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Sultana’s Dream: Linocut Series by Chitra Ganesh

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(The following is a cross-post by Charlotte Giles, Reference Librarian, Asian Division. It originally appeared in the Picture This blog.)

Charlotte Giles viewing Chitra Ganesh prints in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2021.
Charlotte Giles viewing Chitra Ganesh prints in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2021.

In a new acquisition by the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Chitra Ganesh, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, retells the 1905 Indian feminist utopian essay, “Sultana’s Dream” by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat, but in the style of a graphic novel through a series of 27 linocut prints, each depicting a scene from the story as imagined through a 21st century lens. The English essay was written by Sakhawat, a Bengali Muslim woman and Indian women’s rights activist. She weaves an enticing vision of a place called Ladyland, where women live, work, create, develop, and lead, while the men are sequestered in the men’s “mardana” (instead of “zenana”). Sultana is taken through the land by Sister Sara, a resident of Ladyland, who talks about technological advances made possible by women’s “brain power”. This utopic and science fiction-like dream was penned in 1905 for “The Indian Ladies’ Magazine” (Madras). Sakhawat and Ladyland continue to reach across the over 100 years since they were penned, to inspire readers, artists, and activists.

In one scene, sister Sara takes Sultana to her house, “situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden.” Inside, Sultana wonders at the kitchen located in a vegetable garden.

Sultana's Dream: "cooking with light" scene.
Sultana’s Dream: Cooking with light. Linocut by Chitra Ganesh, 2018. Used by permission.

Sultana notes that in place of a chimney, fire and smoke, or stove for cooking, there is a pipe. Ganesh places this pipe with a large vessel at the center. Sister Sara holds what appears to be a matki or handi (Indian clay pots) with a pair of chimta (tongs to pick up a hot pot), under this pipe.

Open hands reach out to capture the sunlight streaming in, concentrate it, and turn it into heat for cooking. We learn that this, and other similarly energy-saving technologies are constantly being developed by the ladies in their laboratories. Ganesh’s imagery of hands in multiple prints create a sense of openness, crafting, creating, and doing, of receiving as well as giving. Ganesh takes Sakhawat’s awareness of the importance of the environment and energy, and translates it into the 21stcentury moment, when climate change has pushed society to use its technological capabilities to work with rather than against the environment we live in.

In the following print, they move from the kitchen to a bathroom where the roof is removed to take a shower.

Sultana's Dream: "Sitting side by side" scene.
Sultana’s Dream: Sitting side by side. Linocut by Chitra Ganesh, 2018. Used by permission.

There they sit, side-by-side, and talk. Sara shows Sultana a piece of embroidery. Here, Ganesh brings together the act of star-gazing through the roof aperture with craft and science. Sultana is surprised that Sara has time for embroidery. She does it because there is nothing else to do in the zenana. It is an activity for women who cannot go out and do other things. Sultana assumes that Sara must spend many hours in her laboratory. Why would she do embroidery? This moment provides different readings of the connection between embroidery and gender. Sultana sees it as something women do to pass the time, and Sara, with many activities to occupy her time, embroiders because she wants to. Indeed, it makes me think about the increased interest in embroidery (and other handicrafts) from the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, and perhaps a general renewed appreciation in creating with one’s hands. It is this attention to the hands, open and creating, that Ganesh, in part focuses on in this series, as a way to perhaps bring us closer to a utopia like Ladyland.

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