Sorry for the long bout of silence. So much has been going on over the last few weeks that I knew I would not be able to keep up with the blog so decided to wait until I had the time to describe everything in detail. That said the workshop progressed quickly into the third week when preparations for the exhibition took over from the emphasis on teaching and the wedding at the guesthouse started its five day marathon (more about that another day!). At this time I did an edit with each girl of the work to date to collect their strongest four images for the show. I was surprised to find that although the girls much preferred the fixed focus plastic cameras I had got them in Jodhpur most of the best images they had taken were with the Olympus Trip cameras at the start of the workshop! It just goes to show that despite some of the girl’s focusing issues the Trip was a good tool for them to use and the addition of a flash, though useful in allowing them to photograph inside their homes, created images with a more uniform uninspiring light. Overall, however, what was most important was that each and every girl had at least four strong images that stood out from the others and some many more than that.
Next came the daunting task of printing the pictures to a high enough quality for the show. Having seen the quality of development to date this was not a task for the faint hearted! With this in mind and the success of the flier that Kerry had had digitally printed I decided that the digital option might prove cheaper and more successful than using the lab. I quickly realised I could not have been more wrong and had at least left a few days grace in which to do a couple of test runs. As poor Kerry, who helped orchestrate the show, came back from the copy shop with increasingly horrendous efforts I soon realised that it was time to abandon ship and to face my fears of Indian development front on.
My earlier attempt at getting an exhibition quality print had resulted in me arriving at the lab to be proudly handed a picture that looked like it had been crumpled up and thrown in the bin prior to being put in my hand. I couldn’t help but laugh and looked at the guy in dismay when I realised this was no joke and was in fact what he considered an exhibition quality print. And so it was with this in mind that I lay in bed dreading the next morning when I knew I had just over a day to be at the lab and somehow through bribery, flattery or force coax out of them forty exhibition quality prints and that from a man who was by this point not my number one fan and who quite frankly seemed to think I was mad.
I arrived there the next morning with the ubiquitous box of sweets in hand and set about the complex first step of explaining which negs I needed printed, what size and what quality I was looking for. I next explained to the guy that I would be staying at the lab until they were done and would look over each print as it was produced to ensure that they were of a high enough quality. At first the guy kept assuring me that if I returned at 6 that evening they would be done and in true Indian style pretended not to understand anything else I said in the hope that I would go away. He obviously had no idea how stubborn I can be though I noticed realisation begin to dawn in his eyes as I settled myself in a corner of the shop with my laptop and started to work. Initially he would occasionally emerge from the back room and either ignore me or, glancing in my direction, he would shake his head on his way back to his inner sanctum. Eventually he caught on and giving up all hope that I would disappear from the face of the earth any time soon I was ushered into the back room where development took place. Here I sat for the next few hours desperately trying to get him to forget the habit of a lifetime and instead take pride in his work by slowing down enough to at least try and get the correct colour balance and contrast for each picture. After a while the prints started to improve though I continued to have to fight him at every turn and when I commented on how good it felt to do a job well all I received unsurprisingly was a grunt in return. I was at this point pushing my luck to expect anything less. I am pleased to say, though perhaps delusional in my belief, that by the end of our time together some kind of mutual respect had emerged even if it was just the recognition of an equally strong and stubborn will!!
Less than three hours later I emerged victoriously into the sunshine with forty respectable quality prints in my arms. The worst I thought was over for if nothing else we now at least had pictures to put on the walls that the girls could be proud of. The next step should be easy. The room in the Mini Auditorium was booked after endless trips between there and the town hall. The room came with the hire of eight boards to put the pictures on and Kerry had been ensured the room would be cleaned that morning (the third morning in a row she had been promised that but always better to remain hopeful!!) Kerry had brilliantly discovered some black material to cover the boards and her and Djamila had worked hard the day before to get the boards covered. It seemed everything was in place.
Once again how wrong one can be!! Despite the fact that the men at the Auditorium had had a fit when they saw Kerry and Djamila lifting the boards into the room the day before no one seemed willing to actually help. Whilst it was unacceptable for women such as ourselves to do any work it seemed equally unacceptable for anyone there to think of lifting a finger or get dirty themselves. As many of you probably know I am not the most hygienic person in the world but even by my standards the room we had hired was filthy, the floor was covered with a thick carpet of dust and the stairs leading to it awash with pigeon shit. When I went down to ask the men on duty why the room was yet to be cleaned I was proudly informed that the cleaners were booked to come at one o’ clock the next day which was, as I tried unsuccessfully to point out, not very useful as this would be right in the middle of the exhibition itself and possibly not the best time to get out the mops and shine everyone’s shoes! Once again I was faced with that now familiar determination to pretend I neither existed nor could be understood despite the fact that both the men I was talking to had conversed in English perfectly well only a second earlier. I can only describe the sensation as like trying to communicate with someone who is deaf, dumb and blind and I soon realised any protestation on my part would be in vein. The only thing to do was to get on and clean the place ourselves. After much shuffling and baffled exchanges I was handed a battered bucket and a mop that took the form of the dirtiest rag I have ever seen tied to an old broom handle merrily oozing a black liquid onto the floor in front of my feet. Shaking my head and looking in despair at the blank faces in front of me I returned to the room and Kerry, Djamila, Nina and I started the impossible task of cleaning a filthy floor with an even filthier rag. We soon abandoned the rag and resorted to buckets of water hoping that a tidal wave might shift the grim at least a little. Even now I am not sure our heroic efforts made any noticeable difference but at least it felt better to act and feel as if we were solving the problem rather than to stand around listening to people who didn’t want us to do it ourselves but equally didn’t want to help.
Having finished with the floor I soon discovered that no one had thought to check the stands the boards were meant to sit on and having found them lying in an overlooked corner I soon established that most of them were missing the feet necessary for them to stand and the screws that were necessary to attach the boards to them. All in all not a great help! Once again the men at the Auditorium seemed as uninterested as ever so we resorted to phoning the man in charge in the hope that we might find someone who could help or at least offer a practical solution. When he eventually arrived I pointed out the problem and the fact that we had paid good money for the use of the boards and had at least expected them to be in working order. I pointed out to him that the predicament we found ourselves in seemed a little unfair as there did not seem to be any problem with the boards downstairs that they had used the day before to put up their own exhibition and it was interesting that while we were paying a lot more money no one had bothered to tell us that the boards they had rented us were to all intense purposes unusable. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was when he actually seemed to understand where I was coming from (not mars for a change) and even assured me he wanted to help.
Ten minutes later I could have cried as he showed me his solution in the form of a board that was precariously balanced between two broken stands with the help of a piece of string that wouldn’t last five minutes let alone the six hours of the exhibition. Swallowing my frustration I tried to politely point out that his solution would inevitably lead to all the boards collapsing and no doubt maiming any visitors to the exhibition we might have. I once again showed him an example of the type of screws we needed and asked him to buy twenty of them to which he immediately informed me that though he of course wanted to help what I asked was impossible as no one made those screws any longer. He couldn’t quite meet my eye as I questioned him as to whether there was really no where in the whole city where these screws were to be found and he assured me it was impossible though we both knew that to be untrue and he was just unwilling to take the time or energy to help. Once again I realised there was no point standing around arguing with him and that our time would be better spent searching for the missing screws ourselves.
We set off brandishing the single screw we had in hand and engaged the first tuk tuk driver that came along to help us in our mission to scour the city of Jodhpur for more. As we were rushed across the city I realised what a goose chase we might be on as we knew neither where we were going nor what we would find at the other end. My fears were alleviated a little when we pulled up at a hardware store though I became a bit disheartened when two hardware stores later we were still no closer to achieving our goal. Surely in India, the land where anything can be found or made in a heartbeat, we could muster twenty relatively simple screws. After the third attempt we were about to surrender and settle for having the boards on the floor at perfect Indian squatting height when our driver came up trumps in the form of a blacksmith who inspected the screws and assured us it would be no problem to make twenty in an hour for a minimal cost. I know it is small minded of me but at that moment I wanted to make sure that when we left the Auditorium after the show we took the twenty screws away with us having received so little help from them and having been treated with such disregard. You will be glad to hear that when the time came I triumphantly rose above such petty mindedness and left the screws in place so that the next person who has an exhibition there will have at least one less thing to worry about.
Anyway I have strayed wildly from the story in hand, the exhibition. All in all I would call it a great success if for no other reason than the fact that the girls seemed to have a good time and many of the pictures were bought by other volunteers and those staying at the Guesthouse. The drama demonstration was wonderful and it was amazing for me to see how much confidence the girls had developed since the first afternoon I had sat in on the theatre workshop. Though I am obviously biased the girls’ pictures looked great and I was proud to see their work hanging on the walls. Only one of the girl’s mothers came which I was sad about as I would have loved to have seen more of their families there and to breach the gap that seems to exist between the Trust and the girl’s families but it was still wonderful that Sapna’s mum came and it reaffirmed for me where Sapna gets her incredible strength from. The day was perhaps a little long and I was frustrated to discover that no on had thought to tell us that the girls had not been expected to stay so long and as a result might get in trouble for not being home earlier. An annoying oversight as the last thing I wanted was for the girls to return from a fun day to problems at home that might also result in someone dropping out and Tamanah having to work hard again to reassure the girls’ families and persuade them to come back to Sambhali. I found oversights like this quite difficult to deal with but overall it really was a great day and everyone involved had a lot of fun.
The official part of the day can’t really be considered a success as, regardless of all Kerry’s efforts and the numerous official letters we were instructed to write and despite their assurances to the contrary, the District Collector did not make an appearance and nor did anyone from the press. It is the complexities and difficulties of bureaucracy here that make this unsurprising though interesting to see how much stock people put on these things. It was however exciting for the girls that Govind was there to look at the exhibition and to watch the girl’s performance and though I was unsure about prize giving I was relieved to see how genuinely happy the girls were for Bhavna, Radha and Sapna when the results were announced. It was a shame that Priyanka, whose work was so strong was not there to receive a prize and due to the mixed messages concerning her lack of attendance it is hard for me to really understand why she did not make an appearance and has not come back to Sambhali since.
For me the highlight of the day was when no one official was there and we all danced together and created an inpromptude talent show that had us all laughing for a long time after. The girls were happy and carefree and it is that I realise more than anything that is what Sambhali gives them, the freedom to make friends and be young and playful away from homes where many of them have no time to play and have responsibilities within their families that stretch way beyond their age. There is so much for me still to process about the workshop and about the way we really help these girls that it is hard to write about cohesively yet. Sometimes whilst teaching the girls I wondered whether the things I was teaching them could ever truly relate to their world or add anything of value to their lives. I don’t think photography will play a role in any of their futures and it is hard to know whether encouraging them to know and to speak their own minds is helpful for them or not. The society they live in is based on totally different values than our own. Values of family and community are still held in higher esteem than those of the individual and when this works and people come from good homes I see more genuine worth, generosity and happiness in this way of live than in much of our own. It is only when something goes wrong or someone abuses this sense of community that I see what a trap for people, especially women, these close family units and communities can become. For this reason alone it is vital for women to have access to education and external influences.
I had a long chat with Sunyana where I am staying in Dundlod about how education can really help and the false expectations access to education can create. The question is what happens to these children after they are educated? What do they do with what they have learnt? How can they really benefit from the knowledge they have gained? She told an interesting story about a local school that opened here with the help of an NGO and about the difficulty of the director to explain to the children’s mothers and grandparents why they should send their children to school (something that seemed a continuous problem at Sambhali amongst the dalit girls). Sunyana said that after he had spoken she asked the women whether they understood what he had said and many of them looked on blankly. She then spoke to them about their own lives and the lives of their daughters explaining that if nothing else access to education might enable their daughters to write to them once they are married and have left the family home. Until this point many women could only send letters with the help of the postman who wrote those letters for them and then circulated their news as gossip throughout the community. If the girls learnt to write for themselves they could communicate freely with each other and express what was in their hearts without a man to act as a go between. If they were in trouble or unhappy in their new homes they could communicate this to their families privately. It is in simple terms such as these that education can help and, like at Sambhali, in offering a refuge where the girls are free to be carefree for a short time. The girls at Sambhali seem totally aware that this is a brief refuge for them from their chores at home or their impending marriages and they are grateful for that but they don’t seem to expect or ask for anything more.
Anyway like I say there is a lot swirling around my mind as a result of my time at Sambhali and a lot I have yet to understand. One thing is certain is that I have learnt more than I ever imagined and that, cliché though it is, I will never forget my time with Tamanah and the girls and I will always remember each and every one of them and the inspiring photographs they took. I would like to thank them all and once I am no longer on the move and have made it back to the UK I will post more of the pictures the girls took and those that made it onto the walls of the Mini Auditorium. No doubt their images can tell you more about the reality of their lives than I ever can.