The Space Without

Through Her Lens was conceptualized just over a year ago, when some of us started conversations on decolonizing research and making accessible ideas, thoughts and movements that emerge from and rightfully belong to indigenous communities in the Northeast. While gender often gets relegated to the sidelines when there are issues
of racism, land rights and resource extraction, settler colonialism and more, we wanted to provide a platform to center these issues through the eyes of women, queer, trans and non binary persons. What was common, and continues to manifest in each edition of the exhibition in different forms, is how the negotiation revolves around the idea/concept of space. Putting a physical exhibition in the central park of Namchi in February 2020, where first time photographers travelled to see their photographs displayed in a public space — pictures which were so personal and often of domestic space, but which also revealed the political undertones of labour, agency, etc. — to documenting the pandemic and the lockdown in Reframing the Domestic (RtD) through the eyes of ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers, has expanded what we imagined in the beginning and has taught us so much along the way. THL was always imagined as an exhibition which will not theorize the lives of women and marginalized genders, which will engage with questions of class, ethnicity, caste and indigenous identities in ways we know best — through storytelling. 

 

This new edition of THL, The Space Without, follows in the footsteps of RtD and delves into a life post-lockdown with a continuing healthcare-labour-ecological crisis. Public spaces have been historically exclusionary to several groups of people—whether it is the way they’ve been built to serve the needs and abilities of a few, or when it comes down to who has unfettered access to them. However, where there is repression, there is resistance, and The Space Without is an archive of this resistance. 

 

In solidarity

Mridu, Bidisha, Karuna, Anushya

On 3 October 2020, several activists in Guwahati came in solidarity for a peaceful protest against the injustice meted out to the Hathras (Uttar Pradesh) rape victim. The placards and banners, in both Assamese and English, questioned the continued violence against girls and women and the inability of the state to protect them and deliver justice. The protestors also stressed the issue of Assam recording the highest crime rate against women in the country. Although the protest was carried out within the ambit of the norms imposed by the lockdown, the state forces barricaded the area to impede people from conducting a peaceful rally. The Northeast region saw multiple protests during this period, as state impunity for caste based crimes and sexual violence resonated with indigenous communities battling against AFSPA and structural impunity.

An independent researcher from Guwahati working on issues of culture, gender and identity. She likes to make images and is still learning the art of photography.

Vijayeta Rajkumari

Jahnabi Mitra

A psychologist and an independent researcher, currently working as a faculty member at the Department of Psychology, Royal Global University, Guwahati. Her photographs have been represented in Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic, 0print magazine, Angkor Photo Festival and Long-listed for the Toto Funds the Arts.

These photographs were taken in September 2020 as lockdown restrictions were easing across Assam. We were driving to Mazbat tea estate in our old Maruti ZEN to visit the family of a relative who had passed away from a cardiac arrest. I didn’t stop to take any of the images but let my camera capture whatever it could en route. It was only a few months later, during processing, when I noticed a near absence of women in the frames. These 11 images are originally selected from a collection of 164 images taken on the same day. Less than 10 percent of my photos are of women. My initial reaction was that of doubt. Did I make a latent choice to see and capture only men in the public sphere? Or do these images portray the current reality? I then began to consciously look at the public spaces and now I wonder if years of struggle by women to forgo the boundaries of public and private has dissipated during the pandemic?

Pooja Kalita

A PhD scholar at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi. She hails from Assam and is currently juggling between the medium of academic writing, visual art and poetry to portray various gendered realities.

Unchanged Frames depicts some chance encounters during my first bus ride post lockdown between Guwahati and Nagaon in Assam. Rather than focusing on what has altered, I was curious to explore those routine aspects that have remained unchanged for women during the pandemic by observing the inside-outside interface of the bus and as a woman traveler myself. What I realised was that some frames remain unchanged. In a bus dominated by male bodies there’s a constant need to be aware of unsolicited gazes, be vigilant to and avoid unwanted physical contacts and shoulder maternal responsibilities. Shifting my lens out of the moving bus, I saw women carrying on with their activities as earning members of the family and simultaneously fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives as well. Public spaces are not devoid of women, but these spaces are also rife with the anxieties for them. 

Nawami Gurung

A Mass Communication and Journalism student at St. Joseph’s College,Darjeeling. She is a Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Photography Grantee 2020-21 and considers herself to be an aspiring photographer.

Paruka Chettri runs an NGO in Darjeeling which rescues and protects stray dogs. Due to the nature of her work, she often has to be out on the streets on her own, at times even at odd hours. When I met her, she was generous enough to share her stories and I was, especially, intrigued by how she said she had crossed the barrier of fear of working alone in public spaces. Her experiences were in stark contrast to mine. And I recollected a recent incident during the lockdown when I was heading to the pharmacy with my sister. It was a foggy day with very few people around. A few moments later we noticed an eccentric-looking man following us. I caught his gaze for a second and it terrified me. But we kept on walking, not knowing what else to do. Thankfully, a neighbour saw us and he warned the stranger, who then turned around and walked away. 

 

On the one hand, incidents like these make me feel helpless and I lose confidence in being alone outside. On the other, I see women like Paruka Chettri who remain undeterred by all the challenges and stay committed to their work. I draw strength from people like her and try to get over my internalised fear. 

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This series of photo performances was devised and taken by Mwdai, and edited by Yashasv Saluja under the creative direction of Mwdai. This is their first consolidated work and

is a work in progress.

Performing Safety is a work in progress comprising two series of photo performances—‘A Study in Private’ and ‘Close to Open’. The latter constitutes two further episodes, namely ‘Open for Business and ‘Noh’ao Tangnw’. The series starts with the picture titled ‘Act 1: No’ao Tangnw’. The pictures included are part of Ep 2. Noh’ao Tangnw’, loosely translated as ‘I want to go home’, encapsulating the longing as well as the failure to find safety and comfort, physical or otherwise at the onset of the pandemic, thus setting the tone for the series.  

Mwdai

Act 1: Longing for Contact     Noh in Bodo translates to home or house. These images were devised to convey the anxiety and anguish around the need and want to feel secure during a global pandemic. As a migrant who left home very early to study in the capital, returning home is something that is considered quite natural and almost inevitable. As the pandemic set in, an urgent desire was felt to go back home, a place where one is at ease with their surroundings and themselves, a place where people can access love, care and safety (from the virus).     Home, then, no longer just means a physical space, or a sense of belonging, but becomes a mode of existing within a temporal site. However, one’s longing and hope for home, a space that once used to be a seemingly safe space, to remain the same can be overridden by fear. This can be the fear of not being accepted/understood by family, and not being able to live one’s life authentically––perhaps the home is no longer a space (both physicall

Act 1: Longing for Contact 

 

Noh in Bodo translates to home or house. These images were devised to convey the anxiety and anguish around the need and want to feel secure during a global pandemic. As a migrant who left home very early to study in the capital, returning home is something that is considered quite natural and almost inevitable. As the pandemic set in, an urgent desire was felt to go back home, a place where one is at ease with their surroundings and themselves, a place where people can access love, care and safety (from the virus). 

 

Home, then, no longer just means a physical space, or a sense of belonging, but becomes a mode of existing within a temporal site. However, one’s longing and hope for home, a space that once used to be a seemingly safe space, to remain the same can be overridden by fear. This can be the fear of not being accepted/understood by family, and not being able to live one’s life authentically––perhaps the home is no longer a space (both physically and mentally). 

 

These factors can prevent one from returning back home. In the midst of crippling anxiety surrounding one’s healthcare status, this too becomes a source of misery and anguish. 

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Act 2: Too Close for Comfort

 

One personally finds it difficult to unpack the experience of being queer and increasingly identifying as a non-binary person, both in physical spaces as well as the digital. Being an indigenous person from the Northeast and quite conspicuously ‘female’ in appearance hasn’t made one’s life very easy as a migrant in the public spaces of the capital. Casual offensive terms are thrown one’s way, and one is subjected to indignities meant to demean one’s personhood. 

 

On a similar note, close-knitted queer spaces, predominantly occupied by cis queer men, are famously rumoured to be casually misogynistic and

toxic. It is extremely taxing to navigate these spaces or search for safer ones.

 

While the online space has made new, safer, groups more accessible, witnessing people (especially women, trans folks, gender non conforming people and those from minority and marginalised communities) being subjected to abuses online is not only jarring, but instills one with a sense of dread and hopelessness for one’s own future engagements online. 

 

How safe is one in the digital space? Online spaces have increasingly started to mimic offline ones—case in point being a piece of ‘fiction’ a self-proclaimed author posted on Instagram, which grossly sexualised and objectified a Northeastern woman. 

 

In the face of constant harassment, visible violence and the infringement of one’s privacy and freedom, one does wonder if the online space will ever really be safe for marginalised communities or whether it will marginalise them further.

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Act 3: Tête-à-tête

 

One vividly remembers a few incidents during the pandemic when one felt particularly vulnerable and discriminated against. 

 

One sees a lot of influential people, sometimes politicians, wilfully calling COVID-19 the ’China Virus’. People have been spewing hate against China, and there were reported incidents of racial violence against ‘Asian’ people worldwide. The frequent occurrence of these incidents formed a pandemic of their own.

 

From a scooter zooming past with masked youths shouting ‘China Virus’, a grocery vendor being visibly reluctant to entertain one after registering one’s appearance, and to people subtly moving to the other compartment in an empty metro the second they perceive one’s features, all these events have made for an exhausting pandemic experience. One just wants to leave everything and go home to sleep!

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Act 4: Do Gaj ki Duri Hai Zaruri

While on grocery runs during the early phases of the lockdown, one noticed that public spaces were often occupied by men, lightly peppered by one or two women here and there.

 

It made one wonder if this mimicked the workforce somehow, and if a grocery run had somehow turned on its head to become a gendered act with men actively engaging in fetching and providing food for the table, or if their public presence was because they were the ones that had the privilege to step out. 

 

One still remembers the vulnerability felt in the presence of a considerable number of men in a long queue of a grocery store, being the only visibly female Northeastern person in the same shared space. The anxiety that one would be discriminated against and subjected to racial microaggressions made one chant Noh’ao Tangnw silently under one’s breath.

A PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is originally from Imphal West, Manipur. She is interested in looking at cultural and folk objects, aesthetics and ideas of beauty through a gendered lens.

Sophia Lisam

Most of the photographs in the series were taken during the unlock phase of the pandemic in Manipur. These are vignettes of everyday struggles, liberation, agency, identity and celebration. One of the significant things I noticed whilst narrating the stories of these women from diverse backgrounds through my camera was both the assertion of their collective presence in public spaces but also the need to uphold individuality. I have tried to visibilise intersectional identities and create inclusiveness through images, but there were also instances where people freely voiced their opinions but refused to be photographed. In a way, maybe this was also a way of advocating their personal agency within the public space.

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The sign “LADIES SIDE” in this public toilet makes me wonder if the category “ladies” is inclusive of all intersections of women?

A popular beauty parlour in Imphal run by Nupi Manbis. Nupi Manbis are individuals who choose to live as women.

A group of friends from the Nupa Shabi community celebrating a birthday picnic. Nupa Shabis are individuals who choose to live as men.

Imas (mothers) at Khwairamband Keithel after the shutdown of  Ima Keithel (Ima market). I found out that the police force them to evacuate at least twice or thrice in a day. Sometimes they also have to forfeit their goods to the authorities who claim the Imas are illegally occupying the space.

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Soon after I was enlightened about the daily tales of confrontation between the Imas and the police, I witnessed a similar account nearby. This moment also made me realise how street photography can be a powerful tool in narrating social realities.

An Ine (aunt) selling singju—fresh vegetables and herbs mixed with fermented fish. In Meitei society, one never sees a man selling singju. I wonder why this dish has been feminised?.

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I met this Iche (sister) in a soft toy factory that she runs with another woman. Both the Iches confessed that they saw their income plummet during the pandemic. Before this, they earned substantial profits during annual fairs.

An Ine selling momo (dumplings). At this outlet, customers were also seen defying the mandatory protocols of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

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In Meitei ceremonial rites, apart from the two ritual singers in the centre, the first rows on all three sides are reserved for elderly male invitees. Women’s positions are always in the rear seats.

Dusk has arrived, so has the hope for the end of the pandemic. Women are seen selling vegetables on the streets of their leikai (locality). 

11.Dusk has arrived, so is the hope for

A final year undergraduate student of Communication and Media, English and Psychology at CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. She is originally from Darjeeling. Prajakta believes that images help her perceive the world a little better, whenever words fall short.

Prajaktha Gurung

Perhaps, the only brief respite from domesticity these days are social spaces that are, of course, accessible only to a privileged few. Even then, I find the desired social connections to be missing. I have been home for nine months now and I feel like I have travelled back in time to my school days because I sense a loss of independence in a way. I have realised that I have lost touch with friends in my hometown and the few people that I get along with are “restricted” because they seem to require permission from their families to go out. Although the lockdown is easing and things look like they’re going back to “normal”, I still see images of locks and closed shutters in my head.

A  multidisciplinary artist, actor and an art writer from Guwahati, Assam. She actively uses digital media and utilises social media as a political tool for her activism. Through her art, Anurekha attempts to amplify issues related to body politics, mental health, womxnhood, sexuality, narratives of womxn in Assamese literature and history, deconstruction of archaic narratives.

Anurekha Deb

This pandemic has been difficult for me as my mental health has spiralled for various reasons, from restriction on mobility to gaslighting and paranoia. This series of visuals depict the relentless ways in which I’ve tried to balance my emotions and avoid a complete breakdown. There is no coherent narrative  because so dissonant was my mental state throughout. I danced. I mourned. I stayed still. I made art. I found comfort in my dog. I spent too much time on my phone. I was also burdened with the idea of being incessantly productive. At times, I dared to step out but these trips outside were all anxiety-ridden. Sinking into the physical space of my home was the only “safe” option. I’m aware that my social privilege has at least allowed me this recourse. And I wonder how the curbing of public spaces has affected other women? How will we find solidarity in sharing our stories? 

Prashansa Gurung is a Storyteller raised in Darjeeling, who has been using the mediums of still and moving images to document and relate intimate stories of seemingly idiosyncratic collective experience of being human, since 2010; with a focus on gender and sexuality.

She was one of the contributors to "Centrepiece: New Writing and Art from Northeast India", edited by Parismita Singh, published by Zubaan in 2017.

Prashansa Gurung

Feeling Machines begins to document the ‘transition’ of the analogue world to the digital. It starts off bang in the middle of the Covid crisis and captures the collective grasping of this change in the everyday. Hands are significant in this series as they represent humanity's ability to rise out of the ashes, as it has been doing time after time.

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An undergraduate student of anthropology at the University of Delhi. She has worked with the Darling Writers as a poet, was part of the editorial and the social media team of TEDxGangtok in 2018 and her writings have been published in Artem and the  Summit Times. Her artistic expressions are usually realised in her writings and it’s only recently that she has started experimenting with the visual medium.

Aakriti Thatal

5 to 9: Women in Pandemic is a micro-documentary attempting to explore gendered roles in Sikkim and how social class and economic stability serve as important factors in determining these roles and responsibilities. The pandemic has not had a
neutral effect on all women
and I broach this notion through short interviews with three women who come from different
sections of the society. 

A research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a performing artist at the Narmada Cultural Organization. She works on Manipuri dance, sometimes, learning the dance techniques, but mostly listening to stories of the dancers.

Babina Chabungbam

Likla has been restlessly waiting for this day for months now. Even as she longs to perform the routine she had practised so hard last year, just before the lockdown, there’s still a tinge of worry on her face. As she prepares for the much-awaited stage, her aunt, a theatre artist who hasn’t performed for a year due to the pandemic, advises her, as she chops feeds for their chickens, to calm down and take a deep breath if she feels nervous. Her grandmother, who stopped dancing after marriage, quickly prepares a vegetable stew so that Likla can eat some before she leaves home. As she steps on the stage, Likla also carries the dreams of her aunt and grandmother, who had to let go of their art and passion for various reasons. But mostly, it is Likla’s journey of finding herself, of creating a space of her own, of meeting co-artists from whom she can draw comfort and inspiration from. In a culture, where female dancers are restricted from touching the main percussion instrument (pung), these young women’s drumbeat of Langdren reverberate resistance, resilience and radiance.

An Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, Cotton University, Guwahati. She received her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She also taught at Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (Mumbai) and Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai. Her research involves gender studies, sociology of religion, environmental and ecological studies. Some of her research articles have been published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Zubaan, Indian Anthropologists etc. Her keen interests lie in gender discourse and Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam. Her ongoing research looks at the ‘Queer Discourse and Public Space in Assam’.

Simashree Bora

The 33rd Guwahati book fair was one of the first mass events organized after the lockdown was lifted in Assam. Bibliophiles gathered in thousands to engage in dialogue, and exchange of cultural ideas. Nevertheless such events are often imbued with certain cultural and political ideas, in turn constituting spaces for the perpetuation of dominant ideologues. Challenging the dominant heterosexual normativity, an event was organized by the Northeast feminist and queer collective based in Assam. This was the first time such an event was organized on the premise of a book fair. NEthing and Women’s Leadership Training Centre (WLTC) celebrated the publication and launch of two books, ‘Queerscape’ and ‘Her Lockdown Story’.  ‘Queerscape’, edited by Mayuri Deka and NEthing initiative is a collection of queer narrative reflected in poetry and personal stories. They are written in Assamese and English. ‘Her Lockdown Story’ is based on original stories by Shreejata Gupta and edited by Banamallika Choudhury, which consists of women’s stories of resilience during COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown. The event conveys the significance of queer narrative in public discourse as the authors talk about invisibility, acceptance, and pain, love, sexual and civil rights. It marks the beginning of a movement–the emergence of the politics of non-normative sexuality, most importantly, heralds the possibility of queer discourse in the Northeast India.

A PhD scholar at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies under the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She works in the area of folklore studies, gender, ethnomusicology, popular culture and cultures in Northeast India. Her specific interest lies in looking at the interconnections between music, gender, sexuality and nationality.

Simona Sarma

People are now starting to re-use public spaces and one of the apparent distinctions I’ve noticed in these spaces is between those who wear masks and those who do not. Using these visuals, I seek to argue that COVID 19 has led to the creation of a new social hierarchy between individuals based on this difference. This hierarchy essentially gets manifested in public spaces in the form of a binary between the “aware” and the “careless” citizens. 

However, one can look at the “unmasked” vis-a-vis the “masked” through the language of access as well. For instance, access to information about COVID-19 precautions tend to be gendered due to women’s restrictive access to news and media in general. Along with that, differential classes of women and men also tend to have differential access to resources further limiting their access to masks themselves. To cite a case, while I visited a char area near Tezpur around December last year, I saw none of the people wearing masks in the village. When I asked a few men about masks, they replied: “Corona is no longer present here”. This idea of coronavirus being a thing of the past, could also be a reflection of their non-access to current information. It is also important to consider that non-access to masks might even curtail the access to public spaces for some others like senior citizens and at-risk individuals. 

Looking at the mask as a novel instrument of hierarchy that divides people based on the presumption of a “diseased body”, one can argue that apart from its essential “real” value, the mask has now come to have a symbolic value depicting status and “knowledge” as well.

A student of Mass Communication and Video Production at St. Anthony's College, Shillong. She is interested in photography, videography and editing and is currently interning at an NGO as a video editor.

Debika Bora

Subverting traditional norms, the lady in the photograph supports her family whilst working in a small roadside pizza garage. From our brief conversation, I realised that the economic setback during the lockdown had not broken her confidence. Instead, she had returned to her business with renewed enthusiasm.

A student of sociology with a keen interest in writing, teaching and research work. She is interested in working on questions of gender, sexuality, ecology and the dynamics of cultural and literary production, especially in the North East. Having done her bachelors from St. Stephens College, New Delhi she has completed her Masters in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is currently pursuing her PhD from Ambedkar University Delhi on issues  of work, health and labour in tea plantations of Assam.

Devika Singh Shekhawat

People from nearby towns and villages gathered at the public park near Biswanath Puroni Ghat, half of which lay underwater. They watched the river, sitting at broken park benches or fallen tree stumps. An old woman walked passed with her fishing net on her back making her way into the water. She watched the river closely as she picked the perfect spot to lay down her net. She came up from the shallow end of the river as she waited for sometime before going to check the placement of her net. She says that in order to fish one has to have an intricate knowledge of the river. During the flood season it becomes impossible to navigate the agitating waters and she says that with each passing year the area underwater increases and the catch moves towards the deeper, rougher waters leaving the fishing community at a disadvantage. 

 

It is, generally, the men folk who undertake the task of fishing. Women often take on the role of selling the fish in the weekly bazaar. So it was surprising to see that even on a gloomy September evening she is the only woman in the river. The pandemic and the lockdown had left her and her family at a precarious position with loss of livelihood. The annual Assam floods had worsened the family’s living conditions with the house, cattle and agricultural land flooded and washed away. In times of crisis, where life has been throwing multiple hurdles she said that there is very little one can do other than take one day at a time and deal with whatever comes your way, for that day it was catching some fish for the family. She was forced to come fishing as the men in her family remained ill and were mostly engaged with repair work in the house or looking for wage work. She concluded the conversation with a sigh saying, “Upai nai, amak ahibo aieh lagibo” (there is no solution but we have to keep coming here/ keep trying).

A researcher, writer, curator and academician from Manipur. He/they are SAATHII LGBTQIA Fellow 2020-2021, Orfalea Centre for Global International Studies, University of California,  Research Grantee 2020-2021, Goethe Mumbai CMDA Fellow 2020, Mann Mela Mental Health Design Resident Artist 2020, Zubaan Sasakawa Peace Foundation Research Grantee 2019. He/they are co-founder of the Chinky Homo Project and founder of Matai Project. He/they studied literature from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and have worked in media, arts and academics for more than 10 years. His fiction, non-fiction, research and journalistic writings have been published in India including in Firstpost, Scroll, Gaysi, In Plainspeak, Homegrown, Gaylaxy Magazine among others.

Kumam Davidson

Ima Keithel and women’s markets in Imphal have been shut since the lockdown in March 2020. This in turn has led to women vendors’ visibility increasing in other streets of the city. Commercial and non-commercial areas have seen a dramatic increase in the number of women vendors and makeshift shops. But this is also without formal or legal infrastructure or allocation of any spaces. Therefore, there’s a high risk of being frisked or shut down anytime by the government. However, public space as such has gone through visible shifts in the wake of COVID-19 with women vendors taking up public spaces almost everywhere. What was once confined to women's markets have now spread elsewhere.

A passionate story-seeker, she explores stories through the medium of photography, written words, oral traditions and listening. She was born in Manipur and has been working in Delhi for over a decade.

Nicky Chandam

Manipuri women have always established their presence in the markets in the hills and the valley. The Khwairamband Bazaar area, which encloses the famous Ima Keithel is a prominent example. However since March 2020, Ima Keithel has been under a complete shutdown. After the third lockdown was lifted in Manipur, only a small fraction of Khwairamband Bazaar opened up; this did not include the Keithel. While other markets like Thangal Bazaar and Paona Bazaar have completely opened, there is still no update on when Ima Keithel will see the vibrant hustle and bustle again. Reportedly, the women of Ima Keithel have resolved not to open the market amid the ongoing pandemic unless the government of Manipur comes up with a systematic guideline. At least 50 percent of the female traders are above the age of 50 and therefore highly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. This photo essay tries to capture scenes of the new spaces these women vendors have come up with since the lockdown in Imphal East and West districts. It is also worth noting that many of the vendors, not pictured here, were unwilling to share their identities as they were afraid of being embroiled with state authorities.

After the first lockdown was lifted, these two women came to our leirak (lane) to sell homemade pickles. They had a steady business of supplying homemade pickles to vendors at Khwairamband Bazar and nearby markets. Fearing that their raw materials would go to waste during the lockdown, they started going from door to door to sell their products. They have to walk around 10-15 kilometres each day due to unavailability of public transport during pandemic lockdown.

Women vendors have been using the footpath near Shaymasakhi Girls’ High School, Moirangkhom, as a temporary space to conduct business.

Mema was a regular at Checkon area but during the pandemic her spot was dismantled. She tried setting up a space at the Khongman area but that didn’t last long. The same happened at two other spots at Bamon Leikai. She had to keep moving as community spread of the virus increased. At the time when this photo was taken she occupied a spot in front of a small shop at Bamon Leikai. She pays the shop owner ₹10 each day for electricity for an LED bulb that she uses from sunset till 6 pm. 

The vendor had opened her stall near the Nambul river. She said she keeps shifting depending on availability of space and away from police personnel.

This young fish seller took a spot near Thumbuthong Water Supply. Sellers started using this area for the first time only after the pandemic spread in Imphal.

The new pop-up stalls at Khongman Manzil forked road aren’t fixed. One may see them today and the next day they may not be there.

A woman sells clothes at a makeshift stall on the road to Khongman Manzil

Women sell vegetables at a previously never used area at Khongman Manzil

Each winter before the pandemic, three to four vendors would sell second-hand products on the road facing the All India Radio office in Imphal. Now, the entire stretch is full of second-hand dealers.

A clothes vendor opens her stall inside the Khwairamband Bazar which is under the government lockdown.

These vendors at Khwairamband Bazar heard the police siren and are trying to wrap up their goods as quickly as possible. 

The Khwairamband Keithel

An independent researcher. He has completed his masters in gender studies from Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development. 

Thoujal Khuman

Whilst the streets around Ima Keithel have gone back to “normal”, the market itself hauntingly stands still and silent. The space which provided livelihood to over 5000 women remains closed, but the vendors have to earn a living one way or another and so they turn towards “illegally” occupying newer areas. Most of these women have health problems and are on medication. They were fearful of COVID-19 but hunger was a more formidable adversary.

Premmi Wahengbam

A research scholar from Gauhati University, Assam,  she originally hails  from Manipur. She completed masters  from the Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi. She is a feminist and a keen culture enthusiast.

Through my conversation with the woman who trades in fish, I noticed that she was undeterred by the constraints of COVID-19. She told me that after the closure of Ima Keithel, she had to make some improvisations and convert one of her rented rooms into a fish shop. She said that despite the various uncertainties, the pandemic has led to new possibilities as she remarked, “Yet, we lived on!” These images were taken from the front yard of the woman’s rented house.

Malavika Pradhan

Malavika hails from Kurseong and has always been drawn towards photography as a therapeutic tool especially during the lockdown. She has completed her masters in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University and is looking forward to pursuing MPhil and research in gender and political studies.

Located in the heart of the town, the vegetable market or Haat Bazaar in Kurseong is primarily run by women from the Nepali community. On a typical day, the women can be seen actively conversing and indulging in friendly banters with each other whilst catering to their customers. They sell organic vegetables such as dalle khorsani, kinema and gundruk, that they grow themselves. So besides playing an indispensable yet invisible role in the economic sphere of our society, these women are also custodians of our local and indigenous food cultures.

 

Vending has allowed them to exercise more autonomy within the public and private spheres of their lives, but despite this, their lives have seldom been bereft of challenges that were further exacerbated with the onset of lockdown. Considering they are daily earners dependent on selling perishable goods, they have suffered unprecedented losses. The lock-down period also increased the burden of household and care work often borne disproportionately between men and women.


With the easing of restrictions, the women have resumed work to recover from the losses and, at the same time, restore their sense of agency. One of the women mentioned that a strange sense of calmness, although temporary, has prevailed as opposed to those long days filled with apprehension and insecurity. The spectrum of emotions also reveals a deeper, unspoken familiarity. They are reminiscent of the political turmoil—the latest being the 104 days strike in 2017—and state violence that have gripped the Darjeeling Hills for decades.

Rongsenzulu Jamir

An ecological anthropologist by profession and a feminist, Jamir finished his PhD from University of Hyderabad in 2019. His work primarily centers on the changing culture of Naga Society and gender. Prior to working for Manipuri Weddings as an editor and writer, he have worked as a researcher and content writer for an haute couture fashion house in Hyderabad. He is also one of the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grant 2020-2021 research awardee.

The women in these photographs are from Longkong, a village about 15 kilometres from Mokokchung in Nagaland. They perform care work at home, tend to their fields and also shoulder financial responsibilities. Before the pandemic, women from this village set up shop at the Watsű bazaar in Mokokchung, a women-run market that takes place every Wednesday and Saturday. They earned anywhere from ₹2000 to ₹3000 each day through trade. Unable to access this space during the lockdown, the women had no choice but to sell their produces at cheaper rates to passers-by at the village entrance with the help of Self Help Groups.The women have now begun visiting the Watsű bazaar and started trading again, diligently following COVID-19 protocols. Perhaps, it’s time that policymakers recognise the indispensable role these women play in urban economic spaces and taking a lesson from their pandemic experiences formulate more inclusive policies.

Lahundashisha Rumnong

A PhD scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. Prior to this, she has worked at North East Network for and  taught at Martin Luther Christian University. Her work and research experience has mostly focused on issues of gender, gender-based violence, laws related to women and children. Through her doctorate, she is exploring issues related to physical space (wet markets more specifically) and the politics interwoven in its access, use and governance.

“We eat what little produce we are able to grow and we try to sell the excess. But we do not have direct access to the market so we sell our goods to  the “dolal” (middleman) who visits to the villages.” This is extracted from a conversation that I had with a woman producer in a village called Diengpasoh in East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. As part of my ongoing research work on the politics of space with a focus on market spaces or Ka Iew (market), I look at the lived experiences of small women producers (farmers, vendors, retailers) in accessing the physical space of markets. For these women, the COVID-19 pandemic added to the existing frustrations. It also led to some desperate but innovative attempts at earning a livelihood such as renting public vehicles at exorbitant prices and  setting up shop at any viable space as far as the borders of Bangladesh in order to sell  their goods (or in some cases, to procure new goods from beyond the border). Such attempts  were met with constraints due to the strict pandemic protocols enforced, which the women felt were more harsh on small businesses such as theirs.  

 

When the rules began to be relaxed, it led to more frustration, anger and delusion as only bigger and thriving businesses seemed to be able to resume their daily transactions. This has led some of the women producers to believe that the pandemic is a hoax, a propaganda by the government to deny access to market spaces to the poor. This has also engendered anxiety among ethnic communities as the local producers feel they are losing their land, livelihood  and identity to those perceived as  “outsiders". In an attempt to regain their rightful place in the market spaces, many women producers refuse to follow any COVID-19 protocols any longer and try to resume their businesses despite several limitations.

Angel Konthoujam

Angel is currently working as a Gender and Equity Consultant with UNICEF, New York.

On any regular day, Iew (Khasi term for market) also known as Bara Bazaar in Shillong is a farmer’s market where throngs of people come to get their weekly grocery shopping done. However, on Sunday mornings Iew would give itself a little makeover and transform into a thrift market with a whole different set of customers. When I was a teenager, I used to be proud of this little insider’s secret. The market would be filled with stalls and piles of second-hand clothes and my friends and I would rummage through these to look for vintage treasures. Before I even knew the multiplication table of 11, I knew “Marks & Spencer” clothing was previously sold under the brand name of “St. Michael”. 

 

Iew, similar to most markets in the Northeast is women-run. The Khasi women, locally addressed as Kong, are skilled and strategic, trying to reach a bargaining middle ground with young women who set their alarms for an early morning thrift excursion. Some of us over a period of time developed an unspoken symbiotic relation with each of our own regular go-to Kongs. Although I do love a good bargain, there have been times when I couldn't help but succumb to the first price quoted by the witty saleswomen of Iew.

Clinton Massar

A graduate in social work from Bosco Institute, Jorhat , Clinton has worked extensively on various local, national and international projects in the areas of gender, child and youth welfare, refugees and peace development. He conceptualised the Social Change Photography project in 2016 where he uses photography as a tool in foregrounding social issues. His works have been represented at exhibitions in Shillong, Jorhat, Mumbai, Germany and Netherlands.  He has also initiated the AIESEC Shillong branch in 2016. 

These images were captured in a village market near Shillong in June 2020, as women traders slowly started rebuilding their lives after three months of lockdown. Despite Meghalaya having a matrilineal society, women here face various challenges in their day-to-day lives, especially women from low socio-economic backgrounds. These photographs attempt to document these challenges as women’s roles remain unchanged before, during and after the pandemic.

Phulmoni Das

Academically she is engaged in the department of Political Science, Government Model College, Deithor, Karbianglong.. She has been engaging herself in knowing subaltern politics and completed her PhD and Mphil in subaltern politics with special reference to Tea Garden Community of Assam from Dibrugarh University. Her photographic works have previously been represented at the Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic exhibition. She loves to take photographs as she believes that ‘picture speaks’. 

This photo series questions women’s access to public spaces in various ways—prohibition on entering places of worship, safety of women at work, health and sanitation facilities etc. During my conversations with the Karbi women vendors, who come to Golaghat to sell vegetables every Sunday, they spoke of the lack of basic facilities such as public toilets in these weekly market areas. These women sometimes use toilets in the neighbouring houses but most often are not allowed to access the private toilets whereas this issue never bothers a man as it does not involve privacy and security.

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