I grew up in Kashmir, surrounded by women who seemed as though they had no more to lose, by women who mourned husbands and children, who waited for others who never returned, who long ago gave up on their own dreams, however small they might have appeared, by women who merely existed, who barely survived.
It is such women, women who might otherwise appear only the peripheries of stories about conflict or poverty, crime or disease, to whom I am most drawn in my photojournalism. They sometimes exist on the edges of our subcontinent societies – so often sacrificed to archaic customs we embrace as though our very cultures depend upon them. Some of these women’s stories I have felt strongly about, others have moved me, many have carved a place in my heart.
On one assignment, I photographed widows celebrating Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, during which participants throw flower petals and coloured powder and water upon one another. It is an occasion typically marked by exuberance, laughter, dancing and, of course, an abundance of colour – but widows have traditionally been prohibited from sharing in this joy. Often cast out by their families and broader society, regarded as bringing bad luck and blamed for the deaths of their husbands, widows are expected to wear only white, to shave off their hair and to accept exile from their homes.
Located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the holy city of Vrindavan is home to many such widows; women who, after losing their husbands, have been shunned by their families and ostracised by society.
I wanted to show them in a different light – breaking the centuries-old tradition that prevents them from celebrating festivals, for the forgotten women of Vrindavan are now taking part in Holi.
More than 1,000 women celebrate Holi at the Pagal Baba Widow Ashram, a dilapidated building where the widows’ rooms resemble pigeonholes with no ventilation and the women eat, sleep and pray in the same tiny space.
But this image speaks of something less than joyful. The widow may have the colours of Holi on her face and flowers in her hand, but they do little to camouflage the sadness in her eyes. For, beneath these seedlings of change, the hard reality of years, sometimes decades, of rejection remains. And hers is a pain and a denial that flowers cannot redeem. Her story may remain untold, like those of so many other women, but it is no less real for that. When I look at her picture now, I wish I knew the answers to the questions that went unasked.