Portraits of India: Markets, Merchants, and Artisans

Past Exhibition

Markets are meeting places, bringing together diverse people and products. This exhibit explores how people in one country relate to objects through their occupations of producing, selling, and repairing them. The images displayed here were chosen from a collection of about 1,700 photographs taken by anthropologist Richard Lerner in India in 1968-70 and 1988-89.

Occupations and the Caste System.

In traditional Indian society, one's occupation was generally defined by one's caste. Castes are closed, named social groups into which one is born. Of four principal social divisions, traders and merchants (Vaishyas) are the third ranked, above the artisans and cultivators (Sudras). Artisans, who tend to be the most restricted in their choices, usually learn their craft by family apprenticeship. Farmers and modern urban workers have more flexibility in choosing a profession.

Religion and Gender.

Muslims, who are about 13% of the population, operate outside the caste system. In fact, many urban merchants in India are Muslim. Traditionally, women focused on family and the home. Thus, the subjects of many of these photographs, taken mostly on city streets, are men. Yet we do see female artisans and vendors, especially those involved in cooking or part of family concerns (a baker, sellers of milk and bangles, and a clay lamp maker).

Markets in Space and Time.

Markets differ in size, scale, and permanence. Some, especially those in large cities, are grouped according to what they sell. Merchants may sell from shops in fixed locations, or they may travel, clearing a space on the sidewalk and then moving on. Food sellers are particularly apt to sell from movable carts and stalls. Markets may be permanent or periodic. Many markets in India, often associated with temples and religious fairs, are open only once a week.

Selling through Seeing.

Markets in India often seem to be utterly chaotic and confusing at first glance, but a closer look reveals an underlying order. People mange to find their way through shared customs and rules of behavior, known to both sellers and buyers. They are also guided by their multiple senses, using sound, smell, and touch, in addition to the visual surfaces so vividly captured by Richard Lerner.

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