Gayatri Ganju always knew that no matter where she ended up in the world, she would always come back to Bangalore, South India. As a documentary photographer, there are an abundance of stories that could have taken Gayatri to any geographical corner. But for a photojournalist who prefers to work up close and intimate with her subjects, it is the stories that shed light on her native country that are always the most interesting to tell.
In Uttar Pradesh, nearly 2,000 kilometres north of Bangalore, the small rural town of Tirwa lies not far from the Nepalese border. In recent years, the town has generated a significant amount of buzz both nationally and internationally. Not for its tales of torture, corruption or misogyny – an angle common to the Western gaze – but because of a group of low-caste women, banding together in vigilante spirit, and forcing the patriarchy to be held accountable for their actions.
“It was otherworldly,” Gayatri explains on photographing these women, known as The Green Gang. Relaying her “incredible”, week-long experience with the group, the photographer tells It’s Nice That: “I was able to witness a really really strong sense of belonging that these women have. They gain a lot of confidence and a feeling of self worth from being in the gang.”
Founded by a phenomenal woman, Angoori Dahariya who is based in Tirwa, the group which now consists of approximately 14,000 women across the country, was started by this single activist to protect and defend low-caste women like herself. After suffering both physically and mentally at the hands of high-caste officials, because of her status in society, Angoori was evicted from her hard earned plot of land, beaten and left homeless alongside her family. In an almighty tale of self-recovery and after years of tireless work, eventually, she started The Green Gang as a way to prevent such events from happening ever again.
For days, Gayatri stayed with Angoori, sharing a bed with the group’s founder and becoming an adopted member of the gang. “There were so many phenomenal stories of incredible courage and strength,” adds the photographer. In one instance, on the last day of Gayatri’s visit, “a woman was beaten up by her father and brother over some money dispute” she recalls, “and came to meet Angoori and some of the other women. She was immediately taken in under their wing. It’s just a huge support system,” she emphasises on the group’s significance.
In a country with “a huge amount of bureaucracy”, The Green Gang not only offer emotional and physical support for women in need, but their help is also practical. They welcome helpless women to feel part of a strong community, empowering them to see their low-caste status in a different light. Not just a disadvantage but a vehicle for revolutionary change. Each woman’s story highlights a determination to survive in spite of the mental or physical scars they have suffered.
In other instances, the group provide the necessary support for many of the women who have to battle through severe levels of bureaucracy just to do something as seemingly simple as filing an official report. “A lot of people get phased by this,” says Gayatri on the excessive system, “especially if you haven’t been schooled about it, but the gang really help with this.” Recalling back to the instance during her visit, Gayatri continues: “They took her to the police station, they took her to the notary office to file an official complaint, holding her hand through every step of the way. This is the kind of support she would not have had anywhere else, because most people just aren’t aware, or don’t have access to this kind of knowledge.”
Originally commissioned by The California Sunday Magazine and written by Elizabeth Flock, Gayatri’s photographs accompany an extensive article on The Green Gang, its conception, members and overall capacity to empower and defend women in India. And though there have been a number of critiques raised, including issues of power-play and one particularly insensitive case, all in all, Angoori has managed to spawn a feminist movement that helps women see themselves in a different way.
“From what I saw,” says Gayatri, “there are literally men jumping out of the way when these women walk down the street. They just have so much confidence and you can see it in the way they walk with their heads held high and in their body language. The feeling is very strong and you can see it in the way they interact with other men and women in the village too.” It is in this vein, that Gayatri captures the power of these women through photography.
Handling the story with “a huge amount of respect and responsibility”, taking care to consider the power dynamic between photographer and subject, Gayatri took the time to gain the respect of The Green Gang before photographing them. “I find the more honest and vulnerable I am with my interactions, the better the work,” she continues. “It’s an ongoing struggle for me, trying not to tell other peoples’ stories for them and I’m always questioning: ‘What is my role and why I am I the one doing this?’”
Mindful of how it could seem to the women, “coming from a big city with expensive equipment and setting up in peoples’ safe spaces,” Gayatri’s number one priority is to “be really clear on what my intentions are and why I am doing this.” For the portraits setting, she asked the women to take her to a space where they felt strong. Then, she gave them some time to think about how they would want to sit for the photograph while making “the process as collaborative as possible," allowing each women to dictate how they wanted to be portrayed.
“With my job,” she goes on to say, “being able to be in situations, travel, but most importantly interact with people, is what I love most and find the most rewarding.” For Gayatri, making the photographs comes secondary to “these incredible interactions” that leave a lasting impact on both herself and the audience she channels the story through to. Living in a vast and diverse country approximately 13 times bigger than the UK, Gayatri is witness to the multiplicity of universes that can be found in the smallest, poorest and most confined of areas, as seen through her depictions of The Green Gang.
“But also,” she concludes, “what I find more and more, with this story and with other people I interact with, is that things can be both black and white. People can be incredibly tender and can be incredibly brutal as well. Both these things can exist in the same person and this kind of duality is something that the Eastern way of thinking has accepted for a long time.”
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