16th-18th March 2023

An archival exhibition tracing the feminist history of Tezpur town and the larger Brahmaputra Valley.

Northeast Lightbox is honoured to share Sisters of Tezpur, an archival exhibition tracing the evolution of feminist history in the Brahmaputra Valley. The exhibition is on view at Tezpur Mahila Samiti premises from 16th – 18th March 2023.

Curated from the archives of Tezpur Mahila Samiti, a grassroots voluntary organisation, the collection weaves a history of the women’s movement in the Brahmaputra Valley. The exhibition traces the politics of the town of Tezpur, aiming to highlight an alternate feminist history of the region through the efforts of the Samiti from the 1920s to the early 2000s.

Mahila samitis, which translates to women’s committees, sprung up across the towns of the Assam Valley from the 1920s as sites of mobilization for the fight against the British rule by and for women. Becoming safe spaces of feminist solidarity, freedom and empowerment, these Mahila Samitis signalled women’s expression of freedom, values of teamwork and their individual and social strength, continuing to play an influential role in the regional post-independent Assamese society.

Highlighting the non mainstream history of Assam through means of overlooked narratives, the exhibition focussed to raise questions about how collective memory can serve as evidence against the contemporary - through dilemmas, through questions, through silences and explorations of marginalised pasts.


Leisure For Women

In a patriarchal society, how do women find the self-expression and freedom to collectively express their own identities? When sites of labour demarcate divisions of time, the collective communitarian ties of women who got together often defied norms of patriarchy and provided a safe space of companionship. Through female friendships, and the simple act of getting together – be it in a public or private space, women found a safe space against judgment to express shared sentiments which later translated to social change.

In the formative years of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti, the spaces of the buildings of Poki and Baan Theatre

Time for a woman moved round the clock in that age, with household chores and domestic duties. It was only in the time after lunch, and before dinner that these women found a time for themselves, and the Samiti, in 1948, passed a resolution changing the lunch times to be at 12 pm sharp to provide women the time for leisure during noon – a decision which forced a public outcry from men who were convinced that all of this time would be wasted! 

Women in Unison

What happens when women come together? The spaces of togetherness, solidarity, and comfort that women bring to one another is often a protest against the drudgery of everyday life. Through safe spaces of companionship, women found – and continue to find in each other expansions of comfort and confidentiality. Often, patriarchal frames of power seek to isolate women, and keep them bound to the labours of the household. In 198, when the women of the Samti sought to change meal times to allow for more leisure time for women after lunch, a public outcry arose that these women would go on wasting their noontimes, and threaten the stability of the household!

Through the spaces of companionship in the Samiti, even amidst work, women had the chance to escape the monotony of toil, and found friendship and cheer. Such sites and the roles of unity forged bonds of support that extended beyond the lines of simply institutional gatherings, which lasted for lifetimes.

During times of political strife, such as during the freedom struggle, the Indo China tensions of the 1960s, and the militancy periods of the 80s-90’s, everyday life was struck by disruptions of state, leading to uncertainty and fear.  Sites of female friendship provided a sense of stability and comfort to mothers, wives, and daughters who were often left alone as their husbands, sons, and fathers often became absent for long periods of time. In such times, when the scrutiny of the state went hand in hand with the threat of violence and assault, the mere act of visiting each other or being part of a women’s collective provided a means for women to carve a life which held for them a sense of control and comfort. 

Women, coming together and accepting each other, obfuscated lines of patriarchal control by women giving each other a safe space to contextualize shared experiences and sentiments universally, allowing the legitimation of expressions of solidarity, happiness, grief and rage, which have historically been dismissed by men.  When women support women, change becomes possible from discussions to implementation: through policies, schemes, or simply – small acts that affect and upturn schedules. When women support women, they can change the world.

Archives as Emotions

How can archives contest the patriarchy through a feminist framework? In curating the archives of historical sources, the eye of the observer has to distinguish the tones and moods of the archives- through visual sources, this is often by trying to understand the camera’s gaze. A more formal, official gaze of the camera – through administrative settings or official photographs, sets up shots with a power balance, where there is a curation of performative officiality for the camera, through modesty and decorum.

In more intimate photos, such as those found in private photos from family albums, however, when the camera is held by a friend or a fellow member, the gaze is more relaxed, and gives us a glimpse into a world that is more intimate, close knit, and relaxed. Curating visual narratives of feminism beyond the male gaze subverts the objectification of the female body: the camera, when held by the friend, captures emotions, and feelings where sentiments like joy and anxieties are expressed openly without judgment. Even within a patriarchy, women carved their own space of solidarity, friendship, and community, being present in each other’s sorrows and happiness that the camera had been a witness to.

Such archival practices also show how women’s labour at the grassroots were threaded with undercurrents of friendship, solidarity, and community strength. 

The exhibition is supported by Tezpur Mahila Samiti, Indian Association for Women's Studies and Tezpur University

Exhibition Design and Curation - Northeast Lightbox in collaboration with Chingrimi Shimray
Sound piece by Ruhi Kashyap
Exhibition Text by Anidrita Saikia
Films - Mihin Xuta by Aparna Sharma and Bhaskar Jyoti Das; Memory, Xeitu Monot Ase by Dr. Hemjyoti Medhi
Exhibition pictures by Rahul Barman

All the Archival materials are owned by Tezpur Mahila Samiti