The female body has been seen as a site that begets life, is sexualized from the outset and subject to territorialisation by the male body- both literally and figuratively. In South Asian contexts, the autonomy of the female body from collective (and predominantly male-centric) units has often been seen as a threat and anomaly. The single mother faces a double-bind of being an autonomous figure who is also disrupting the fabric of the ‘family’ (as it is traditionally understood) by undertaking the responsibility of child-rearing without the participation and/or supervision of a male figure. The single mother then becomes a taboo subject, which effectively eclipses any understanding of her struggle, resilience or fears. This blind spot is sustained and encouraged through the devices of rumour and gossip in residential colonies, which reject reason and empathy, and satiates instead a collective need for cursory dissection.
Actants Manmeet Devgun and Manmeet Sandhu created two distinct spaces on the premises of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan where they brought together communities of women who share similar narratives of struggle, pain and passion to create an intimate network that fostered a healthy environment for discussions around subjects close to their lived circumstances. Manmeet Devgun brought together fellow single mothers whom she met through various channels over years to create a space that they called ‘A Mother’s Studio’. All the parents here shared similar stories about shuffling between home and social life, and having to handle the responsibilities that come with a child while also trying to manage work efficiently. What often gets lost in the routine is time for their own selves, where the body can let go and be at ease. As one of the mothers pointed out during an open-mic session during the event, “We don’t always want to be superheroes!” This points to the other end of the single-motherhood debate, where the figure of the single mother is hailed as a superwoman adept at handling everything by herself and therefore deserves to be put on a pedestal. While encouraging, this rhetoric also carries a certain pressure of representation, where single motherhood becomes a trope of empowerment one must conform to, and any deviation is perceived as self-centered. What about the woman before the mother? What does she want? What food does she like? How does she want to spend her Sundays?
The women in this studio arranged an activity each, which included putting up their own work in the space, setting up chalks and pencils for children to pick up and draw at will, engaging in meditative exercises such as knitting and making mandalas, amongst others. Rama, an associate in the project, was not able to participate in person. She had a typewriter set up in the space instead, along with textual conversations between herself and her daughter for readers to peruse. A drum circle was organized as part of the event as well, all of which cumulatively created a safe space for expression for the mothers, where they could communicate their stories in ease and in the presence of their children that the space was designed to accommodate as well. Manmeet (who is a practising artist) talks about how gallery spaces often feel overwhelming in the number of explicit and implicit restrictions they have with regards to the presence of children around expensive artwork. There’s a fear of disruption with the presence of a child in the gallery space, which becomes an “irritation” for a single mother like herself who feels excluded from the space by extension. The Mother’s Studio was therefore designed as both a gallery and a play-pen for children, so that conversations could take place in an inclusive fashion.
The formative conversations around the constitutive events took place amongst the mothers with knowledge of their shared constraints. For instance, meetings were organized while making sure that nobody had to take a day off from work, which could be potentially stressful for a working woman. Looking at each other’s lives and trajectories as self-partnered working women also gave them strength in perspective. As Manmeet puts it, “each of us is at a different stage of our kids’ life; some of us are able to look forward and others, backward” in the light of each other’s journeys. Having started off without clarity and methodology, the studio organically developed into a space of solidarity. While it acknowledged the pain and narratives of discrimination and victimhood that accompanies the (hyper) visibility of a single life, the project chose to create a joyful ambience by including the children in the setting, which enabled easy communication and interaction.
Manmeet Sandhu brought to the premises the Mahila zine, which she started as part of the small collective, Vichaar Ke Achaar. The zine is a self-published compilation of thoughts, drawings, images and other media; its DIY ethos imparts the zine an intimate value that evokes a directed passion for a particular idea and ideal. The Mahila zine produced its fifth issue within the Five Million Incidents framework through a workshop called ‘Secret Spaces/Hiding Places’ where women of all ages and backgrounds were invited to contribute pages to the formative issue. All the material was compiled post the workshop and converted into a publication format. This zine will now be photocopied and produced into multiples for distribution and sale (which just about covers the production costs). The zine has emerged from and maintains a strong feminist perspective, and is always on the lookout for like-minded artists who can bring strong content that departs from trite representations of patriarchy and evokes instead personal, idiosyncratic journeys which appeal to similar trajectories of lived experiences of women across socio-economic backgrounds.
A graphic panel on display at the venue shows a young woman in her apartment trying to connect with someone over the phone. Unable to hear the voice on the other end, she climbs the stairs to the storey above, and then to the open terrace where she’s finally able to hear the person. The story takes place in a descending fashion, with the last visual occupying the first panel- mirroring the architectonics of the densely populated urbanscape in Delhi and its many stories around connection failures. The artist is Reshma Khatoon (also part of the collective) who reflected through this graphic narrative her own experience in Delhi after she moved out of her house to pursue higher studies in Delhi. Reshma, as others in the collective, hails from a strong patriarchal set-up who has taken active measures to assert her aspirations and take steps in that direction. Manmeet calls her current team “first-generation feminists”, who have carved out a niche space through this self-published zine and cherish the freedom of expression that this space brings them.
Self-publication requires sustained dedication and passion, and the Mahila zine is intent on protecting this space from commercial influence. The zine works towards dismantling the elitism that accompanies high art, and the subsequent identity crisis it produces in marginalized bodies. The zine is open to non-binary and queer contributors as well, as the drive is towards including marginalized bodies in its scope of representation. The zine encourages idiosyncratic ways of art-making and reading, and rejects any structural ways of thinking and publishing (although the alternative itself runs the risk of becoming structural with practice). It is content with a small readership (a characteristic of the zine as a format itself) as it believes even a small ambit of influence can bear meaningful results.
Both spaces create a nurturing zone for marginalized bodies where the subversive ideal of total independence is re-read in terms of a collective contract of kindness and empathy. The Mahila zine plays on the oft-used rhetoric of “mahila” and its attendant connotations of respect for the female body in public spaces (often just tokenistic) to draw focus instead to the micro-narratives it homogenises. The Mother’s Studio, similarly, brings into focus conversations around single motherhood by foregrounding stories by single mothers themselves. The studio provided a resting stop for the single mothers who had not (by their own admission during a group discussion) stopped, until now, to consciously think and reflect on the compromises, criticism and micro-battles they waged on a daily basis. The space provided a context for socialization that nurtures rather than exhausts. This project may extend into public spaces such as colony halls or public parks to expand the conversations amongst people who actively avoid the company of single mothers in close quarters from skepticism of their lifestyles.
These projects create a space for expression amongst a close network for a receptive audience in a privileged institutional space, which effectively creates a new critical context for practices that seek to engage through communication. Both projects occupy space in distinct ways that point to a non-economic understanding of care and labour. They dismantle a patriarchal understanding of care as an unconditional attribute and feminine expectation, and foreground enlightened selfishness as a necessary tool for self-preservation, as it helps them express their personal interests, desires and opinions alongside other capacities such as parenthood (which often absorbs these individual needs). Although patriarchy remains a staple reference point, the projects foreground the experience of the female body as it is shaped by its physical vulnerabilities as well as human idiosyncrasies that are fostered by an active spirit and cultivated by a solidarity of the margins.
Cover Image: a page from the book, ‘The Mother’s Studio’ by Rama Kalidindi
All Images Courtesy: Annette Jacob