Refocusing the Lens Exhibits Patel’s Uncommon Photographs of Indian Women
When celebrated Indian street photographer Pranlal K. Patel died in January at the age of 104, he left behind an impressive legacy and 70 years worth of works. An exhibit at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art has brought new life to some of the artist’s images from the early twentieth century.
Refocusing the Lens: Pranlal K. Patel’s Photographs of Women at Work in Ahmedabad features the artist’s 77-year-old photos of women in Ahmedabad, India. The images depict women performing a variety of everyday activities that were rarely documented during this time period, from weaving textiles to selling goods at market. The exhibit is curated by Associate Professor of History Lisa Trivedi with Assistant Professor of Art Robert Knight and is on display until April 15.
The Wellin Museum held a reception on April 2 honoring the exhibit, which is Patel’s first in the United States. It would have also been the photographer’s first visit to the country. Patel’s family attended the reception, including his son and grandson who now run the studio he founded in 1937.
The photos featured in Refocusing the Lens were originally commissioned in 1937 by Jyoti Sangh, a progressive women’s organization that operates to this day. By depicting Ahmedabad women in a number of different labor contexts including textile production and marketplace management, the works captured women’s important role in the country’s vibrant twentieth-century economy.
Trivedi, who met Patel in 1996 when she was a Fulbright Scholar in Gujarat, explains that the artist’s photos captivated her because they filled an important void in the historical record. During this time period the Indian government kept plenty of photographic records of the major industrial development occurring throughout the country, but rarely photographed women and their unique role in the economy.
The photos of women that do exist from the period, Trivedi says, are typically ethnographic accounts depicting types of people, such as the average homemaker or textile worker, as opposed to individuals at work in their everyday settings. Trivedi explains that Patel’s photos are “important from an historical standpoint because they are documents we would have never otherwise discovered.”
The original black-and-white negatives from Patel’s 1937 commission are too old and damaged to be processed regularly, so Trivedi brought them back to the United States to be digitally scanned. Alison Ritacco ’14 assisted with the scanning of the negatives while Professor Robert Knight made minor corrections to the images to fix problems like scratching and peeling, all with the permission of the artist.
The project has given the photographs a new life and in so doing, has provided a special glimpse into the rarely documented lives of women in twentieth century Ahmedabad.
Alongside Patel’s photographs, the exhibit features a variety of objects and artifacts important to the lives of twentieth century Indian female laborers, from handmade saris to heavy irons and measuring scales. It also includes images of Mr. Patel and the original camera he used in 1937 to produce his impressive photographs.
Trivedi described Patel as a “kind, sweet, and generous person.” A recent interview with the artist and a fully illustrated catalogue accompany the exhibition.
A captivating and historically significant display, Refocusing the Lens debuted February 1 and will be open through April 15 at the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College.