His warm smile and down-to-earth demeanour belie the excellence and extent of the work that Sudharak Olwe has achieved in three decades as a one of India’s foremost social documentary photographers. While he held prominent positions as a photojournalist in mainstream newspapers in Mumbai, shooting hard-hitting news stories as well as candid portraits of the Who’s Who of the country, he has always been very passionate about bringing to light issues and atrocities faced by the marginalised and oft-ignored sections of society.
From his award-winning and most memorable series of stark black-and-white images capturing the shocking reality of conservancy workers, who clean urban drains, to compelling portraits of refugee children in Sweden; from intimate photo-stories of the lives of women who have survived domestic violence in Uttar Pradesh,to documenting atrocities against Dalits in Maharashtra,to reporting on maternal health and childbirth among the Ho tribals of rural Jharkhand, his pictures have not only spoken a thousand words, but also impacted many lives positively. Much like his own work, the Photography Promotion Trust that he founded in 2005 is a non-profitorganisation aimed at mentoring photographers to create definitive change in thelives of socially marginalised communities. Sudharak is certainly true to his name, which literally means ‘reformer’.
It’s no wonder that the Akola-born and Mumbai-based photographer was conferred the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, in 2016, by the President of India, in recognition of his valuable and tireless work. Sudharak, who was also one of the four awardees for the National Geographic’s ‘All roads photography programme’ in 2005, hasworked on a number of books and exhibited in numerous galleries, art festivals and institutions across India, Sweden, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, the USA, Cambodia, Japan and Germany.
Photo series: Married to the Goddess
While he worked on documenting the lives lived in the seedy underbelly of Mumbai’s red-light district Kamathipura, he got to know of an archaic ritual that is ironically still performed in what is perhaps India’s most modern city. He explains the background of this photo series he has worked on most recently, “In India, we have had the concept of Devadasis or ‘servants of God’ from as far back as the tenth century. Young girls are givenaway to be married to Goddess Yellamma (also known as Renuka), a popular Hindu deity, who is consideredthe goddess of the poor, downtrodden and exiled class of society.”According to Sudharak, the followers of Yellamma, once educated as accomplished artists and courtesans, are today, mostly poor and illiterate individuals, who dedicate their lives to the Goddess when they are unable to face the hardships of life. They have to earn their livelihood by begging for food also known as ‘jog’. One of the most mysterious and misunderstood aspects of this community is their intention to serve their deity by attending to the needs of the people, which includes fulfilling the sexual urges of men. This has led to the common belief that they practise prostitution and thus their living in the red-light district even if they are not sex workers. “At Kamathipura, there are about 12,000 Devadasis, including women and the Hijra (eunuch, hermaphrodite or transgender) community. In time, I was able to build trust and talk to them and eventually, to document this ritual that is very important to them,” says Sudharak.
Known as Keech, the ritual that has been taking place for more than 140 yearsduring the full moon in Decemberinvolves a holy havan, after which a ‘divinely possessed’ Devadasi or Hijra walks over burning charcoal to experience the pain the goddess had to go through when she was exiled by her husband who suspected her chastity, and ends with the bangles of the community being broken to symbolise them becoming ‘widows’ for 45 days....