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Wellin Museum presents first exhibition of Pranlal Patel's photographs in the United States
Pranlal Patel, Making Brooms, Saraspur, Ahmedabad, Jyoti Sangh Series, c. 1937. Image courtesy of Pranlal Patel.
CLINTON, NY.- The Wellin Museum of Art presents the first U.S. exhibition of photographs by celebrated Indian photographer Pranlal K. Patel. On view February 1 through April 15, 2014, Refocusing the Lens: Pranlal K. Patel’s Photographs of Women at Work in Ahmedabad features 35 images that document the lives of women in the workforce in early twentieth-century India, as well as several other related works by the artist, and the original camera Patel used to capture these arresting images. Taken in 1937 as a commission for Jyoti Sangh, a philanthropic group dedicated to improving the lives of women in India, the photographs provide unprecedented insight into the lives of working-class women as they engaged in a range of labor activities—in their homes, neighborhoods, and the markets of Ahmedabad. Refocusing the Lens is the first posthumous exhibition of work by Pranlal Patel, who passed away on January 18, 2014, at the age of 104.

“Pranlal Patel and I had been working together since 2011 to create this exhibition,” said Lisa Trivedi, exhibition curator and associate professor of history at Hamilton College. “It is with deep sadness that we move forward without him. The exhibition is now a tribute to his skill as a photographer, who beautifully documented the work of ordinary women in pre-independence India, preserving for us perhaps the first records of this segment of the population.”

The works in Refocusing the Lens are unique artifacts and a distinctive record of Indian society in the 1930s. In contrast to the ethnographic photographs commissioned by the state to study “cultural types,” the images are intimate, less stylized portraits of ordinary women at work. The photographs depict women carrying wares to the market, selling goods, weaving cloth, making rope and brooms, and scavenging for metal. These images challenge historians’ accepted views of women’s labor as limited to the domestic sphere, isolated, and sex-segregated. Rather, they suggest a complex labor structure in which men and women worked together in the home, neighborhood, or major marketplaces.

The photographs are arranged by four major themes to tease out further women’s roles and contributions. The themes are: work in the domestic environment, work in marketplaces and on major thoroughfares, women and textiles, and Jyoti Sangh workers. Saris and other objects like those depicted in the photographs are displayed and explained alongside the images to provide context. “Notably, the images did not represent their subjects as undignified or victims,” said Trivedi. “The Jyoti Sangh, comprised of politically active upper- and middle-class women, sought to galvanize women of their own class to work for greater social equality and autonomy by encouraging them to work on behalf of women less fortunate than themselves. And, interestingly, Patel’s photographs did not provide a clear impetus to intervene directly on behalf of those pictured, which may explain why the photographs were not, as far as we know, employed for fundraising as they were likely intended.”

Refocusing the Lens also explores the role of amateur photographers like Patel in the context of the early history of Indian photography. A primary school teacher, Patel was a self-taught hobbyist who supplemented his income by taking pictures of social functions around the city. The commission by the Jyoti Sangh, with its ambitious goals and directions, spurred him to develop an untraditional approach to portraiture. He observed his subjects in their environment over the course of a day, returning to photograph in a particular light. His subjects also played a significant role in influencing how he portrayed them; the women pictured chose how they would present themselves for Patel and his camera. He also carefully framed these photographs so that each woman is part of the broader social and economic world in which she plays an active part.

"Documentary photography today can trace its origins to the 1930s, when Pranlal Patel made his series on women workers,” said co-curator Robert Knight, assistant professor of art at Hamilton College. “Patel's approach, similar to that of other prominent photographers at the time, including Henri-Cartier Bresson, utilized a hand-held camera to provide a lyrical fluidity in his compositions and allowed for a greater degree of intimacy with his subjects. By the 1960s and 1970s, traditional social documentary photography was further developed by three distinct kinds of image-makers: photojournalists, commercial photographers, and ‘street photographers.’ Patel’s project can be seen as an important predecessor in this continuum—and, thus, to the contemporary documentary work being done today."

“Refocusing the Lens is exemplary of the cross-disciplinary programming and object-based learning championed by the Wellin Museum of Art,” said Tracy L. Adler, director of the Wellin. “Patel’s photographs of women in early twentieth-century Ahmedabad are important historical and anthropological documents, which are being used to gain greater insight into Indian society and the lives of working women from that era. In addition, pairing the photographs with objects will provide another opportunity for engagement and learning.”

Refocusing the Lens was developed in conjunction with an advanced history seminar taught by Professor Trivedi, which focused on the early twentieth-century history of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The course examined the history of photography and the topics addressed in the exhibition, including Ahmedabad’s textile industry, nationalist politics, social reform, and women’s labor. The course also emphasized the theory and process of curating an exhibition. During the fall semester, students contributed to the exhibition process, assisting with image selection and exhibition layout, among other curatorial tasks.

The exhibition is curated by Lisa Trivedi, associate professor of history at Hamilton College, with Robert Knight, assistant professor of art at Hamilton College. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition with an essay by Professor Trivedi and an interview with Pranlal K. Patel conducted shortly before his death.



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