Published: 09th July 2020
This photographer's Instagram series 'Suyambu' showcases rural women at their cheerful best
Suyambu, photographer Naveen Gowtham’s monochromatic portrait project on Instagram, has taken him across Tamil Nadu
Over a year and a half ago, Naveen Gowtham decided to participate in an Instagram photography challenge. It was organised by a photography group called Chennai Weekend Clickers. As part of his project, Naveen had to upload 30 photos over 30 days, which would then be exhibited by the group. He could choose any topic but it had to tell a story and stick to a particular theme. Naveen decided to photograph women. Now now, don't get creeped out. In his photos, Naveen aimed to showcase women smiling, with a special focus on rural women of all ages across Tamil Nadu. “But I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to stop after 30 days,” recalls Naveen. And he didn’t. Shot it black and white, over a period of eighteen months, Suyambu (@suyambu_portraitproject on Instagram) captures the ‘self-manifested’ in all their glory.
Suyambu is a poem by Tamil writer Vannadasan, which Naveen had read. “Suyambu means a self-manifested, independent woman who has the ability to create the world,” he explains. Naveen crossed paths with several women across rural Tamil Nadu while on his travels, whom he captured through his lens. “India has such a rich cultural heritage and the rural areas, especially, have a lot left to explore. I want to travel to these places and photograph smiling women wherever I go,” says Naveen, who wants to click 1,000 photos as part of his portrait project. “But COVID has played spoil sport, for now,” says the photographer who managed to take 340 portraits, all of which are on his Instagram profile.
Naveen says that the smiles from these women are what make him want to take more photographs. “I have had interesting conversations with them. Before I take their photo, I try to establish a bond with them, learn about their life, their village, their culture so that they can trust me enough to pose for a photo. Sometimes, I have had to show my old portraits to explain to them what I’m doing. Some women didn’t give their consent so I left them alone,” says Naveen about his experience during the project. He has photographed girls as young as 10 to women as old as 80. “It is most difficult to photograph middle-aged women as they seldom allow it. They’re usually afraid of me or societal restrictions. Most of the middle-aged women in the project are my friends or people I know,” rues Naveen. “I have travelled through almost half of Tamil Nadu but some photos of women from Kerala, Allahabad and Kolkata — places I travelled to last year — have been included in the project,” adds the 32-year-old.
Recalling an incident during his travels, Naveen says, “I once came across a tribal woman who was ecstatic about her portrait, which was her first photo ever. She told me that even her wedding was not photographed. In the same village, a 12-year-old girl came up to me and said that she also wants to be a photographer, so that she can capture her village and its culture to show the world. These moments were truly special and they egged me on to pursue this.”
Naveen, who has worked in the IT sector as a system administrator for almost nine years, has been a full-time photographer for the last three years. “Rural culture fascinates me and I love to capture it. I usually visit these places during festivals when more people are out on the roads and I can easily interact with them. But I have never travelled just for Suyambu, rather it developed organically whenever I travelled to a certain place,” says Naveen, for whom photography has been a passion from his childhood days in Thiruvarur.
Some other photos that are part of Suyambu: