protest that are also part of the village tradition because television cameras aren’t turned in that direction. Rural Indians aren’t invited to be guests on urban India’s TV shows; village India doesn’t write the op-eds in the national newspapers.

But even though rural protests might take place far away from the media spotlight, they have been remarkably effective in their aims. In 2005, women from the KVSM joined in for a peaceful ‘dharna’ – agitation, ongoing rally – to save the little there is of good farming land in Kutch from corporate farming. The agitation stretched into May 2006, when 2,500 men and women from villages across the Kutch region, including Mundra and Baraya, blocked the main highways and railway tracks into Kutch.

After these months of protest, government officials made the time to meet with the villagers and listen to their demands. Alongside this, in 2008, women and men from ten fishing villages strung along the Mundra port area began what would become one of the first wave of protests in an ongoing, complicated battle for the rights of traditional fishing communities against coastal development schemes.

The how-to of protest is passed along villages, like harvest songs, like folk remedies for nursing women. In Baraya, Kutch, the women heard of an older, now legendary movement: the Chipko Andolan, which gets its name from ‘stick to’ or ‘stuck to’. It was in the early 1970s that this group of village women in Reni, Uttarakhand – in the northern part of India – stopped the forcible cutting-down of trees by putting their arms around the trees assigned for felling and refusing to move until the timber contractors and the forest department backed down. The Chipko movement spread, in part, through the songs of Ghanshyam Raturi, sung by women and passed on from one hill to another: ‘Embrace our trees / Save them from being felled / The property of our hills / Save them from being looted.’ You still hear Raturi’s songs in Uttarakhand today, and even in faraway Kutch.

 

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Two years ago, at the Kolkata Book Fair, I met a teenage artist, Joya Mondol. She came not just from a family of painters but from a highly regarded village of artists: Medinipur, in West Bengal. She and her mother had walked part of the way and taken a bus the rest of the considerable distance between Medinipur and Kolkata, as they did every year to sell their paintings. They had both trained in the Patachitra folk art style, and rolled out their intricate storytelling on scrolls. She signed her work with the words: ‘Joya Chitrakar’ (Joya, Painter). It was a very beautiful signature; she calligraphed her name in Bengali script, sharpening the ends of the letters so that the Jo- and the Ya- looked like flying cranes.

I remarked on its beauty and she said that they had all started signing their work in Medinipur only recently, in this last decade. ‘Why was it unsigned before this?’ I asked.

It was only folk art, said Joya. People expected folk art to be cheap – she mentioned Gond and Santhal tribal paintings, known for their intricacy and their borrowings from forest myths.

But, she continued, in Medinipur as her uncles and aunts sharpened their skills and grew used to visiting galleries in Kolkata, Delhi and even Paris, they became aware of something else.

‘We saw that our work was good,’ she said. ‘It takes me some weeks to do a painting like this, with the colours hand-ground. I saw my uncles start to put their signatures, and now I sign all of my work.’

 

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Twenty years ago, Delhi’s galleries might not have not hosted the work of Radhaben Garva, given the invisibility of local art, tribal art, any art that overlapped into craft or that came from the villages. This year, when Garva’s publishers, the independent feminist house Zubaan, asked her to attend the book launch in Delhi, a large and engaged audience was there to meet her as an artist, as much for her work as for her role as a historian of the Indian women’s movement.

In one of the parables in Picture This!, the women discuss what kind of power to ask for. Did they want to be like the river ‘whose power spreads quietly, invisibly’, merging identities, creating new ones, or to be like the fire, leaping towards the sky, consuming and destroying everything to leave ‘the earth burnt . . . for its renewal again’.

Garva has had both the river’s way and the fire’s way in her life. The initial reaction to her drawings was one of discomfort as the village grew used to being seen and recorded. Now, in her sixties, I am interested to see how her art may change as she continues to document the women’s movement. There is obviously still much to fight for.

She writes a poem in Kutchi:

I set out to expand my world,
And discover its laughter and its pain,
I set out to find the woman within me,
And found instead an artist, speaking to
This woman within me,
Yes, I set out to expand my world.

 

Images courtesy of University of Chicago Press and Zubaan Books

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