Somewhere, in the bylanes of Jafrabad in New Delhi, a 17-year-old college girl, Saba Ikram, unknowingly pays a touching tribute to the late iconic painter Jaimini Roy. In his early career, Roy painted in the Western style, but later decided to discontinue with it and turned to Bengal’s folk painting to give meaning in his art. Just like Roy found his voice by studying the patuas and the Kalighat pats, Ikram found hers through a recently-concluded project called Devi, wherein she documents women's issues of her area through drawings of goddesses inspired by Roy’s art. Ikram belongs to the Sufi Islam community and works with Aseem Asha, who founded the AA Foundation in 2007 and teaches innovative use of new media and documentary films so that art and cinema can bring about social change.
What was life like before you became a part of the AA Foundation?
I’ve been a part of the AA Foundation since two years. We are eight siblings — two brothers and six sisters — and it was one of my elder sisters who first came here three years ago. My parents make surmedanis (bottles that hold black, powdered kajal), and art and documentaries weren’t really a part of my life until my sister began telling me stories I barely understood. All I could pick up then was that she went to a place that taught her painting, gardening and that she made short films. Once she came home and squealed about how she had been interviewed by a newspaper. I’ll never forget the way her eyes shone. That was when I mustered the will to ask her to take me along, too.
What changed at the Foundation?
I was a different person before I came here. This is something I can admit only now, because I feel better that I’ve changed. I wasn’t really interested in education. I dropped out of school two years ago and now study privately. All I cared about was meeting friends. A year ago, when my parents wanted me to get married, I refused not because I wanted to do something more with my life, but because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hang around with friends that often. Women’s issues and rights were concepts I hadn’t heard of before I came here. I lived my life by only one, simple ideology, if I can call it that — I am a girl, and girls don’t have layers, dimensions or something ‘to do’.
We are born, we get married (to a good boy only if we are lucky) and spend our lives tending to their needs. But here, I was being asked to think, to question and to create. I didn’t know how. Through discussions and conversations with other women from my community who came here, we realised how our gender decides our ‘value’ in society — and the results are barely in our favour.
Did incidents of gender discrimination and sexual harassment incidents prompt you to work on Devi?
I’d be lying if I said I always felt strongly about it — as I said, I didn’t ‘think’ at all. But yes, after I was introduced to gender-based concepts, I began seeing these incidents differently. Last year, during Navratri, a Hindu friend spoke to me about the different avtars (forms) of devi (goddess) and I was mesmerised by the mythology and meaning.
I spoke to other women in my community, both in and out of the AA Foundation, and told them that we should put down our experiences on paper, through Devi’s drawings. Aseem introduced me to the painting style of Jatin Das and Jaimini Roy. I tried to pick it up and show domestic violence, harassment and dowry-related issues through my drawings. For instance, through one drawing, I try to show how marriage, which is considered to be a holy relationship, is often barbaric when a man beats up his pregnant wife. In another one, a man steals his wife’s ornaments and the Devi appears to punish him. I’ve seen that happening very often — alcoholic men stealing money or gold from their wives.
What do your parents and relatives think of your project?
My parents weren’t too happy with it when I started out, because I am Muslim and we don’t believe in creating or worshipping images of our gods. My relatives told my parents that I am doing work that is ‘haraam’ according to our religion. But I insisted, and still do, that my work stands for an idea — not a religion. You find women in every religion, don’t you? So, I am just speaking of stree shakti (the power of a woman). Is that so wrong? This is the first time I am creating something and helping girls and women from my community — who have either seen or experienced these ills — to get a voice.