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Women of rural india

A book by Handheld Films

Dedicated to the people who appear in this book

introduction THIS is my second collection of images from India. While the first featured women strongly, this one does so exclusively. And while the first included images of life in the cities as well as in the countryside, this one is entirely about rural life. It’s a place where women have many roles. to play.

Modesty There’s a paradox about saris in rural India. The bright splashes of colour are everywhere. And yet the faces of the women wearing them are very often hidden from view by the volumes of fabric they pull up to cover their head. It encapsulates women in rural India today.

Dignified and determined in the heat and dust of the dry season, women in rural India work together with their faces covered. Sometimes the veil is the screen of the purdah, until it is lifted.

But even behind the veil, the character of women in India stands out. While it’s not unusual to find reticence, many are extremely vivacious, friendly and engaging. They have modesty with a natural warmth and elegance.

These eyes show how little of a person’s face you may need to see to feel their personality. Despite partition, in many parts of India Hindu and Muslim people appear to live together in perfect harmony. And Muslims can be as welcoming to westerners as to anyone else. The lady on the opposite page is one example.

Age Resilience is everywhere in rural India, because it is a necessity. The days are long, and the work mostly out of doors. There is little respite indoors. Yet as women age, many acquire a highly distinguished appearance and are held in high esteem as senior figures with a respected place in the family.

Illness and injury at work are constant risks. Not all women avoid them. And increasingly, as their sons leave the villages to find work in the cities, some do not end up with their family around them. But there is a palpable sense of community - particularly amongst women who have worked together in the same place for years.

Hospitality to outsiders is widespread in India, and in the smaller scale of village communities is evocatively expressed in the Namaste greeting. Hands put together with an open smile and a gentle, slight lowering of the head. It always seems even more courtly coming from an elderly lady.

Art and design is all around you in the world of the everyday in rural India. The colours that women choose for their clothes, and the colours they use to paint and decorate the exteriors of their home are effortlessly and extraordinarily complementary.

The lady above is 100 years old and, according to her son who introduced her to me, ‘generally quite well’. But she had fallen badly and broken her arm, which was heavily bandaged in what appeared to be coarse jute thread. This is the sterner expression of resilience, shared by many women who have more than their fair share of hardships to endure.

At work Women do some of the hardest manual labour in rural India. They swing pickaxes, break rocks, carry bowls of sand and rubble and balance bricks and firewood on their heads. They lug heavy sacks, unload trucks, collect water, harvest crops, look after livestock, children, houses, and homes. And often have to walk many miles between isolated locations in intense heat to do it all.

(previous page) part of a large gang of women working in the intense heat of open scrubland in rural Rajasthan. (top left) a skilled weaver in a textile workshop, and (below left ) chopping sugar cane at harvest time. All of these women are watched over and directed by men, as is the elderly woman (opposite), collecting grain in the fields of Madhya Pradesh.

It must feel like an uphill struggle, most of the time. Most of these women are doing hard, physical work in an uncomfortable climate, for many hours every day, usually in difficult conditions and in jobs that in most other parts of the world would be considered as requiring masculine muscle and stamina.

Back home, there is still a great deal of manual work to do. While a lot of villages have an intermittent power supply, few people have electrical devices that help with the jobs that have to be done every day - such as laundry for the whole family. Whether they have been out working in the fields or working at home, the day for women is long.

At Home Every village is different. Every home is different. But the one thing they all seem to have in common is a strong sense of family and community, usually led and nurtured by the women who live there. These are places where several generations live together, either under one roof or very close to one another. And they are remarkably neat, tidy and well looked after.

Not all women work far from home. Some tend crops or look after livestock in fields that are right outside. Many have babies and young children to look after. And since the doors are often open, good company is never far away.

While some jobs at home in rural India are as familiar as they are in the West - such as grandmothers baby-sitting or looking after young children - others reflect the exchange of roles that’s going on elsewhere. House maintenance, for example, may well be a job for the women of the house.

Some scenes are familiar in most villages: colourful clothes (top left) washed by hand and hung out to dry in the heat of the day, people - of any age - bringing in the livestock, (below left) or taking them out to the fields through the village streets, and (opposite) the traditional skills of making and repairing clothes for the family.

Every house is dark and cool inside. Most are pristine outside. Many have satellite television, while the rooms themselves are simply furnished. The livestock usually have their own place at home or very nearby. And everything is washed and tidily stacked - as on the shelves in the image on this page.

THE YOUNG A woman’s life is often a young girl’s life too. A few years ago, new legislation was introduced to ensure that all children received free education between the ages of 6 and 14. It was to be compulsory. But it has never worked in practice. Even according to the government’s own research more than half of all girls drop out early.

There are always jobs to be done. Girls of school age often have brothers and sisters to look after. Or they may have to do the housework when both parents are working long hours. And there is always something to do in the fields, or with the animals. For many there may be no choice, but it seems that a lot of children, boys as well as girls, appear to like helping their parents and learning how to do the same jobs.

I have seen many girls at schools in rural India who want to learn, and show so much intent enthusiasm and energy. But the system is against them. Not only is there often the pressure to help with essential jobs at home. There are rarely enough qualified teachers, or teaching resources, to provide a good education for the ones that stay.

There are special days. Really special days. Days for religious festivals, celebrations, and dressing up. This girl lives in a small village in the backwaters of Kerala, in southern India, but every year there is a major event at a snake temple which attracts people from miles around. The men and boys dance for hours. The women and girls may only watch.

But however challenging the conditions, women and young girls in rural India always appear, in a discreet and understated way, to be in control. The over-riding impression is of belief in themselves as individuals, and as women. They have a spirit that seems unbeatable. A togetherness that is both tough and tender. And a vitality that beats in the heart of India.

I am Paul Dyer, a UK photographer and film maker, based in a small village in the heart of the Cotswolds, England. India has been a special place for me for a very long time, ever since I first came across Indian art and music as a teenager. Since then I have been very fortunate to visit the country many times - more now, in fact, than I can count.

The images in this collection were photographed throughout rural Rajasthan, (in Northern India) Madhya Pradesh (in Central India) and in Kerala (Southern India)

Š Handheld Films. All Rights Reserved. 2018.

Women of Rural India  

A photographic essay on the role of women in rural India today

Women of Rural India  

A photographic essay on the role of women in rural India today