“Embroidery is a form of language that we’ve been passing along to break the oppressor; it’s a language that we understand and through which we can communicate with each other, passed down through generations of women,” says artist Spandita Malik in reference to the traditional forms of embroidery found within her mixed media work. In her ongoing series Nā́rī, Malik has opened up her artistic practice, inviting collaborators to use their embroidery skills to weave their creative voices right into the surface of their own portraits. In a sense, she has invites the subjects of her photographs to have the last word, embellishing and personalizing the images.

“Fozia” from the series “Nā́rī (2019-Ongoing),” 2019. Photographic transfer Print on Khadi, Embroidery © Spandita Malik

The images are printed on khadi, the cloth produced by traditional spinning wheels—the charkha, a device that is deeply rooted in Indian history. During the struggle for independence, Mahatma Gandhi used the spinning wheel as a symbol of self-reliance, urging Indians to spin their own cloth as a means of gaining economic freedom from the exploitation of British colonizers. If the spinning wheel has come to be a symbol of self-reliance, then in the work of Malik, the act of embroidery embodies resistance and the strength and care that can be found in community. Behind the work lies the reality of the struggle for women’s rights and the issue of gendered violence in India.

“‘Nā́rī’ is a word that I’ve used all my life,” explains Malik. “There are multiple definitions that appear in Hindi: woman, wife, female, an object that is regarded as feminine, but it also means sacrifice. When I first read that, I started to read more about women in the time that the word was coined and all that women had to sacrifice throughout history, all the rituals that were part of the culture, that were built around this word.”

“Nuzrat Praween” from the series “Nā́rī (2019-Ongoing),” 2019. Photographic transfer print on Voile Fabric, Chikankari embroidery © Spandita Malik

In 2019 Malik was in the middle of researching the pervasive issue of gender inequality within India, from daily discriminations to the startlingly high number of rapes across the subcontinent. She received a travel grant, to return to India from New York where she is based to begin field work for a project focusing on rape culture. “This was just the beginning of a project talking about women’s rights and the lack of them in India—a place where you don’t have the basic freedom to feel safe. I feel that speaking about rape and domestic abuse as real problems is very important, it’s an issue that should not be put in the shadows, or made taboo when it is so prominent and normalized in Indian culture right now.”

“Radha” from the series “Vadhu,” 2021. Photographic transfer print on khaddar fabric, phulkari silk thread embroidery © Spandita Malik

She planned to photograph women and the spaces that existed for them to find support. “I realized that I needed to take all of my data and research into the field and start working with people. She began visiting nonprofit organizations that were supporting survivors of rape and domestic abuse. She noticed that the women there were learning traditional embroidery styles, specific to their home regions, as a means of finding a way towards financial freedom. Some women were unable to attend the centers due to their home situations. So she began to interview and photograph them in their own spaces.

After working in this way for a while, at some point she decided to take a step back to reconsider her methods. “I was thinking a lot about decolonization and photography. Everything I knew about photography was from a very western perspective, my education was in the western ideology and philosophy of photography. And when I started to take photographs back in India, I realized the way I was photographing reflected this background. And that was something that really bothered me.”

“Sabaa Qureshi” from the series “Nā́rī (2019-Ongoing),” 2020. Photographic transfer Print on Khadi, Zardozi Embroidery, Appliqué © Spandita Malik

Malik started to ask her subjects how they wanted to be photographed—how and where they wanted to stand or sit, what they wanted to wear, if and how they wanted to cover their face. Yet this didn’t seem to be enough. Drawing on her studies in fashion design, she decided to print the portraits she made on fabric and ask her subjects to embroider them. Moving away from the notion of an artwork having a single author was initially difficult for Malik. “As an artist, I’m closely involved with my work. I’m a perfectionist, and I’ve always had to have complete control over everything that I do. So for me to open it up to collaboration was hard, but it’s been a good experience in letting go a bit, and letting the work live its own life. When I started I was just documenting these women. But now they are my collaborators. We’re working on something together.”

“Rukmesh Kumari” from the series “Nā́rī (2019-Ongoing),” 2020. Photographic transfer Print on Khaddar fabric, Phulkari silk thread Embroidery © Spandita Malik

The act of letting go gave her collaborators a form of agency to take control over their own image. After working together to make a portrait, Malik would print the image on khadi and turn it over to the subject to embroider as she saw fit. Across various images, silver jewelry is turned to gold, a man is obscured by flowers, and peacocks trot across the frame. In pieces made during the pandemic, the women embroidered over their wedding photographs. According to Malik, “some of the women who are domestic abuse survivors are still living with their abusers. This was a way to look back at those photographs and take charge of them.” In these photographs embroidering became a means to reframe the past.

In other portraits, flowers frame the borders of the photograph, patterns abound, and eyes peer out from behind threadwork curtains. The images capture the women’s unique creative voices, their sense of self. Each piece is also a record of their heritage embroidered in specific regional styles—Chikankari in Lucknow, Zardozi in Jaipur, and Phulkari in Punjab. The embroidery speaks to rich cultural knowledge and the skill in artistic labor. There is an intermingled sense of power, performance, and surprising playfulness in every piece. Each stitch balances strength and delicacy. In one portrait of a woman named Sarfaraz, the sitter has created a three-dimensional effect; a stage set with curtains, flowers at her feet. In Kosar’s portrait, her wish to cover her face was answered with a newspaper lying in the room. She sits in the middle of the room, holding the newspaper in front of her face, a printed eye on the front page staring back at the viewer from a room threaded in gold.

“Sarfaraz” from the series “Nā́rī (2019-Ongoing),” 2020. Photographic transfer Print on Khadi, Zardozi Embroidery, Appliqué © Spandita Malik

The collaboration has changed the way Malik approaches her work as well as her teaching. “As photographers,” she says, “we have an immense amount of power: we can create narratives, we can change the way that people perceive someone through a photograph. And with that comes a way of looking at the world and understanding where your ethics lie.”

Throughout the project, a sense of compassion through listening and looking has guided the photographer. On being welcomed into the homes of the women she worked with, Malik says: “they saw me as familiar and they trusted me enough with their stories. It’s a highly uncomfortable space to be in, because you’re helpless. You can’t help anyone, all you can do is listen.” In listening, one becomes a vessel for another’s words, their pain, even if only temporarily. A space was created not just to speak but also to perform acts of care. In opening up her own practice, Malik found a way to create a space for her collaborators. “By listening through our inherited language of embroidery, I learnt the true meaning of nā́rī,” she says.

Editor’s note: We discovered Nā́rī in our LensCulture’s Critics’ Choice Awards 2022. For more exciting work, take a look here.