Roland Barthes wrote that old photographs convey the “tension of history” because their meaning depends on our reading of them, yet we are always looking in from outside. Using a 1931 photograph from the family collection of Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, I want to illustrate how the tendency to “read” a photograph from the outside can lead us to conclusions that have little to do with what actually happened. At the same time, I want to point out that when we “read” photographs methodically, paying attention to technology, the photographer and studio, the patron and consumer, and the subjects themselves, they can become valuable historical documents.
I first began to look at photographs because women I was interviewing – participants in India’s freedom struggle – insisted I could learn something about the movement and their involvement in it by looking at images. For example, when a freedom fighter showed me a photograph of women newly released from Vellore Central Prison, she pointed out her sister, cousin, and aunt. The relationship was not obvious from their surnames – different because three of them were married – but an extremely important detail to understand women’s involvement in political protest. This photograph was instrumental in turning my attention to family photographs as valuable historical documents.
Most of the family collections I examined, including Manmohini’s, featured women photographed at the time of marriage (Figure 1), with their children (Figure 2), and in family portraits (Figure 3). In “progressive families”– those interested in new roles for women – there are school and graduation photos (Figure 4), photos with friends (Figure 5), and images of women taking part in social and political activities (Figure 6). As contemporary authors have noted, family collections are notorious for their omission of pain, ill health, discord, and rupture. This was certainly true of Indian families during the colonial period. Moreover, photographs were considered so serious that one rarely finds people hamming it up or posing for fun.
Standing out among hundreds of conventional family photographs, are a number that do not fit. Among them are images of women engaged in a wide range of activities from riding horses to rowing boats and driving cars. There are also photographs of women posed in unusual attire such as these photographs of Shudha Mazumdar in riding breeches (Figure 7) and Manmohini and friends wearing flight helmets (Figure 8). At first glance, we might conclude that Indian women in the 1930s were engaging daring sports but careful research reveals a different story.
The photograph of Manmohini and her friends in flight helmets was taken in 1931 when they were attending the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress. Although women had been visible politically since 1917 when they formed a delegation to meet Lord Montagu and ask for the vote, their numbers were few until 1930. The Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-31 was significant in terms of the number of women who joined, demonstrated, picketed, and went to jail. Young women, with more opportunities for education and a later age of marriage, threw themselves into the movement. They would prove, some of them said, that they were as brave and patriotic as young men.
The 1931 Congress was well financed and well organized, with plenty of young women volunteers. One of these young women was Manmohini Zutshi (b. 1909), the daughter of Motilal Nehru’s nephew and his wife Lado Rani. Keenly interested in the new opportunities available for women’s education, Lado Rani in 1917 moved with her four daughters to Lahore where she enrolled them in missionary schools and arranged for private music lessons (Figure 9). After Motilal became President of the Indian National Congress in 1919, Lado Rani and her daughters became staunch supporters of the freedom struggle.
Manmohini first attended Kinnaird College, and then took the unusual step of joining Government College for Men in Lahore. A skilled debater, she took a keen interest in student affairs and joined the Lahore Student Union, becoming its first female President in 1929.
Following Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, Manmohini organized protests, demonstrated, courted arrest, and was sentenced to prison on three separate occasions. Here she was photographed with women just released from prison (Figure 10).
At the 1931 Congress meeting, Manmohini was a minor celebrity, beseeched by young women and men for her autograph. When a young man offered to drive them to an airstrip where a small plane had landed, he soon had a car full of single women in their late teens and early 20s ready for an adventure (Figure 11).
The young women donned helmets and prepared for a flight that never happened. However, the fact there was no flight is of little importance compared to what this photograph represents in terms of female autonomy in the early 1930s. Gandhi’s initiatives legitimated independent political action by young men and women that made possible new friendships and adventures. At the same time, these educated and self-assured young women gave the North Indian movement a youthful, self-confident, and glamorous image.
This example is one of many unusual photographs in my collection that, when examined, illustrate the importance of context in understanding the meaning of the photograph as an historical document. To believe we can read a “look” or motive in a photograph is folly. What we see could well be imposed by the photographer or technology, or both. It is equally difficult to assess emotions from captured facial expressions or to assume continuity of reactions and emotions across time. Even when the subject of a photo reaches back into her memory for what she felt at the time a photo was taken, we are witnessing someone taking control of a past image rather than an exact representation of the past.
When we place unusual photographs within the context of the family collections where they were found, we find more conformity and less rebellion than a superficial read might yield. Women who were photographed riding bicycles, wearing jodhpurs, and letting their hair down belonged to families that encouraged female autonomy within limits. The photographs were not discarded, judged too blurry or over/under exposed to keep, but instead preserved with those of graduations, weddings, and other significant events.
The value of these photographs is in the issues they raise as much as the clues (not answers) they give to questions about women’s autonomy, representation, modernity, and family culture. These documents add a new dimension to our understanding of subtle changes within families, changes that are not easily captured in conventional records. In the final analysis, these photographs are only unusual when we ignore the cultural context.