Looking behind the veil

23 Sep 2018

Let me say up front, I love the gauzy veils of Rajasthan. Yes, I know: it’s an increasingly unfashionable viewpoint in a go-getting, thriving and rapidly urbanising India — and rightly so, as millions of well-educated, high-achieving Indian women compete with dated female stereotypes rooted deeply in traditional social practice.

But speaking purely as a photographer, the veil (ghunghat in the local parlance) is as inextricable a part of the Rajasthan scenery as the lugubrious camels, scratchy desert scrub, blazing blue skies and the bright red turbans of the male population. Lacerating pinks, acidic greens, sharp yellows and blazing reds create head-turning magnets for the camera: it’s almost as if the ladies are saying, well if you’re gonna expect me to hide behind this, I’m gonna make sure you turn and stare anyway.

Debate rages in intellectual circles as to the origins of this spectacular dress tradition. Many believe it had no place in history: the Hindu pantheon is full of powerful, battle-ready female deities, while the epic writings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are similarly chock-full with stories of female bravery and blood-thirsty derring-do. No blushing violets or faint-hearted protection-seekers then: these were women capable of being every bit as bold and aggressive as the best of their male counterparts.

Often, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the invading Mughals — the Muslims who invaded in medieval times and who went on to found India’s Mughal dynasties. Women were safest when invisible from the greedy eyes of men. And from there it was but a short conceptual hop to the veil as a form of modesty, respect and deference.

Today, ghunghat is being questioned and shrugged off everywhere across India. In fact, in southern India, it never ever got off the ground as a dress practice. Its stronghold is in Rajasthan and other mainly rural populations where the old patriarchal models prevail.

Which is yet another great reason to come shoot with us in Rajasthan. Those laser-bright veils will blow your histograms out the water and leave your sensors oversaturated for years to come.

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