Kounteya Sinha’s stunning landmark opens up floodgates for Vrindavan’s widows

The governor of West Bengal decides to fully fund the care of Bengal’s oldest widow, Renu Ma

Kounteya Sinha’s stunning landmark opens up floodgates for Vrindavan’s widows

A pathbreaking show of the most poignant yet happy photographs documenting the invisible lives of Vrindavan’s widows by India’s most powerful visual storyteller, Kounteya Sinha, ‘Lest We Forget: A Sisterhood Called White’ got the Governor of West Bengal, Dr C V Ananda Bose, emotional, making him announce that the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata will bear the cost of care of Bengal’s oldest widow, Renu Ma, for life. Sinha brought Renu Ma to Kolkata and got the city to cut her birthday cake with the governor. She turned 106 years old two days before the show opened at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity on January 13.

The show, which will stay open until today for public viewing, has 35 incredible images in black and white documenting the lives of Vrindavan’s widows from inside the precincts of their ashrams for the first time.

Dr Bose, who was the chief guest at the opening, also announced that ‘The Compassion Fund’ run by the Raj Bhavan, which helps poor people with cancer care and education, will from now on be rechristened ‘The Renu Ma Fund’. The governor, who took Renu Ma’s blessings, also said she, devoid of any jewellery as expected of a widow in India, would be given a 108-bead gold chain from the Raj Bhavan.

Sinha, who brought the city to a standstill with his show, KCC seeing a packed opening marvelling at the repertoire created along with photographer Rana Pandey, said, “I’ve always wanted my work to be an instrument of change that benefits rather than profits. For the governor to make these announcements at the opening of the show reaffirms my belief that change can be brought only if we are brave enough to bring those invisible stories to the forefront.”

Creative director of the show Oiendrila Ray Kapur, who used white saris worn by the widows to do her scenography at the gallery, said, “White is my favourite colour but by choice. But, if it were to be imposed on me, it might not be the same. Red is the colour of every beating heart. The age-old practices that were thrust on widows drained them of that very colour. It’s time that we re-visit these practices with empathy and a human heart.”

She added, “My curation was inspired by a photograph taken by Kounteya some time back. It was an image of rows of sarees hanging to dry, in a riot of colours. I imagined how the same photograph would play out if the colour was taken away. It’d be rows of colourless existence. I put a graphic heart on the ‘pallu’ to symbolise the phrase ‘wearing your heart on your sleeves’. Only, for these women, they hold it in their pallu’s, along with their dignity and a begging bowl, a life taken away while still breathing.”

Sujata Todi from ‘Shrachi’, the patron of the show, said, “This show is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful journey that has so much happiness and positivity on a subject that has always been looked at with grief.” Pandey, who joined Sinha in this discovery, said, “I could never have imagined such a phenomenal opening. Vrindavan has been home to thousands of widows for decades - ostracised and forgotten. The access to this world was given to us by renowned humanitarian Winnie Singh, who has been working on uplifting Vrindavan’s widows for years through her organisation ‘Maitri’. The life inside these ashrams is quite different from public perception. That’s what we wanted to show - the happiness of a sisterhood.”

Renu Ma returned to her home in Bengal for the first time in 10 years. She originally belongs to Belgharia in West Bengal but has been living in Vrindavan’s widow ashrams since 2014. Renu Ma, who can hardly talk now, opened up her life to Sinha by allowing herself to be photographed going about her daily business - from drawing to sketching to praying and even weightlifting exercises. Sinha is a multi-award-winning visual storyteller. He received the Nelson Mandela Leadership Award for Creative Arts at the University of Oxford just recently and is the First European Union Diaspora Fellow, given by the European Union, the first ever to document through photographs and interviews the incredible story of migration by Indians to Europe.

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