Bhamini Lakshminarayan (M2015MC013)
Image Making – I
Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar
20th July, 2015

An Abuse of the Abused: The Erasure of the Experience of the “Un-Indian” Abuse Victim

Lakshmi Durga

Sexual abuse and domestic violence are rampant across the globe, and it is of note that women are not its only victims. In an attempt to champion the cause of the Indian woman, Save Our Sisters, a partner of the Indian branch of the international organisation Save the Children, ran a digital ad campaign in the year 2013. In this assignment, I attempt to deconstruct the images in the light of semiological and semiotic analysis, drawing on Saussure, Pierce, and Barthes among others.

I argue that this particular series of images can be located within the framework of what Barthes considered “myths,” or the dissemination of the dominant discourse of a cultural space as an ideology. Barthes argues that denotation and connotation augment each other to construct and produce ideology, which has been classified as a third order of signification by further academics.

The images denote calendar art-style upper-caste Hindu Goddesses, all of whom have visible injuries. The linguistic message of the caption anchors them as a campaign against violence against women, rather than an attack on Hinduism or its Goddesses or plain artistic expression. “Pray that we never see this day,” it says, referring to a day when the images become a reality. The caption goes on to quote statistics and locate them within India, further contextualising the campaign. The name of the organisation, “Save Our Sisters,” is prominent, as well as a telephone number that can be contacted in the event of an emergency.

The images and campaign can be viewed as a form of advertising, which Barthes argues sends out intentional connotations that the organisation or corporation wants the viewers to infer. The intentional connotation of these signifiers seems to be the apparent dichotomy inherent in the way women are treated in India – worshipped as Goddesses, but abused in real life. However, as Gombrich argues, “We can only recognise what we know.” (Gombrich 1982, 150-151) The process of reading an image and understanding a sign relies on applying codes which are familiar to the reader, in an approach Pierce refers to as abduction – one recognises an occurrence of a conventional rule, and interprets the image within the framework it supports. Mick notes that abduction is especially powerful, and thus, I argue, dangerous, when we are inferring generalisations about characters or individuals we do not know deeply or personally.

For what we know about these images is that they represent three upper-caste Hindu Goddesses, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Durga, (notably, not Kali), who are the consorts of the Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively. They embody the feminine aesthetics of purity, chastity, and subdued sexuality. They derive their strength, or were, in fact, created, by the dominant pantheon of male Gods. From this, we are intended to infer and generalise, through abduction, that they represent the “Indian woman.”

The connotations associated with this normalisation of the Indian woman are highly problematic. She is intended to be upper caste, fair skinned, glamorous, saree-clad, and Hindu. She is passive in the face of violence – despite the fact that she is physically powerful, and has the means to not just defend herself, but attack, her real strength would seem to lie in her power of endurance, and her silent beauty when undergoing pain. She is located in a natural environment, and has strong ties to patriarchal figures in her life – her husband and her creators. She is in need of saving.

Barthes argues that “myths serve the ideological function of naturalisation” (Barthes 1977, 45-6). The dominant paradigms in the cultural and historical context are normalised, making the dominant ideology in terms of social codes, values, systems, and attitudes, seem natural and objective.

The “Indian woman” constructed in these images is a product of this myth-making. The use of the calendar-art form serves a particular function in this process of the “tropising of the feminine” (Uberoi, 1990). Guha Thakurta locates the mass appeal and popularity of calendar-art in the myth, in the ideology, of nationalism and the “Indian” identity, and the “classical” cultural glory of India that existed in its pre-colonial past. Women are the focus of the art in this movement, as the embodiment and carriers of culture and virtue. The women in these images signify the socially-constructed models of femininity – fidelous, religious, loving, patient, strong, and puranic. The material woman is transmuted into the icon of the idealised “Indian woman.”

The campaign and the images attempt to normalise the identity of the victim of domestic and sexual abuse. They do not capture the plurality of identities that exist within the Indian cultural ethos. The abuse of a woman who is a prostitute, in a short skirt, a Muslim – or a man – does not fall within the scope of these signifiers. The intended audience for this campaign would appear to be a dominant, middle-class, upper-caste, patriarchal individual, wherein the male is located as the central focus of the entire image – as the perpetrator as well as protector from violence against women.

This leads to the connotations of the linguistic message, which asks that we be horrified by the idea that our Goddesses can face the same abuse as the women in our lives, and asks that we protect them. In doing this, we again appeal to certain religio-cultural identity, as well as locate women within the sphere of what has been popularly phrased “ma-behen feminism” (Acharya, 2014) rather than reading them as individuals. In this light, the final signifier is the very name of the campaign – “Save Our Sisters,” which connotes, not just the inherent patriarchy of locating women in the context of their relationships, but the colonial “white man’s burden.” It is of use to note that while the campaign received a lot of criticism from across the board, it also received a lot of validation, particularly from international coverage.

Thus, I argue that the Abused Goddesses campaign is mired in the middle-class upper-caste Hindu nationalist-hetero-patriarchal structure. It exemplifies the use and construction of myths as a form of the dominant discourse as an ideology, in the intended meaning and implication of the signifieds, and in the choice of the signifiers.

_____
References

Acharya, Prithvi. “On Ma-Behen Feminism.” Feminism in India. 14 November 2014. Web. 20 July 2015.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill & Wang, (1957) 1987. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, 1977. Print.

Chatterjee, Partha. Recasting Women, Essys in Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.

Fiske and Hartley. Reading Television. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1978. Print.

Gombrich, Ernst H. The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon, 1982. Print.

Guha Thakurta, Tapati. Women as ‘Calendar Art’ Icons: Emergence of Pictorial Stereotype in Colonial Indian, Economic and Political Weekly. Oct. 26, 1991. Print.

Mick, David Glen. “ Consumer Research and Semiotics: Exploring the Morphology of Signs, Symbols and Significance,” Journal of Consumer Research. 1986. Print.

O’Sullivan et al. Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Save Our Sisters. Abused Goddesses. 2013. Photography. Web.

Uberoi, Patricia. ’Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art’, Economic and Political Weekly. April 28, 1990. Print. 

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