INTERVIEW: Sharmistha Dutta

To celebrate our launch Fòcas Scotland features powerful work by five photographers exploring community, identity, and culture in Scotland and India today.

Sharmistha Dutta is an Indian photographer whose first book Durga, documenting India’s marginalised widows, was published in July 2016. Advance copies can be purchased here.

A:  I saw your series ‘Durga’ last year at the Goa International Photo festival and found it so striking. I was really intrigued about how you connected Indian mythology to contemporary Indian life for women, and in particular to the widows of Vrindavan – can you talk a little about this and what the story is about?

S: A few years back I happened to visit Vrindavan, a holy city in Uttar Pradesh. A chance visit to a shelter home opened my eyes to the world of a widow. What I saw affected me deeply and will probably remain with me for the rest of my life.

I saw a dark room with more than a dozen beds lined up against both the walls. There on the beds sat women, in tattered white saris, with a blank look in their eyes. Most of them were widows, in their 70s or more. Who were these women, where did they come from, why weren’t their children there with them…many questions were crowding my head. I tried talking to them. Some of them poured their hearts out, some didn’t remember, or did not wish to remember.

Back home, I decided to do a small story with the photos I had taken that day. Very soon I wanted to do some more photo documentation of their everyday life and this went on for many months until suddenly one day an old widow asked me sharply ‘why do you keep asking us for our stories, what good will this be, will it really help us?’

I decided to dig deeper. I had heard of the holy city of Varanasi having many such shelter homes and wanted to cover those as well. Consequently, many days were spent talking to the widows living here so that I could get an in-depth view of their lives, their past, what made them leave home, how they were coping at present and if they had any hopes of re-uniting with their families back home. Talking to them made me understand how deeply patriarchal our society has always been. It unmasked the hypocrisy of a society that has chosen to shower adulation on one woman and extreme humiliation on another, depending on what suited its selfish needs.

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A:  You’ve been working on this project for over 3 years. What are your plans for it or is it still ongoing? What do the women you collaborate with think about the project?

S: Gradually over the next two years I built up a body of work and the story has since been exhibited on various platforms and photo festivals. It generated a lot of interest in print media and social media. But the question posed by the widow was giving me sleepless nights. Really, I wondered, what good will all this be, if it didn’t serve a bigger purpose. The stories had to reach a larger audience. The idea of compiling this into a photo book had already germinated and the next logical step was to give shape to it.

During my shoots and subsequent interviews of the widows at the shelter homes, I came across many women who were very bitter about their early lives in their native homes, where they were mistreated by their in-laws, sons and daughters in law. Many did not have any contacts with them since they left their homes. And yet when talking to me they would often break down and even ask me to make this a subject of discussion in the society, to bring the issue of abandonment and widows’ rights into focus. In general, they have been extremely supportive with information and talking about their lives to me.

A: When you’re making these photographs, do you have a clear idea of the image you want to make or do you go out and find it?

S: As a photographer I love to do conceptual and staged shoots. It all depends on the subject of the shoot, idea being conveyed, the situation we are in and we have to decide on the spot as to which way to go. For this project particularly I have had a clear-cut visual idea about how I wanted my shots and I tried to achieve that as much as I could.

The idea was to visually demonstrate how Goddess Durga is present in every woman, whether she belongs to the upper echelon of society, whether she’s a middle class working woman, a humble village girl or even a widow, who’s so callously abandoned, once her husband dies. And I hoped, thus, to portray how hypocritical the society is, one that idolises Ma Durga and yet turns a blind eye to a million destitute mothers and wives, treating them with so much indifference.

There are two distinct parts in the story. The initial part portrays Goddess Durga in the midst of every woman. The second part is hard-core documentation on the life of widows, how they have been living in Vrindavan and Varanasi for hundreds of years, the hardships they face and their present situation when many NGOs have come in to lend them a helping hand. Hence I have tried to keep this as realistic as possible.

A: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into photography? What inspires you and your practice?

S: As far back as I can remember I have always tinkered around with the camera. And yet when quit advertising and started to do photo stories it really was a life changing experience for me. From sitting in a safe environment of an agency and doling out designs for advertisements to plunging headlong into the unpredictable and exciting world of documentary photography, it has been a roller coaster ride of emotions and changing circumstances. I had never experienced such an array of emotions, right from insecurities, fear, frustrations to the utter glee and excitement of coming up with beautiful photo.

Durga is essentially my first and most significant body of work. And the appreciation from everyone made a huge difference to my conviction about the subject as well as photography as a serious professional choice.

Over the last two years I have also regularly photographed for many respectable organisations like BBC Media Action, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UN Women, GIZ, The Hunger Project and many more. Telling stories with humanitarian content and working on issues that make a difference is what primarily interests me.

Sharmistha is Delhi-based photographer with a background in design and advertising. Her journey into photography started a couple of years back when India was going through a massive social turmoil and she decided to peruse a career in photography documenting social issues. Her most prominent work has been Durga, a photo project on Gender bias and social discrimination against widows in India. The work has been very well received and was part of an International Photo festival held in India 2015.

She has been successfully exhibiting her work across India, and has photographed for organisations such as BBC Media, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UN WOMEN, GIZ, The Hunger Project, Care India and Future India Trust.

Follow her work here.