Kounteya Sinha to unveil ‘Lest We Forget: A Sisterhood Called White’

The globally renowned storyteller, for the first time, lives and documents Bengal widows from inside their ashrams

Kounteya Sinha to unveil ‘Lest We Forget: A Sisterhood Called White’

An extraordinary repertoire of work is all set to open Kolkata’s art and culture calendar in 2024 with the loudest bang. India’s most powerful visual storyteller, Kounteya Sinha, is all set to unveil his latest body of work, ‘Lest We Forget: A Sisterhood Called White’, which, for the first time, looks at the invisible lives of Vrindavan’s widows from the inner sanctums of their ashrams, making him the first man ever to get such access.

The show will open at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity on January 13 to the who’s who from across India and will allow art connoisseurs to revel in the sheer magic of the most powerful and insightful storytelling. Vrindavan has been home to thousands of widows for decades, ostracised and forgotten. Almost 90 percent of such women are from Bengal. But interestingly, this body of tremendously incisive work shows their life in a new India with dignity, devotion and hope.

Sinha, known globally for his unparalleled human storytelling, said, “This is the first time that the nuances of their changed better life in a new India have been documented from inside the precincts of the ashrams, making us the first men to ever have lived with them, closely following their daily life of devotion and dignity.” The access to this world was given to Sinha by renowned humanitarian Winnie Singh, who has been working on uplifting Vrindavan’s widows for years through her organisation ‘Maitri’.

“ ‘Maitri’ has two ashrams in Vrindavan called ‘MaitriGhar’. Over 100 elderly abandoned widow mothers live in each of the ashrams. We started the project ‘Jeevan’ (widows of Vrindavan) in 2010, meant to give a life of identity, dignity and respect to vulnerable elderly widows. We ensured they didn’t beg anymore. All their needs are fulfilled with food, healthcare and clothes. We have ensured their right to citizenship. They all have Aadhar cards and zero bank accounts and ensure they know whatever government schemes may come and exist and their money will be directly put in their account. This gave them a lot of security in the mind,” Singh said.

She added, “Pension cards have been made for them. We initially found mothers who didn’t want to spend even one rupee fearing the event of death. We take them on excursions. We have successfully relocated seven mothers back into their families with counselling. We have engaged them in skill-building and income-generation programs. Slow and steady, they will become entrepreneurs.”

Photographer Rana Pandey, who joined Sinha in creating this unparalleled repertoire said, “In the widow ashrams, each day commences with a ‘parikrama’ (circling the temples for 1.5 hours). They express newfound peace and attribute it to Radhe Rani. It appears as if they’ve remarried Radhe Ma and found a contentment that contrasts sharply with their previous unhappiness. Post-parikrama, a dedicated yoga session unfolded under the guidance of an ashram instructor, fostering physical and mental well-being. Subsequently, a nourishing meal of milk and fruits was provided, serving as sustenance for their daily routines.”

Pandey added "Upon stepping into the ashrams in Vrindavan, my initial impression was that of a serene sanctuary, with women draped in white garments. Originating from various corners of India, particularly West Bengal, these resilient women shared a common thread of loss and found solace in the ashram's embrace".

He added "Engaging in heartfelt conversations with the widows unraveled poignant life stories marked by tragedy and heartbreak. Many had endured mistreatment from their family members after the loss of their husbands – physical and mental abuse and eviction from their homes. Some had witnessed the loss of husbands and sons to hereditary diseases, prompting their pilgrimage to Vrindavan in search of solace,” Pandey says.

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