‘Lest We Forget’: A Sisterhood Called White- a unique exhibition by Kounteya Sinha showcases the unforgettable lives of the Vrindavan Widows

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Lest We Forget: A Sisterhood Called White’- a special exhibition by India’s most powerful and revered visual storyteller, Kounteya Sinha for, the first time lifts,  the veil over the invisible life of Vrindavan’s widows by documenting through photographs their daily life from inside the precincts of the ashrams. The  exhibition was inaugurated in the esteemed presence of Chief Guest His Excellency C.V. Ananda Bose, the Governor of West Bengal; Honorable Guest Renu Ma- India’s oldest Widow (106 years old), Ms. Winnie Singh, Renowned Humanitarian, Mrs. Oiendrilla Ray Kapur, Curator & Creative Director, as well as Mr. Kounteya Sinha and Mr. Rana Pandey, Photographers of the exhibition. The show features 35 photographs and  will be open to the public till January 19 at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity,  who can be mesmerised by the sheer magic of the most powerful and insightful storytelling. 

Mr. Kounteya Sinha, Photographer of the exhibition, known globally for his unparalleled human storytelling, stayed in Vrindavan for 11 days to capture the lives of the Vrindavan widows. They were delighted to talk to a bengali and open up their daily schedule of early morning bhajan-singing for a cup of tea and biscuits and a pittance by way of money, begging on the gullies till sundown, and then winding their way back to shanties that they share  for an astronomical Rs. 1000 a month. Some shift to the lanes lining the ghats in the evening , for that where the chances of dinding charities are greater. No one quite knows who many such pauperised widows there are.

Present on the occasion Mr. Kounteya Sinha said, “This is the first time that the nuances of their lives changed better life in a new India have been documented from inside the precincts of the ashrams, making us the first men to ever live with them, closely following their daily life of devotion and dignity.” 

Sinha added, “It is often said that a woman from Bengal would prefer to beg with dignity than stay in a palace with indignity. Vrindavan is estimated to have over 20,000 widows – 90% of them are believed to be from Bengal. Vrindavan for most of Bengal’s widows have for decades been the escape – either from familial strife, forced and abandoned or by choice, in search of peace and devotion.The life inside of the ashrams is an invisible world, shrouded in mystery. Information has hardly come out on the quality of their life within it. Traditional thinking for ages has talked about the abysmal state of Vrindavan’s widows. But a lot has changed over the years for the better. Not everyone has been touched by that change, I agree. A lot of widows still need that helping hand. But a lot of them have benefited – better quality of life, nutritious food, warm clothing, healthcare and, above all – a life of dignity. That’s the story I wanted to tell after seeing it with my own eyes.

Widows now have the right to citizenship, they all have aadhar cards, zero bank accounts and pension cards. They are being trained in skill building and income generation programs. Slowly and steadily, they are becoming entrepreneurs. This repertoire is real, intimate and personal. Change comes from information. These photographs are intended to show you the beauty of their sisterhood – away from home, their new family – in a changing India. This show celebrates white – a colour that had become their prison, but not anymore.”

Interestingly, Mr. Sinha is also getting India’s oldest widow, who has been living in Vrindavan for the past decade, as a guest of honour. She returned to her home in Bengal for the first time in 10 years. 106-year-old Renu Ma, as she is popularly called, originally belonged to Belgharia in West Bengal but has been living in Vrindavan’s widow ashrams since 2014. Recently, as she turned 106 years old, she cut the birthday cake with Governor Bose. Renu Ma, who can hardly talk now, opened up her life to Sinha by allowing herself to be photographed going about her daily business and from drawing to sketching to praying and even weightlifting exercises. An extraordinary repertoire of work allows art connoisseurs to revel in the sheer magic of the most powerful and insightful storytelling. Vrindavan has been home to thousands of widows – for decades – ostracised and forgotten. The access to this world was given to Sinha by renowned humanitarian Winnie Singh, who has been working on uplifting Vrindavan’s widows for years through her organisation ‘Maitri’.