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Moksha: the widows of Vrindavan
06 July 2006

Moksha by Fazal Sheikh

Julius Honnor reviews photographer Fazal Sheikh’s book Moksha, the fourth part of his International Human Rights series.

Half-formed figures emerge faintly from misty landscapes. Wrapped in plain cloth, they scurry away along dirty streets. On double-page spreads, trees slowly disintegrate into the hazy background. Faces stare straight out of the pages, mournful and marked by years of pain.

The fourth part of Fazal Sheikh’s International Human Rights series is Moksha, a hefty and powerful book of photos and text looking at the lives of widows in the town of Vrindavan in Northern India.

Sheikh’s first two projects in the series were books, A Camel for the Son and Ramadan Moon, concentrating on women refugees from Somalia living in Kenya and Holland. The third was a DVD based on his book The Victor Weeps, a study of Afghan refugees. The fourth, Moksha, confronts the plight of Vrindivan’s dispossessed widows. All are available as outstanding online editions.

Moksha p035 - photo by Fazal Sheikh

As Fazal Sheikh describes in the book, strict Hindu tradition holds that a wife whose husband dies before her is in some way responsible for his death, either because of a lack of devotion in this life, or because of a crime in a previous life. Widows, shunned by society, are traditionally expected not to use cosmetics, to eat only bland food and to wear a plain white cotton sari. There are 40 million widows in the country, many living lives as social and economic outsiders, denigrated and abandoned. Some were child-brides, widowed and stigmatised before they even reached puberty.

openspeechmarksMy family was very poor so my only chance of a husband was to be given to an older man. He was fifty and I was twelve.
closespeechmarks
Shanti Karuna (‘Peace and affection’)

About 20,000 of these widows have left (or been forced out of) their homes to come to live in Vrindivan, one of India’s holiest towns, with over four thousand temples and shrines. They come for the small payment given in return for religious chanting or just to beg and live off charity, living out the end of their lives as a part of a pious community.

Many of Vrindivan’s widows are homeless, or live in cramped shared accommodation. And according to Fazal Sheikh’s text, some of the younger women are forced into the sex trade.

Moksha_p069 - Renuka

But though the subjects of Sheikh’s portraits are thoroughly battered by life, these portraits are proud and dignified: images that invite sympathy but seem to refuse pity.

Alongside the resolute poise of Fazal Sheikh’s photos, the widows give accounts of their lives, the events that led to them being there. In these stories there are recurring themes: abandonment and talk of dreams in which their families come back to them. These women are living with memories, rats, monkeys and the imminence of death for company.

The book stands as a whole: the black and white photos intersperse abstract architecture with piercingly sharp portraits. The dark, cold mistiness of a northern Indian winter is everywhere, adding to a sense of overwhelming sadness. There is almost no sunshine and certainly no laughter.

openspeechmarksMy husband, who was ten years older than me, committed suicide in a drunken stupor when I was twenty-three. In the years afterwards, both my daughters died too… What else can I hope for? I would like to die but it is not my wishes that decide what happens to me
closespeechmarks
Kalyani Ghosh (‘Auspicious’)

Veiled faces mask the internal pain but gnarled hands and fingers intertwined in anguish give some clues to repressed suffering. Caged rats and birds in flight suggest both notions of reincarnation and the reliance on animals for company by women detached from their pasts and from their families.

Moksha p250-251

Fazal Sheikh also gives translations of the names of his subjects. These give an extra sense of poignancy and pathos, reminding the reader of the widows’ pasts but also of waste and desolation. The absurd juxtaposition of the prettiness and optimism of their names (‘the Flower’, ‘Sapphire’, ‘Garland’, ‘Hope’, ‘Goddess of Wealth’) with the suffering of these women serves to further emphasize the awful hopelessness of their lives.

The title of the book, Moksha (a heavenly place, the kingdom of Krishna) is in the same stark contrast to reality. Moksha is the place all these women are wanting to get to, but these powerful images instead summon up a dark and grimy vision of purgatory.

 

Moksha, by Fazal Sheikh is published by Steidl, in collaboration with Autograph ABP and the Arts Council of England.
280 pages, 170 images, 225 x 270 mm, ISBN 3-86521-125-9. £45.
The book can be ordered online.

All images copyright Fazal Sheikh.

 

Julius Honnor is Catalyst web editor.

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Links

Fazal Sheikh: photographer's website

Moksha: online edition.

Vrindivan: Wikipedia entry on the town

Water: a film about widows in Varanasi, India


Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

Search For:


Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

rss logo | What is RSS?

This page was last updated on 10/07/2006 12:09:19

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo