New Delhi: Zubaan Publishers, 2017, 200 pp.
Reviewed by Aneesa Mushtaq
In this volume edited by graphic novelist Parismita Singh brings together twenty-one women who combine words and pictures to explore the theme of ‘work.’ There are narratives and expressions of hawkers, brewers, journalists, poets, homemaker, dung collectors, photo artists, fabric designers who focus on the creativity and work of ordinary women. The book argues for labor and art as being intrinsic to women of ‘the Northeast’ (India). Based on personal narratives, this book offers a study of women’s daily and lived experiences. The volume is an attempt to bring marginalized sections of society and their work into the “center.” Showcasing a counter-knowledge these essays by women speak about women’s work speaks in multiple ways.
The volume opens with an image of two women in a photograph “Untitled” by Zubeni Lotha from Nagaland, who are clad in military uniform, wearing hornbill heads as headgear and half of their faces masked with it. They stand in a forest like setting as if they are guarding something. The last entry is a painting by Kundo Yumnam from Manipur called “Self-portrait” where an old woman whose head is not visible is knitting; the thread is coming out from her nipples. The painting seems to be referring to the work traditionally and historically taken up by women where blood and toil go into their labor but it is often discarded in routine as women’s work. In between the first and the last entries, there are many stories exploring the same theme.
Gertrude Lamare who is an independent researcher writes about women hawkers who are busy with household jobs and manage to sell things on the streets of Shillong, which empowers them. This essay explores with the irony of the concept of development and the everyday struggles of women hawkers. The essay by Rini Barman “Hands That Brew” gives an account of women from Assam who brew alcohol daily and how domestic labor becomes a means of creativity and empowerment for them. These narratives look at how the domestic space has been a source of creativity for women who have playfully used these tasks to also express themselves. Jacqueline Zote from Mizoram presents the patriarchal households of Mizoram in her essay “The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Retelling of Mizo Folktales.” The domestic space used as a means of everyday resistance by women is also evident in the essay “#hashtagpoetry” by Thingnam Samom from Guwahati. The poem “#war” lays bare the fact of how women prepare men who have to go to war. It takes the ‘other,’ a woman to prepare him for the war. It is the woman at home who rises up early in the morning even when she is menstruating and feeds the man so that he can go to war. The protagonist tears half a page of speech written about patriots and wraps her blood-soaked sanitary napkin and throws it in the dustbin. The act seems to be referring to as an everyday micro-resistance by women.
The book appears as a museum rejecting the idea that art, knowledge, and history can be accomplished in totalizing the set ideas and general principles of ‘work.’ The volume incorporates a local, traditional and contemporary form of expressions, which challenge canonical representation of art and writing and broadly explore the region of ‘the Northeast.’ The volume determines space as a museum where traditional and contemporary art forms appear to be analyzed as a series of artistic installations. Each entry in the volume can be explored as a piece of installation art. The volume, when considered as a museum, serves two purposes; one it brings together as many as possible traditional and modern pieces of art and writing; like fabric designing to “#hashtagpoetry.” Second, the volume expands the language of work and art and refashions the local, quotidian experiences of ‘the Northeast’ women.
The cover page of the volume displays two hands that are trying to unearth something; something which is already present under the earth and needs to be excavated and brought to focus of public attention. The book claims women artists are documenting the everyday experiences in diverse ways; if one artist chooses a fabric, the other one uses pen and paper to register her experiences. The point of compiling all these varied forms of expressions, merging the art and labor of women in the form of text, photography, and textile-art manifests the title of the volume “Centrepiece.” All these modes of expressions are center to the quotidianness of everyday gendered life.
Aneesa Mushtaq is pursuing her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, India.