CHENNAI: If you’ve had a look at one of the infamous cartoons published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo taking a dig at the state of women in India, then you wouldn’t disagree with what renowned art historian Stephen P Huyler has to say. Not even a bit. “Indian women are greatly misperceived in the West,” says Huyler with a sigh, speaking to City Express on the sidelines of the launch of the book The House that Sonabai Built, which took place at Spaces, Besant Nagar recently. “They just look at them as victims,” he adds with a sense of desolation.
While Huyler, who’s also a cultural anthropologist and photographer, thinks that it is the image created by the media that makes people form such an opinion about the Indian women, he tells us that his experience has been completely different. “I don’t deny that terrible things happen to women in India, but they happen elsewhere as well. Why single out India?” queries Huyler, who has done an inter-departmental major in Indian Cultures. “And so, I basically wanted to make people in the West aware that Indian women don’t actually think of themselves as victims but that they are strong, self-reliant and determined to rise above adversities,” he adds.
And this is why Huyler had come up with the book Daughters of India in 2008 and Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing in 2009. While the first one documented stories narrated by 20 women across India, the latter was a book about a villager from the Puputra village of Surguja district in Chhattisgarh. Says Huyler, who has been doing a cross cultural survey of Indian women since 1971,“I had to contradict myself as a cross cultural surveyor, because then, I had decided to concentrate on the life of Sonabai alone. And this was simply because Sonabai’s life was so remarkable. It exemplified how a common woman rose above her own adversities.”
Talking about his experience on working on Sonabai’s story, he shares, “Though I first met her in 1986 in New Delhi at an art exhibition, I could visit her village only much later. I then spent parts of years in her village interviewing her, her family and community. She was shy but very welcoming. Eventually, I made a documentary film on her and then a little later, organised an exhibition in the United States. It was a way to show a slice of life in India to the West.”
The documentary film received many awards and accolades, and Tulika Publishers, which publishes books exclusively for children, approached him after being deeply inspired by the earlier book Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing. “I was asked if I could provide photographs for the book. And I readily agreed, ” he shares.
Ask him how important the story of Sonabai is and he smiles. “This book is a way just to prove to the children that the future is indeed in their hands and that they can rise above adversities by reinventing their life,” he says. “And for me, this message needs to reach the children of India,” he signs off.
The House that Sonabai Built is authored by Vishaka Chanchani and priced at `250.