It could be a prima ballerina, running through the streets, performing a fouetté from The Red Shoes. Or a filmmaker who shot in the Himalayas and counts Amrita Pritam and Dilip Kumar among her great-aunts. On some of the women found at the museum’s Forgotten Women of India gallery, “they looked very distinctively from every other woman in the gallery,” says Vaid-Menon.
The gallery exists to counter stereotypes and mark India’s progress towards gender equality. Ever since the 13th century, when women were forbidden from working in the fields and nude portraits were highly prized, she notes, but over the centuries, “they were relegated to the lowest positions”.
The tears beneath that sparkling veil
Vaid-Menon drew on her own experience while researching the gallery. Having grown up, as half of an orphaned family, in rural Bengal, she worked for three years in a village school, and by the time she reached university, had a husband and three children. “I thought that even if men are superior, as in Western society, I was a strong, independent woman,” she recalls. “It came to the point when I thought I would never work again, and didn’t want to,” she says. “I never questioned what made me tick.”
But Vaid-Menon came across the shifting gender inequality in Indian society, particularly within rural communities, where self-expression and expression of gender are strongly linked.
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At first, she says, she saw men as better off and promoted this idea of superiority, until she discovered some of her own achievements. “I came to realise that if a man had made it into this situation, that he had done it,” she recalls.
“And you could have told me five years earlier,” she adds, “because I’d never seen anything different, never felt anything different. The only difference was when I saw myself in the mirror, and knew I did have this other side.”