(L)ending Lines, and an interview with photographer Ottavia Castellina

A woman boards a women-only train in Delhi. What does she see? How does she feel? What does she think when she sees you? These are among the many poignant questions asked by Ottavia Castellina, a photographer from Turin based in London. (L)ending Lines initially began as a fixed installation as the result of her six-week journey on women-only trains in Delhi. It eventually grew into a wonderful film, combining footage and images, thoughts and words taken from her unique experience on the trains. The film and photos hold moments, glances, smiles and bodies, coming together to express a vibrancy underneath what is otherwise an oppressive status-quo under the Indian patriarchal society.

I had the pleasure of watching this short at the "Shorts on Tap: Women at Crossroads" screening in London. There's no artificial "magic" in the film or the photos, no special effects; yet there's an intimacy and the sense of feeling like you're a visitor to a place that, although it really shouldn't exist, is nonetheless very special, very truthful. 
It was great to get to have a quick chat with Ottavia about this work and her incredible related projects. Enjoy.
 
Miriam Lee: Your film takes a look at the separation between women and men in India from an incredibly unique perspective. What was it that motivated you to start this project?

Ottavia Castellina: I was an artist in residence at the KHOJ International Artists' Association in New Delhi, as part of the RESO Network, which was founded by the Foundation for Modern and Contemporary Art CRT (Turin) for six weeks. As a proposal, I decided to explore the women-only trains, which I learned about in an article. I was surprised to learn about the existence of a train for women, and I was interested in the idea of exclusivity. This train for women automatically catered to that -- whenever there's an issue of exclusivity there's a problem, and here the trains were in a sense hiding the exclusion of women. Its existence is controversial, and there's a lot of conversation around the reason for why it exists. I also wanted to take a journey on the trains and see how the women interacted. The women featured in the article described their train trips to work as a joyride, so to me, there was maybe a sociability happening on the trains that otherwise wouldn't happen in their daily living environment due to societal constraints. So the idea was to take this journey, keep a diary, and the journey would have stayed within the restrictive and transitory space of the train carriages. I commuted every day for those six weeks, interacting with the women, exploring their reality. I wanted to understand what it means to be a woman in India, the cultural differences and how I was perceived. The way they looked at me, and the way they look at western people in general from a feminine perspective.

ML: As is mentioned in the film, there's a high regard for women who are born fair, white, blonde and such because they are the ones considered to be beautiful. Within that kind of exclusivity, did you experience any kind of special treatment from either gender, being on the train as a western, fair-skinned woman?

OC: The Indian women were fascinated by my being white and blonde and the only one who looked that way on the train. The trains are not for tourists, so the women I met are not really exposed to non-Indian, or outsider women. Delhi is a city with a very patriarchal and structured society. I wasn't treated differently, or seen as anything special from the male point of view because they tend to look at western women as easy targets. We look "easier" in a way because of the clothing we wear for example. They believe, for example, that the sari is the type of clothing that women should wear, while jeans, tops, and so on are seen as revealing clothing. There's also the sense that they're a little bit scared of you because you're different, so there's a dual feeling -- sometimes they looked at me like an "easy" woman but I was never treated the same way as an Indian woman because they're scared of the difference.
 
ML: What were your most memorable moments from your travels and making that film? 

OC: I had a young woman travelling me as an assistant, her name is Pari Baishya. The whole journey was an adventure, which of course would have been a different experience if I had been alone. Pari is not from Delhi but from the northeast of India. She was the middle figure between myself and the women we were speaking with. She also became a friend to me. There was a party that happened on the train on New Year's Eve. We happened to meet the founder of the trains who invited us to a party that was taking place on January 2. When we got on the train, all of a sudden there were all these women singing and dancing and it was a wonderful celebration. 

ML: Do you plan to continue working on the same subject? 

OC: Well, this project happened by chance after reading that article about the women-only train. But the reason I was reading the article in the first place, was that the year before, I was in the south of India doing another project on trains. That time I was using trains as a metaphor for the cultural difference between the western world and India. The project was called "Journeying on a Stationary Train", curated by Laura Manione. I started a blog where I was posting my photos from India. I asked writers who'd never travelled to India to write stories based on the photos, in order to relate their ideas of exotic (because India has often been associated with being an exotic place). So I was interested to see how these writers could travel with their imagination to a place they'd never been to before, and how the idea of exotic could also become intimate. I think these two projects -- the women-only trains and the stationary journey trains -- have something in common, using trains as the unifying metaphor. 

The idea now is to exhibit the projects together. The original version of (L)ending Lines was an installation of 34 diaries, full of notes and thoughts I took down while I travelled. Each page has an image and an entry with an accompanying sound installation. It'd be interesting to exhibit this project with an accompanying writing workshop based on the photos from "Journeying on a Stationary Train". Maybe people could come and write their own stories based on images of their choosing as their source of inspiration. It'd be great to tour this around and organising a workshop in each location. There would eventually be an archive for each image made up of different people's stories.



There is so much more to see and experience through Ottavia's work. Don't miss her website for more on her background, works, and more on (L)ending Lines. The project also appeared in a great piece published on Fuschia Tree. My thanks again to Ottavia!

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