Stories about women in India from a century ago

Neeta Premchand and some of the women featured in her work, Changemakers ....

Neeta Premchand and some of the women featured in her work, Changemakers ….
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A 27-minute documentary film — Changemakers – The Extraordinary lives of Ordinary women in the Bombay Presidency — made by Rupa Barua and curated by Neeta Premchand will be screened in Bengaluru.

“I am a paper maker and a paper historian who had nothing to do with filmmaking or art exhibitions,” says 77-year-old Neeta. “It all started when we were closing up our house in Mumbai and found an entire archive of material about my husband’s grandmother, Taraben Premchand. I was planning to give the file to the Tata Institute of Social Services so they could work with it but was advised by a close friend to work on it myself.”

The file lay forgotten when the family shifted to Switzerland. It was during the pandemic that I revisited the archive and it was fascinating to see miniature handwritten documents of the many social gatherings that had happened almost a century ago. At that time the chairperson would document the events and that is how my grand mother-in-law had the file. I recognised many of the names from the archives, because most of my friends were descendants of the names mentioned in the archive.”

Neeta  then decided to call her friends and asked them to share any story or pictures that they had about their grandmothers and grand aunts. “That was also when the museum CSMVS (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) was looking for a topic for their centenary celebrations. My in-laws, the Premchand family, were on the committee, and they told me to work on the archive I had. That is how, I became a curator, collecting data about the women and their principal ideas which I believe was the beginning of the women’s movement in India. The women were trying to break stereotypes and move away from the patriarchal set up,” says Neeta, who managed to collect information from primary sources. “I wanted to collect ordinary stories of the extraordinary work of these women that also captured the essence of what it was to be a woman a 100 years ago. I met people who did remember stories about their grandmothers and aunts.”

Neeta exhibited her curation as art works, The Changemakers – The Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary — in galleries and museums, first in Mumbai and then Ahmedabad.

“The exhibitions were a success. Many people from my generation came, as most of us knew the women featured in some way or the other. Looking to document these stories in a permanent format, we came out with a book. Sanjana Shah, who was working with me, helped me convert the material into a book. Changemakers – The Extraordinary lives of Ordinary Women in the Bombay Presidency,  features 50 women social reformers. I feel guilty about leaving out the rest. There is only this much a mind can take. Then, Rupa Barua, a film-maker did a screen adaptation of the book and that is how the documentary came into being, which has been touring the country and we are in Bengaluru for the same”.

What united these women was their passion, even though they came from different social and economic backgrounds. It was a fight for liberation, but in a gentle way of pressing ahead for what they believed in and wanted to achieve. Each woman saw a need and worked towards it. One must recognise the contribution of these women,” says Neeta.

The film will be screened on December 12 at The Bangalore International Centre, Domlur, 6.30pm and is open to all.

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