The feminist movement in India: A history in Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs

Sheba Chhachhi is an Indian artist best known for her role in documenting and participating in the Indian feminist movement of the 1970s and ’80s.  Her work ‘Seven Lives and a Dream’ is perhaps her best-known collection of photographs and includes nineteen black and white images of prominent Indian feminist figures, notably including the likes of Shahjahan Apa, Sharda Behn and Satyarani Chadha. 

Chhachhi first became involved with the feminist movement after her sister co-founded an activist group in their home city of Delhi, with Chhachhi soon becoming a vocal activist herself. However, it was her photographs that really immortalised and captured the spirit of feminism, and inspired others to join as activists. Many of her works were used to help protest issues, being displayed on posters and pamphlets. 

The photograph entitled ‘Shahjahan Apa – Anti-Dowry Public Testimonies, India Gate, Delhi’ is perhaps one of the most recognisable of Chhachhi’s images, which depicts Shajahan Apa protesting against the tradition of dowry in front of a crowd. Shahjahan Apa took to the streets in order to find justice after her own daughter was killed as a result of dowry conflict. By the mid 1980s, Shahjahan had become a feminist icon for many Indian women who had suffered as a result of stringent and unfair marriage laws.

In the image, Apa is defiantly holding an image of her daughter up to the onlookers. She is empowered and strong, whilst also appearing equally graceful as the wind blows the hair out of her face. Chhachhi’s use of black and white adds to the sense of resistance, as it deepens the contrast of the image and as a result defines Apa’s prominent features. 

Chhachhi described her portraits as works that move between “the representation of politics and the politics of representation”, marking her own work as not only a political statement but also a deeply personal representation of the sensitive issues being faced. 

Chhachhi is undeniably an incredibly important figure for the Indian feminist movement. Her works have the ability to illustrate an incredibly wide range of stories and emotions; solidarity, defiance and grief, to name a few. Her photographs continue to resonate with millions of women across the globe, as they always have, making Chhachhi and her subjects true feminist representations of the strength that female collectives can possess.

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Elizabeth Woor

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May 2022
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