Abstract

Approximately one hundred photographs of women at work in the city of Ahmedabad, India, were taken in 1937 by Pranlal K. Patel, at the request of the premier women's social reform organization, the Jyoti Sangh. Rather than depicting women's contributions as peripheral to the productivity of Ahmedabad's economic life and isolated from the public, Patel pictured women as subjects working in the city's major marketplaces and as integral to the city's industrial productivity. This article argues that historical photography may provide what Elizabeth Edwards terms a “historiographical think-space” that challenges conventional historical sources and the narratives they produce. By engaging Ariella Azoulay's ethical spectators in the civil contract of photography, historians can use historical photography to confront the historical roots of inequality that shape our world today.

Approximately a hundred photographs of women at work in the Bombay Presidency's second city, Ahmedabad, were taken in 1937 by photographer Pranlal K. Patel (1910–2014).1 Then a primary school teacher, Patel was commissioned to undertake the project by the city's leading women's social reform organization, the Jyoti Sangh. The photographs were not widely seen, however, for seven decades after their creation, until several were displayed in the refurbished head offices of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) and later in an exhibition about the Jyoti Sangh in their renovated headquarters.2 Why the photographs were not seen for seventy years is a question that warrants our consideration. This article looks beyond the visual expectations of the Jyoti Sangh to suggest that Patel's photographs today can illustrate a story that society at the time was unprepared to tell about women at work. Long after their creation, Patel's series offers traces of “what was there,” enabling us to recognize the limitations of historical archives and practice that previously rendered marginalized figures, including women, invisible. Most significantly, the display of the Jyoti Sangh series in recent decades suggests ways in which historical photography can be mobilized to enable “a subjectivity that is empowered against contemporary oppressions and is provided a chance to fight those to come.”3

Patel's Jyoti Sangh series is extraordinary in the context of early twentieth-century photographic history for a variety of reasons (fig. 1). Although this was the period of the US Farm Security Administration's documentation of the Great Depression and Soviet state–supervised photojournalism, in India there was no comparable photographic state project overseen by the British colonial regime to document common lives and labor.4 Patel's series departs further from earlier colonial ethnographic projects also because it was created in public, rather than in a studio, whether permanent or itinerant.5 The photographic images of Indian industrial laborers in Patel's era were commissioned by India's industrial elite, including the Tata Steel Corporation, which used photography to lay claim to their part in India's modernity in the years following independence.6 Patel's series affords consideration of a little known archive commissioned by one of India's leading twentieth-century women's social reform organizations. It draws our attention to India's amateur street photography practice, which has received comparatively little scholarly focus. Finally, the Jyoti Sangh series suggests the possibilities of photography as a tool of ethical spectators who may challenge inequality with historical traces left to us by an earlier era.

Much of early Indian photography depicted architecture and elites, as it was closely tied to the British colonial state.7 Patel's Jyoti Sangh series clearly stands apart from this work, and from the work of several contemporaries who also made photographs of ordinary people, including women. Patel was inspired by a fellow Gujarati, A. L. Syed (1904–91), who distinguished himself as court photographer for the Palanpur state beginning in the 1920s.8 In addition to his official work, Syed took photographs to serve his own interests, including a well-known study of ordinary Kashmiris. Another of Patel's contemporaries, Homai Vyarawalla (1913–2012), known as India's first female photojournalist, also took photographs of women cotton workers, fisherwomen, leatherworkers, and street vendors commissioned by the Illustrated Weekly of India.9 Finally, Patel's contemporary, Sunil Janah (1918–2021), took dozens of photographs of rural and tribal women across India in the 1940s and 1950s.10 While Janah's photographs were driven by his commitments to the Communist Party of India (CPI) and its publication, the Peoples’ War, Patel's Jyoti Sangh Series was neither motivated by Patel's political affiliations nor created by a photographer widely recognized at the time as a skilled practitioner of the craft.11

Patel's educational background and development as a photographer departed significantly from peers who feature in the scholarly literature, many of whom were connected to the courts of princely India, officials in the colonial administration, or were trained by artistic families of some renown.12 Janah, who came from an urban (Calcutta-based) upper-middle-class professional family, was drawn toward photography when his grandmother gifted him a camera. His abilities behind the lens were developed with the help of Shambhu Saha (1905–88), a family friend.13 Patel hailed from a more humble background in terms of both caste and class. His father was a small farmer, who cultivated only two bigha of land.14 Patel had more in common with Homai Vyarawalla, who was born to a middle-class Parsi family. Vyarawalla secured an education at St. Xavier's College, Bombay University, and at the prestigious J. J. School of Art thanks to a generous benefactor and the help of a Parsi trust.15 Initially self-taught, Vyarawalla's diploma from the J. J. School of Art enabled her to find employment as a staff photographer with the Times of India and to receive high-profile commissions for the Bombay Chronicle beginning in 1939.16 Vyarawalla's solidly middle-class background, English education, and elite arts training allowed her to overcome the limitations of being female in a field dominated by men and become one of India's most important photojournalists.17

After his mother's sudden death when he was five or six, Patel migrated to Ahmedabad in the care of his maternal uncle, who provided him an education through the seventh standard. In order for his family to make ends meet, Patel took up a variety of odd jobs in the informal economy selling snacks and newspapers, including Sandesh and Gandhi's Navajivan (New Life), which ultimately gave Patel his first exposure to photography. He went on to study further in Rajkot for a primary teacher's credential but never attained any formal arts qualifications. Patel's photography grew out of a hobby through which he met Colonel Balwant Bhatt, who became his mentor, providing direction, a darkroom space, and regular access to newspapers and magazines like the Illustrated Weekly of India and Kumar Magazine, which later published Patel's work.18 Patel's skills as a photographer were cultivated within Niharika, Ahmedabad's amateur photography club (fig. 2).19 Perhaps because of his common background, informal training, and previous work experience, Patel's photographs of women at work capture a range of labor rarely seen in official records or in commercial and commissioned photography of the era.

From its invention in the nineteenth century, photography has been treated as a nearly unstoppable modern form of truth-making and a catalyst for change. Although photographs are among the most important visual, material objects of the modern era, historians have approached them with considerable unease. Indeed, determining a photograph's meaning has been a problem raised by photographers, art critics, and theorists since the invention of photography itself.20 If the nature of meaning has been a question that has vexed many commentators on photography, theorists have achieved consensus that photographs do not simply reflect the world that created them but rather actively construct the world they purport to represent through inscription. As Elizabeth Edwards has observed, historical photographs unsettle historical narratives grounded in the textual, archival materials favored by historians in their representation of the past,21 while simultaneously “creating a historiographical think-space where they can reveal and activate specific ways of having been in the world.”22 Patel's Jyoti Sangh series offers a view of women's economic roles in the city that contrasts with archival records, which focus on a small minority of women who were employed in textile mills of the formal sector of the economy.23 Rather than depicting women's contributions as peripheral to economic life and isolated from the public, Patel's series pictured women as laborers across the city's major marketplaces and as integral to the city's industrial productivity.24

Placing emphasis not only on what photography says but also what it does, Gabrielle Moser has examined the role of photography in chronicling the past and in establishing modern community.25 In The Civil Contract of Photography, Ariella Azoulay insists that photography offered moderns new relationships of power beyond those of the camera, the photographer, the patron, and the photographed.26 “At the same time that a photograph lies in someone's hands,” she writes, “someone else can always claim the deposited image for themselves, or at least demand to participate in its safekeeping.”27 Drawing our attention to the photograph's spectator, Azoulay theorizes what she terms the “civil contract of photography”—a modern ethics of the photographic image in the modern era of the citizen. Azoulay suggests that the photograph can enable “injured parties to present their grievances, in person or through others, now or in the future.”28 She explores the critical role of spectators whose engagement with the photographed has the potential to generate new narrative landscapes in which the photographed can at last be seen as a subject.29

This article now turns to revisit the context in which Patel's Jyoti Sangh series was created but also, following the work of Edwards and Azoulay, considers the ways in which these historical materials depicted subjects otherwise marginalized or “unseen” in the era of their production, thus allowing the photographs to disrupt conventional historical records and the narratives they produce decades after their creation.30

Pranlal Patel's Jyoti Sangh Series

The photographer did not choose the subject of women's labor. The subject was chosen by the Jyoti Sangh, founded in Ahmedabad by Mridula Sarabhai in April 1934. Sarabhai, the daughter of a mill owner and niece of the city's leading labor organizer, had come of age in this city closely associated with nationalist politics. Aparna Basu explains that Sarabhai founded the Jyoti Sangh “with the objective of becoming a path finder, a light giver for hundreds of women who needed it and to provide them with sufficient opportunities for their physical and mental development so that they could attain self-confidence and become self-reliant.”31 In Mohandas Gandhi's estimation, the founding of the Jyoti Sangh would “harness the power of Indian women for the development of their nation.”32 The Jyoti Sangh comprised women from many of Ahmedabad's most prominent families; for the most part, they were high-caste Hindu and Jain women of significant means and often educated. These women reformers sought to make an impact on their society through work aimed at uplifting women in the city quite different from themselves in terms of class, if not also by caste and in some cases religion. The Jyoti Sangh created a wide range of programs from the 1930 onwards that benefited working-class and middle-class women, supporting women by creating educational opportunities, offering health services and safe housing, and by providing small business opportunities.33

In the fall of 1937, Charumati Yodha, a Jyoti Sangh leader, approached Patel about taking photographs of women working in the city.34 Why or to what end, Patel confided, he never fully understood.35 Nonetheless, Patel was eager to take up the commission, which paid expenses for his burgeoning hobby. He created just over a hundred photographs of working women over the course of a few weeks. Roughly a third of these photographs were of the Jyoti Sangh's members engaged in social work, either at their organization's headquarters or in the neighborhoods that they served. Less than ten were of women taking up new trades in the city, including typewriting, nursing, and telephone operation. The overwhelming number of the photographs (60+) depicted ordinary women at work in the city's pols and markets, as well as on Ahmedabad's major thoroughfares.36

By 1937, the use of photography to raise awareness of issues worthy of public concern or debate was a well-established strategy of social reform organizations worldwide. Jacob Riis, the Danish-born American photographer, famously began photographing New York's immigrant communities, drawing the attention of the public and government officials to the appalling living conditions of the urban poor.37 Women's organizations in both the United States and Great Britain were making use of photography not only to raise awareness of similar conditions in Chicago, Manchester, and London but also to raise funds for their relief work and to recruit new members to their ranks.38 As Azoulay explains, “The camera opened the possibility of redefining the concept of citizenship and the conditions of its fulfilment. . . . People deprived of citizenship—women, first and foremost—began to take active part in this formation of a new world.”39 It seems likely that the Jyoti Sangh's intention was to enable Ahmedabad's middle and elite classes to see working women as prospective members of a national community, even if they required reform to achieve such belonging.40 Seeing women, whose lives could be reformed by Jyoti Sangh programs, also enabled a new national subjectivity sought by both women reformers and nationalists.

Troubling Subjects

As the colonial state was focused upon demonstrating the development of a modern, industrial economy under British rule, women and working people, who contributed to ancillary services and informal economic activities, were rarely addressed in official studies, written or photographic. In the period of Patel's series, the British Government of India undertook a targeted study of labor disputes and industrial riots in the Bombay Presidency and British India as a whole, rather than surveys of what kinds of work performed or by whom.41 On the rare occasions when women workers do appear in the archival record, they do so as problems of public order or policing.42 If women, the working classes, and low or outcaste people were not denigrated in official record keeping of the state, neither were they deemed worthy of recognition, making it a challenge for historians to create narratives of the period that incorporate their lives.

Of the roughly sixty photographs of ordinary women in the series, one-third are portraits of individual women at work; the other two-thirds document two or more people working together or in proximity. While women commonly worked with other women, these portraits also establish that women labored alongside men. While roughly half of the photographs in the series capture women at work in a domestic environment, the other half portray women working in public spaces. The series captures the extraordinary range of women's labor, including caning, weaving cloth, cleaning and carding cotton, removing garbage, selling goods of various kinds, washing clothes, and gathering water. In so doing, portraiture was Patel's preferred mode of representation, enabling recognition of previously unseen subjects and a sense of intimacy between the viewer and her subjects. Patel's technical and aesthetic approaches disrupted a colonial and nationalist gaze that was accustomed to seeing working women in a limited way, if at all.

Patel's decision to locate the balance of his subjects in Ahmedabad's major markets and thoroughfares placed the Jyoti Sangh's prospective middle-class spectators in close, perhaps even intimate, proximity to people they otherwise might not recognize as they moved through those spaces. His series, perhaps because of who it inscribed on negative and paper, also significantly challenged the economic, political, and visual priorities of colonial and nationalist India in the 1920s and 1930s. Through technical and aesthetic choices, Patel disrupted the distinction between reformer and reformed. Could it be that Patel's photographs forced a contemporary spectator to “see” subjects that society was not yet entirely prepared to acknowledge?

While low caste women performing “menial” work may have found a place in colonial and developing-nationalist visual imaginaries and therefore been “visible” to a contemporary spectator at the time, Patel presented his subjects neither in need of rescue by the colonial state nor reform by the Jyoti Sangh. “Seeing” the women pictured entailed a 1937 viewer to recognize a shared humanity with the photographed subject. For communists, like Sarabhai and some of her associates in the Jyoti Sangh, this kind of recognition was a matter of closely held political commitment and tied to the society that they hoped to bring into being. However, for the wider membership of the Jyoti Sangh and the broader readership of the organization's magazine, Jyotipuri, the intimacy created by Patel's photographs may have been too demanding.43 Perhaps the photographs were not used by the Jyoti Sangh in this period because there was no ready audience for the unsettling subjectivities that the photographs presented. Patel's photographs challenged conventional wisdom about who was a worthy photographic subject and who could rightly make claims to the status of a modern Indian citizen.

Normalizing Laboring Women through Visibility

Two kinds of photographs demonstrate how Patel made new subjects visible through what I will call a vernacular, humanizing lens.44 Patel's efforts to photograph women at work for the Jyoti Sangh were undertaken through pictorialism.45 He rendered ordinary women visible by emphasizing his subject's beauty through careful attention to light, tonality, and composition that emphasized their work. This approach was particularly challenging given that Patel engaged in street photography, requiring him to find prospective subjects in advance of taking a photograph, which depended upon attention to light and shadow. On rare occasions, including with figure 3, Patel photographed his subject on the spot, in this case because, as he recalled, the woman only traveled into Ahmedabad once a week to sell her goods.

Patel humanized his subjects and rendered them beautiful by drawing attention to the sense of purpose with which they approached their work. He chose to take each photograph with his subject engrossed; few of the women photographed met the photographer's gaze. A woman making chappals deeply concentrates on each stitch, not noticing that her eyeglasses are askew (fig. 4). Patel's viewer bears witness to the woman at work in part because the photograph celebrates her humble labor. In another photograph, two women work beside one another to make household brooms (fig. 5). The woman on the left is focused so intently upon her task that she is undeterred by a small child moving in her lap. Patel's viewer could not help but engage with women who make objects found in their household.

The beauty of the woman making baskets for the sweet seller also lies in her purposeful attention to her task (fig. 6). So engrossed in the basket she is making for a sweet seller, she seems unconscious of her state of dress at the moment the photograph was taken. She has not straightened her clothing or, it would seem, made any particular effort to present herself to the camera. Her petticoat, wrapped up around her legs, exposes a bare calf. Her soiled blouse, missing buttons, strains to conceal her ample figure. Although the woman making baskets did not meet Patel's gaze, she does not seem uneasy in his presence either. Focused by the photographer's gaze, Patel's viewer is prompted to ask: Who provided the materials stacked up behind her? Is this the place she laid her head to rest? In being photographed, the basket maker connects herself both to the photographer before her and those who carry sweets home in her baskets. Did she, as Azoulay suggests, anticipate future spectators like us?

Breaking starkly from earlier ethnographic projects that decontextualized subjects from their environment to render them “types,” Patel composed his images to emphasize the subject's place in the viewer's world and therefore their humanity shared across class, caste, religion, and region.46 Patel situates each subject and her work in a broader social environment. The municipal market of any city was a site of considerable colonial surveillance. Officials carefully monitored the commercial activities of India's markets, recording the kinds of goods sold, their quantity, and their price, as a means of establishing the economic progress upon which the imperial project depended.47 Rarely, however, did the records of markets provide any detail about the ordinary people, men or women, upon whose labor its commercial spaces relied. With a photograph of women selling chilies in Ahmedabad's wholesale municipal market in Manek Chowk, Patel directs the viewer's attention to a woman weighing her goods. The chili seller is almost entirely surrounded by produce (fig. 7). The market's vitality is apparent in the blur of movement, perhaps negotiation. Patel drew attention to the market's customers by capturing a woman making her purchase from the chili seller. In both the foreground and background, Patel includes other chili sellers, some female and some male, suggesting that the Manek Chowk was not a gender-segregated commercial space. 48 Patel's photograph emphasizes his subject's relationship to her customers and to her fellow workers. His own experience in Ahmedabad's informal economy may have sensitized Patel to see working women and thus preserve their existence through his photography.

Patel's series preserved evidence that women worked both in the city's well-known and informal marketplaces. One photograph focuses upon a woman who Patel later described as the only female shop owner in the city he knew of at the time (fig. 8). Patel captures the store owner filling the order, seemingly uninterested as the photograph was taken. A shopkeeper in the next business, perhaps interested in the young photographer's work, is partially caught within Patel's frame on the left, as are two children whose presence flanks the female shop owner. Are these the shop owner's daughters at work with her? In Selling Babul Sticks, Patel draws attention to two women and a child seated on the roadside of the Ellis Bridge at its informal market (fig. 9). The viewer gets a sense for the hustle and bustle of market day, where goods were sold to the city's thousands of residents, some of whom are only partially visible in Patel's frame. Patel carefully frames his subjects seated beside other sellers in the informal marketplace. Only Patel's subjects are depicted in full, rendering them as figures seen in the city's daily life, which begins each morning when viewers brush their teeth with the babul stick sold at this market. Thus, Patel's selection of women workers and his composition deliberately documented women's labor as central to their community.

Patel's photographs of women at work demonstrate how his vernacular, humanizing lens effectively challenged the archival view of women's labor as domestic and peripheral. Perhaps Patel could see the subjects he photographed because he had so much in common with them? Patel succeeded in making photographs of working women as subjects in part because he communicated the beauty in the work that they performed in their society. This was a beauty not dependent upon youth, attire, education, or status. Through framing, Patel depicted his subject as an active, integral part of the larger social and economic world that he shared with his contemporary spectators. He succeeded in presenting these ordinary working women as subjects also by binding them to the everyday life of his spectators. Carefully selecting his subjects and locations, Patel showed his spectator how connected these subjects were to the city's life, even if they were marginalized socially and politically. In the nationalist society in which these photographs were taken, the laboring subject was undergoing a transformation. Labor, once having been a marker of low status, was emerging as a condition of the national subject and a claim to citizenship. Because the Jyoti Sangh made no use of Patel's photographs, we are left to conclude that Patel's best efforts to represent women at work in Ahmedabad did not serve the purpose for which they had been commissioned. Reflecting back upon his work decades later, Patel characterized it, with a noticeable grin, as a form of humanizing recognition.

It was several decades before an Ahmedabadi labor activist repositioned the Jyoti Sangh series within the consciousness of her city. In postcolonial India, Patel's photographs found a new context that was distinct from that in which they had been created. That context was the movement for the rights of women workers under Indian labor law. In 1972, the late Elaben Bhatt, a lawyer and labor organizer, left her position in Ahmedabad's Majoor Mahajan, or Textile Labor Organization, when she recognized it was not adequately serving women within its ranks. Her solution was the creation of the Self-Employed Women's Organization (SEWA). Only a year later, Bhatt witnessed a devastating accident involving Kanku Rana, a handcart puller, whose knees were both broken as she struggled to stop her cart at a traffic intersection in response to a policeman's signal (fig. 1).49 Looking into the matter in the hope of aiding Rana, Bhatt discovered that India's labor laws did not recognize Rana as a worker, rendering her ineligible for workers’ compensation for the injuries she had sustained. After a nine-year legal struggle, Bhatt eventually secured limited compensation for Rana and reconsideration of informal workers in terms of rights to fair pay, access to bank loans, health services, and childcare under Indian labor statutes.50 More than thirty years after independence, India's labor laws began to change, acknowledging workers like Rana and the women Patel had photographed decades earlier.

Bhatt had founded SEWA to unionize women workers and in doing so made women's informal labor a visible subject of public discussion. Among her early initiatives was a 1984 project called Video SEWA, supported by the Video Village Network of the United Nations University in Tokyo and the Martha Stuart's Communication for Change.51 The initiative trained approximately twenty SEWA women to tape, transcribe, edit, and produce videos that documented the work and experiences of their members. These videos were used both to educate legal professionals and policymakers and to raise awareness among members “about the social and economic issues that are central to poor and working women.”52 More than a decade later, Bhatt approached Patel about his photographs for SEWA's newly renovated headquarters. The display was not simply aesthetic or decorative; it was a choice both to recognize the changes that SEWA achieved over the course of two decades and to normalize the idea of women as workers, not only within the formal sectors of the economy or among educated professionals but also within the community of largely illiterate women who SEWA served.53 The organization pursued “seeing” the work of women laborers by making Patel's women workers visible to SEWA members, laying claim to the status of Indian citizen through photographs that testified to their labor.

Nearly a decade after their display by SEWA, selected photographs from the series were presented at another venue in Ahmedabad. A Times of India article announced the rebirth of the Jyoti Sangh in 2009.54 Nearly all of the organization's founding generation had passed away in the decades since the Patel commission. A reconstituted leadership sought to attract a new generation of Ahmedabad's elite women to the organization. Working with an architect, Snehalben Nagarsheth, they designed a space that would host public lectures and functions of citywide interest. The Jyoti Sangh presented an exhibition that highlighted the early activities of the organization. After seventy years, the Jyoti Sangh arrived at a narrative that would support their display of the photographs they had commissioned Patel to produce.

Patel's photographs as displayed, however, emphasized something quite different than that expressed in the SEWA offices or indeed suggested by Patel's series as a whole. The selection and display placed emphasis on the critical role of the organization's members in the life of working women in the city (fig. 10). While the majority of Patel's portraits had been of ordinary working women, the Jyoti Sangh's exhibition, perhaps unconsciously, depicted the same women as objects of their reform or rescue.55 A spectator might catch a glimpse of the chili seller described earlier, but she was presented this time as a “type” of woman who relied upon and was uplifted by Jyoti Sangh efforts.56 The citizens of the photographs as re-presented by the Jyoti Sangh were unmistakably Jyoti Sangh matrons. The Jyoti Sangh found a usable past that served the organization's future.

Productive Subjects

As Elizabeth Edwards makes clear, the contexts in which we reconstruct and read historical photographs does not end with the period in which the photographs were created: “Inscription implies a desire for permanence, a setting down, a chance of longevity. . . . History is, we could say, constituted by the past of human life quietly contained, stored and transported through inscriptions. Photographs are integral to these fundamental practices, because not only do they inscribe past moments on surfaces but they massively extend the idea of what historical inscriptions might be.”57 One of the most exciting facets of the photograph is its ability to be seen by later viewers, including Azoulay's ethical spectators. Although the records of the colonial archive initially obscured working women from historical accounts of industrial India, Patel's photographs made their presence undeniable. Decades later, I unexpectedly came across the Jyoti Sangh series as I searched for evidence of the women who made up nearly a quarter of the industrial mill workforce in the Bombay Presidency. When asked if he had any photographs of women textile workers, Patel explained that it was unlikely—the mills were dark and he had no flash photography equipment at the time. But, he shared his photographs of women at work commissioned by the Jyoti Sangh. These inscriptions of the past have reoriented my view of the period, women's labor, and the economy in Ahmedabad.

The prospect of an exhibition at Hamilton College's Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art in 2014 provided Patel with an opportunity to return to the hundred subjects he had created decades earlier.58 It enabled him to exhibit a large part of the series together for the first time. Scanning pages of the register he had kept in the 1930s, Patel gave each photograph a title. Although he had not collected the names of his subjects, he associated each image with the location in which the photograph was taken and the work that was performed. I probed his memory for additional information as we examined off-prints over the course of several days. Sometimes he remembered specifics about the compositional or technical choices of a particular image, other times he recalled a particular conversation he had had with the woman he photographed. The photographer's memory was mediated in part by his own records from the period and in part by my questions.

The exhibition provided an opportunity to make women's labor in industrial Ahmedabad visible despite the colonial state's disinterest.59 While provincial reports and imperial commissions produced significant economic data, colonial officials undertook such studies to evaluate the efficacy of their own policies in developing a modern economy, rather than to gain insights into the identity or conditions of the laboring population of the city.60 These circumstances overdetermined how Ahmedabad's industrial past has been represented by historians. Patel's photographs defied the comfortable consensus borne of official records in colonial and early independent India; unexamined assumptions about women's work withered in the face of the photographic images Patel had created decades earlier. The Jyoti Sangh series enabled me to move beyond the allure of archive to purposefully reconstruct a more representative, if still incomplete, picture of daily life in the city.

Once the images, titles, and labeling had been finalized by the photographer, I turned to arranging the photographs for the exhibition's spectators. I began with a historical map of the city and plotted the locations at which the photographs had been taken. I recalled Patel's photograph Carrying Goods, Kalupur Railway Station, Ahmedabad, 1937 (fig. 1). Patel had taken this on the edge of the city. A husband and wife pull in unison, while another woman (perhaps their daughter or an unmarried sister?) pushes the heavily loaded cart from behind. All energy is exerted on the task; these workers are not inclined to meet the photographer's gaze. Standing at a bit of a distance, Patel emphasizes the intense physical effort of his subjects. This photograph seemed like an appropriate starting point given that Ela Bhatt's journey to unionize informal sector women workers had begun with the accident of a handcart puller, Kanku Rana.

Patel's 1937 Carrying Goods uncannily resonates with a photograph taken by Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson nearly forty years later (fig. 11).61 In this case, the photographer tells the story of Ahmedabad's old city, although the title does not address those pictured within its frame. The photograph captures a family of four straining as they move the overburdened cart, which seems it might overrun the photographer as the shutter closes in the decisive moment. The barefoot adults, in contrast to Patel's image, confront the viewer with their plight, challenging the photographer's gaze. Patel's photograph enabled a viewer to see the same work but arguably in a very different light. If Cartier-Bresson's realist photograph suggests that the Old City of Ahmedabad in 1966 was grinding exploitation made intelligible by the figures suspended on film, Patel's photograph enables us to witness the humanity of subjects reduced neither to their place or kind of work. Patel's photograph made his subjects visible to viewers through pictorialism that humanized the city's laborers.

The coincidence of these images and Bhatt's political activities propelled me to make the railway station a starting point for the exhibition, informed as much by the array of Patel's photographs taken across the city as it was by Cartier-Bresson's ability to capture informal labor two decades after India's independence. With the “historiographical think-space” left by inscriptions created by Patel in 1937, I reimagined the city's life through women's work, beginning early each morning with the arrival of food, raw materials, and finished goods at Ahmedabad's railway station. From there, various kinds of informal laborers photographed by Patel touched the goods that made their way through the city's thoroughfares to its major markets to be sold. These goods sustained the lives of Ahmedabadis and were touched by the hands of many whose labor had been invisible not only to the colonial state but also to the city's middle-class consumers only several decades earlier. Patel's series demonstrated that no part of the city's material life was untouched by the hands of women and that modern life in Ahmedabad, as elsewhere, depended upon labor that was female. For the curator engaged in the civil contract of photography, the exhibition presented a visual narrative that facilitated the creation of new spectators who could see the work, the lives, and the volition of female subjects in an earlier era. Thus, the women photographed by Patel in 1937 for the Jyoti Sangh Series, as Azoulay and Edwards suggest, find new ways to make themselves visible. In doing so, they lay claim to the status of citizen for others like them today.

Conclusion

Patel's photographs languished in boxes of neatly stacked off-prints stored in his home for decades due to a double-blindness to the informal work of women and to their critical role in the modern Indian economy. Postcolonial nationalism, as Manu Goswami has observed, imagined India as a space occupied by a self-sacrificing modern (industrial) laboring (male) subject whose interests were defined and represented by the state.62 This view was reinforced, if not produced, by historians who have relied uncritically upon colonial records to represent the past. What ethical responsibilities do historians have to those who photographed and those who were photographed?

The work of SEWA rendered the double-blindness of traditional historical sources and historical practice untenable when it exposed gaps in India's otherwise labor-friendly legal frameworks that had rendered most women workers ineligible for state welfare. Appealing to what Azoulay terms the “ethics of the spectator” as she displayed Patel's photographs, Elaben Bhatt created a context in which Patel's photographs could speak of subjects marginalized but no longer invisible. Patel's women at work could at last visually lay claim to citizenship.

The Jyoti Sangh series demonstrates Patel's recognition of the wide-ranging impact of women at work in 1937, compelling us to reconsider who we privilege as historical subjects and how India's laborers are seen today as citizens. Photography, Azoulay asserts, enables the photographed subjects “to make politically present the ways in which they have been dominated.”63 This possibility constitutes a critical, new context in which women workers can be recognized, requiring historians to revise our representation of early industrial India. Patel's Jyoti Sangh series invites us to consider how alternative methods of research and reading might render visible a range of marginalized subjects who have previously been obscured by the materials we bring into view. In the years since the 2014 exhibition, new viewers of Patel's Jyoti Sangh series who have attended lectures, most recently at the Asiatic Society Mumbai, have shared their astonishment that so little has changed in the lives of the community of working women that Patel documented nearly a century ago.64 Sometimes, these new ethical spectators have gone so far as to recognize that they still do not “see” the women who labor in plain sight. Patel's Jyoti Sangh series thus provides us with new ethical possibilities as we confront the effects of historical representation on the persistence of systemic inequality.

Notes

1.

The negatives of Pranlal K. Patel's Jyoti Sangh Series are maintained by his son, Anand Patel, and his grandson, Gautam Patel, who live in Paldi, Ahmedabad. They may be reached via email at anandpatelphoto@gmail.com and gautamghetia@googlemail.com. I would like to thank Kevin Grant and Nadya Bair, as well as anonymous reviewers, for their generosity in helping shape this article. It is stronger for the critical reading and detailed engagement they provided.

2.

In March 2011, the author interviewed Ela Bhatt at her home and inquired about how she came to display Patel's photographs. Bhatt became aware of the images from her work in the Textile Labor Association and her association with the Jyoti Sangh. The Jyoti Sangh made use of the few early records they had to create an exhibition. The display included the front cover of Jyotipuri, a weekly supplement that was published in the Sandesh (est. 1921) along with several of Patel's photographs of Jyoti Sangh members.

4.

On the Farm Security Administration's project in the United States, see Conkin, Tomorrow a New World; Hurley, Portrait of a Decade; Evans, Walker Evans. Soviet state–supervised photography not only contributed to the creation of an idealized view of Soviet life, it also valorized the Soviet worker; see Tupitsyn, Soviet Photograph, and Shneer, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes.

6.

Raianu, Tata. Sunil Janah photographed industrial towns, including the Tata Iron and Steel Co., Jamshedpur, Bihar, in the 1950s. Some of his photographs of industrial labor are included in Janah, Photographing India, 281–300.

8.

Roughly one-third of the Indian subcontinent was never under direct British rule but remained in the hands of hereditary regional kings. A. L. Syed worked for one such kingdom. See Sharma, Vision from the Inner Eye.

10.

Janah was catapulted to notoriety by his photographs of the Bengal Famine and later by photographs of communal violence and the aftermath of the 1947 partition of British India. On Janah's photographs of the Bengal Famine, see Ghosh, “Witnessing Famine.” He also photographed many leading figures in politics and the arts and rural communities, particularly women as discussed by Roychoudhuri, “Documentary Photography,” and Karlekar, “Second Creature.” 

11.

Although he received a stipend for this work, I characterize Patel as an amateur because he was employed as an elementary school teacher at the time. He left teaching and opened his studio in 1940.

12.

A. L. Syed was patronized for decades by a princely family. Examples of the backgrounds of most photographers may be discerned from Citron et al., Allegory and Illusion; Hapgood, Early Bombay Photography.

13.

Janah grew up in a house with photography books including Ansel Adams's Making of a Photograph. Janah, Photographing India, 11. Even before Janah attended Presidency College, Calcutta, as a student, he had won contests organized by the Illustrated Weekly of India (1880–1993) and had had several photographs published in other venues. Illustrated Weekly of India was among the most important English language magazines in colonial and national India, costing 6 annas per issue. It was a large-format publication that included high-quality photography, reports on fiction, travel, sports, gossip, and cartoons.

14.

His two bigha may have amounted to one acre of land.

17.

In 1941, Vyarawalla took photographs for an article titled “Careers for Indian Women” in the Illustrated Weekly of India that focused upon opportunities for middle-class, married women. Her most well-known photographs were of India's independence leaders, including Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and a range of prominent global figures in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Dalai Lama, Ho Chi Minh, Gamal Abdul Nassar, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and US first lady Jackie Kennedy.

19.

According to Patel, Kalaguru Ravishankar Raval started Kumar Camera Club in 1925. It was subsequently renamed Niharika—The Society of Gujarat Pictorialists in 1938. Trivedi, Refocusing the Lens, 71.

21.

Edwards, Photographs and the Practice of History, 17–18. See especially chap. 1, “Inscription.”

23.

India Office (1860–1931), East India (Progress and Condition): Statement Exhibiting the Moral and Material Progress and Condition of India Report.

24.

In Ahmedabad, women workers comprised roughly 20 percent of the labor force in the industrial textile mills in this period. They were employed in low-wage and low-status jobs, such as reeling and winding. See Morris, Emergence of an Industrial Labour Force; Chandavarkar, Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India; and Sen, Women and Labour.

32.

Attributed to a speech given by Mohandas Gandhi at the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the Jyoti Sangh on June 29, 1934. Jyoti Sangh Report, 1.

33.

For background on the Jyoti Sangh, see Basu, Mridula Sarabhai.

34.

Patel's recollection in an interview conducted by the author on January 28, 2012.

35.

Patel was interviewed by the author on more than two dozen occasions in the spring 2011, subsequently in January and December 2012, and then again in December 2013. When questioned in successive interviews about why the images were not used in a Jyoti Sangh campaign in the period following the completion, Patel could only speculate that the photographs for which he had been paid did not serve the organization's purposes.

36.

A pol is an architectural form particular to the old city of Ahmedabad. It is a cluster of houses usually inhabited by families of a particular group, be it caste, occupational, or religious. Pols typically include five to ten houses but may contain fifty or more. They are distinguished by the fact that they may be closed off from other parts of the city by special doors and they may be connected through passageways to other pols.

38.

Two points of comparison for the Jyoti Sangh might be Chicago's Hull House and the United Kingdom's Women's Cooperative Guild.

40.

The Jyoti Sangh has very few records in its possession that might shed light on its aims. Jyoti Sangh Yatra, a history of the organization written in Gujarati makes no mention of this particular work.

41.

In the period just preceding and after Patel's series, the government of India repeatedly undertook study of India's industrial labor force. A survey of government publications reveals the official view of India's industrial labor force in the period, which did not observe the full range of work performed to support the textile industry or who specifically performed which kinds of work. See, for example, Report of the Indian Factory Labour Commission (1908), Report of the Industrial Disputes Committee (1919); Report on Wages, Hours of Work and Conditions of Employment in the Textile Industries in the Bombay Presidency, 1934 (1937), Report of the Bombay Textile Labour Enquiry Committee, 1937–38 (1940), and Report on the Royal Commission of Labour in India (1931).

42.

One example of state observation of workers can be found in the Bombay Riots Enquiry Committee's Report on the Bombay Riots in 1929, July 17, 1929, file 318/A/V of 1937: Riots of April–May 1929. Government of India General and Home Department records provide a window onto the occasions when official archives inscribed information about women specifically. See Government of India, General Department, File 469-IX. The Evil of Prostitution in Bombay, Bombay Social Purity Committee. Report of the Prostitution Committee, 1921, Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai; Government of India, Annual Reports on Traffic in Women and Children, for Submission to the League Secretariat, Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai; Government of India, Home Department, File 8514 Prostitutes, 1925, Maharashtra State Archives, Mumbai.

43.

Jyotipuri was a weekly supplement included in Sandesh (1921–present), Ahmedabad's longest-running Gujarati newspaper. Because only traditional and economic elites had access to photography in this period, newspapers, and later magazines, were the chief place that the broader society experienced photography. Patel sold photographs, along with many of the photographers of his club, to the local newspapers including Sandesh. To date no copies of Jyotipuri have been located in the newspaper's archives.

44.

I have borrowed the phrase vernacular lens from Biwas's unpublished essay “Aesthetics and Politics in Everyday Photography in Manipur.” Following Biwas, Patel's lens was vernacular not because it was “Indian” rather than foreign but because his social location and that of his subjects were so closely allied.

45.

This assessment follows a short pamphlet about Patel's work as a photographer. See A Mirror on the Past.

46.

Sekula, “Body and the Archive.” The nineteenth-century colonial state commissioned ethnographic studies of India, which made use of photographic technologies to depict non-elites. See William Johnson's The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (1863), J. Forbes Watson, John William Kaye, and Meadows Taylor's The People of India (1868–75), and F. M. Coleman's Typical Pictures of Indian Natives (1897). In these cases the representations were of “types” of natives. That is, laborers were not depicted as individuals or subjects.

47.

India's marketplaces have a long and robust archival record from the period of the East India Company's administration through the British Government of India; see Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars and the annual Statement Exhibiting the Moral and Material Progress and Condition of India released by the India Office between 1861 and 1937.

48.

Patel discussed his interests in a short booklet titled A Mirror on the Past.

49.

Trained as a lawyer, Ela Bhatt (1933–2022) joined the Majoor Mahajan or Textile Labor Association of Ahmedabad in its legal department in 1955. A little over a decade later, she was asked to head its women's wing.

51.

Martha Stuart (1929–1985) was an American producer, writer, and photographer for radio and television. In 1965 she established her own independent production company, which became well-known for its work with Planned Parenthood, chronicling the life and influence of Margaret Sanger, and for producing PBS's Are You Listening. In 1982 Stuart established the Village Video Network, engaging members globally from Mali, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Antigua, China, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Guyana, Japan, Indonesia, and the Navajo Nation. Stuart's papers are part of a collection held at Harvard University (https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/8/resources/7874).

55.

Is this what Alan Sekula meant when he wrote of “a new instrumental potential in photography: a silence that silences”? Sekula, “Body and the Archive,” 6.

58.

I follow Arlette Farge's The Allure of the Archives by explicitly writing about the historian's roles in the mediation of historical materials in a contemporary photography exhibition. I play with a convention commonly used in contemporary India to open up the role of the historian from assembler of facts to a creative curator of facts.

59.

Edwards, Photographs and the Practice of History, 1. Edwards's introductory chapter addresses the limitations of historical practice as well as those that apply also to the use of photography.

60.

See the India Office's annual Statement Exhibiting the Moral and Material Progress and Condition of India.

61.

Cartier-Bresson's photograph is titled Ahmedabad, 1966 Old City. Patel did not recall meeting Cartier-Bresson. Several Cartier-Bresson photographs from his 1966 series of Ahmedabad seem to reference Patel's earlier photography.

64.

The lecture “(In)visible Subjects: Pranlal Patel's Women at Work in Ahmedabad, India, 1937” was presented at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, March 9, 2023, on the occasion of International Women's Day. I would like to thank Prof. Vispi Balaporia, Prof. Shehernaz Nallawala, and Prof. Manjiri Kamat for their invitation.

Works Cited

Azoulay, Ariella.
The Civil Contract of Photography
.
New York
:
Zone Books
,
2008
.
Barthes, Roland.
Camera Lucida
.
New York
:
Hill and Wang
,
1981
.
Basu, Aparna.
Mridula Sarabhai: Rebel with a Cause
.
New Delhi
:
Oxford University Press
,
1996
.
Bayly, C. A.
Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870
.
Oxford
:
Oxford University Press
,
1988
.
Bhatt, Ela.
We Are Poor but So Many: The Story of Self-Employed Women in India
.
New Delhi
:
Oxford University Press
,
2006
.
Benjamin, Walter. “
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
.” In
Illuminations
, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn,
217
52
.
New York
:
Schocken
,
1969
.
Biwas, Debanjali. “
Aesthetics and Politics in Everyday Photography in Manipur
.” Unpublished ms. N.d.
Bombay Textile Labour Enquiry Committee, 1937–38
.
Bombay
,
1940
.
British Library
, IOR/V/26/670/89.
Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan.
The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900–1940
.
New York
:
Cambridge University Press
,
1994
.
Citron, Beth, Rahaab Allana, E. Alkazi, Christopher Pinney, Shilpi Goswami, Deepak Bharathan, and Jennifer Chowdhry.
Allegory and Illusion: Early Portrait Photography from South Asia
.
New Delhi
:
Mapin and Alkazi Collection of Photography
,
2013
.
Coleman, F. M.
Typical Pictures of Indian Natives: Being Reproductions from Specially Prepared Hand-Coloured Photographs with Descriptive Letterpress
.
Bombay
:
Times of Indian Office
,
1897
.
Conkin, Paul K.
Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program
.
Ithaca, NY
:
Cornell University Press
,
2019
.
Datta, Rekha. “
From Development to Empowerment: The Self-Employed Women's Association in India
.”
International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society
16
, no.
3
(Spring
2003
):
351
68
.
Dehejia, Vidya.
India through the Lens: Photography, 1840–1911
.
Washington, DC
:
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian
/
Ahmedabad
:
Mapin
/
Munich
:
Prestel
,
2000
.
Edwards, Elizabeth.
Photographs and the Practice of History
.
London
:
Bloomsbury
,
2022
.
Evans, Walker.
Walker Evans: Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935–1938: A Catalog of Photographic Prints Available from the Farm Security Administration Collection in the Library of Congress
.
New York
:
Da Capo
,
1973
.
Farge, Arlette.
The Allure of the Archives
.
New Haven, CT
:
Yale University Press
,
2013
.
The Fire to Return to the Jyoti Sangh
.”
Times of India
,
October
28
,
2009
.
Gadihoke, Sabeena.
India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla
.
New Delhi
:
Parzor Foundation
/
Ahmedabad
:
Mapin
,
2006
.
Ghosh, Tanushree. “
Witnessing Famine: The Testimonial Work of Famine Photographs and Anti-colonial Spectatorship
,”
Journal of Visual Culture
18
, no.
3
(
2019
):
327
57
. https://doi.org/1470412919879067.
Goswami, Manu.
Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space
.
New Delhi
:
Permanent Black
,
2004
.
Hapgood, Susan.
Early Bombay Photography
.
Ahmedabad
:
Mapin
,
2015
.
Hurley, F. Jack.
Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties
.
Baton Rouge
:
Louisiana State University Press
,
1972
.
Janah, Sunil.
Photographing India
.
New Delhi
:
Oxford University Press
,
2013
.
Johnson, William.
The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay: A Series of Photographs with Letter-Press Descriptions
.
2
vols.
London
,
1863
66
.
Jyoti Sangh.
Jyoti Sangh Yatra
.
Ahmedabad
,
1971
.
Jyoti Sangh.
Jyoti Sangh Report: 1936–37
.
Ahmedabad
,
1938
.
Karlekar, Malavika. “
The Second Creature: The Creation of an Epic Visual Document of a New Nation
.”
Telegraph Online
,
April
9
,
2011
. https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/the-second-creature-the-creation-of-an-epic-visual-document-of-a-new-nation/cid/351859.
A Mirror on the Past: A Living and Clicking Legend, Shri Pranlal K. Patel, Wizard of the Camera
.
Ahmedabad
:
Gujarat State Lalit Kala Academy
, n.d.
Mitter, Partha, Akshaya Tankha, Suryanadini Sinha, and Rahaab Allana.
The Artful Pose: Early Studio Photography in Mumbai, c. 1855–1940
.
Ahmedabad
:
Mapin
,
2010
.
Morris, Morris David.
The Emergence of an Industrial Labor Force in India: A Study of the Bombay Cotton Mills, 1854–1947
.
Berkeley
:
University of California Press
,
1965
.
Moser, Gabrielle.
Projecting Citizenship: Photography and the British Empire
.
University Park
:
Pennsylvania State University Press
,
2019
.
Pelizzari, Maria Antonella, ed.
Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850–1900
.
Montreal
:
Canadian Centre for Architecture
/
New Haven, CT
:
Yale University Press
,
2003
.
Pinney, Christopher.
Camera Indica: The Social Life of Photographs
.
Chicago
:
University of Chicago Press
,
1997
.
Pinney, Christopher. “
Civil Contract of Photography in India
.”
Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East
35
, no.
1
(
May
2015
):
21
34
.
Raianu, Mircea.
Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism
.
Cambridge, MA
:
Harvard University Press
,
2010
.
Report on the Royal Commission of Labour in India
.
London
:
HM Stationery Office
,
1931
.
Report on Wages, Hours of Work and Conditions of Employment in the Textile Industries in the Bombay Presidency
.
Bombay
:
Government of Bombay
,
1934
.
Riis, Jacob.
How the Other Half Lives
.
New York
:
Dover
,
1901
.
Riis, Jacob.
The Making of an American
.
New York
:
Macmillan
,
1901
.
Rosler, Martha. “
Post-Documentary, Post-Photography?
” In
Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001
,
207
44
.
Cambridge, MA
:
MIT Press
,
2004
.
Roychoudhuri, Ranu. “
Documentary Photography, Decolonization, and the Making of ‘Secular Icons’: Reading Sunil Janah's Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s
.”
BioScope
8
, no.
1
(
2017
):
46
80
.
Ryan, James.
Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire
.
Chicago
:
University of Chicago Press
,
1998
.
Sekula, Alan. “
The Body and the Archive
.”
October
39
(
1986
)
3
64
.
Sen, Samita.
Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry
.
Cambridge
:
Cambridge University Press
,
1999
.
Sharma, O. P.
Vision from the Inner Eye: The Photographic Art of A L Syed
.
Ahmedabad
:
Mapin
,
2001
.
Shneer, David.
Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust
.
New Brunswick, NJ
:
Rutgers University Press
,
2011
.
Sontag, Susan.
On Photography
.
New York
:
Anchor Books
,
1977
.
Sreenivasan, Jyotsna.
Ela Bhatt: United Women in India
.
New York
:
Feminist
,
2000
.
Srivatsan, R.
Conditions of Visibility: Writings on Photography in Contemporary India
.
Calcutta
:
Stree
,
2000
.
Tagg, John.
The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories
.
Minneapolis
:
University of Minnesota Press
,
2021
.
Tankha, Akshaya. “
Early Precedents: Ethnographic Photography in Bombay, 1855–1870
.” In Mitter et al.,
Artful Pose
,
26
41
.
Topitsyn, Margarita.
The Soviet Photograph, 1924–1937
.
New Haven, CT
:
Yale University Press
,
1996
.
Trivedi, Lisa.
Refocusing the Lens: Pranlal K. Patel's Photographs of Women at Work in Ahmedabad, 1937
.
Clinton, NY
:
Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art
,
2014
.
Watson, J. Forbes, John William Kaye, and Meadows Taylor.
The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations, with Descriptive Letterpress, of the Races and Tribes of Hindustan
.
8
vols.
London
:
India Museum
,
1868–75
.
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).