Artist and photography Baljit Singh’s new photo series, “Paraya Dhan” is a direct commentary on dowries. In her photographs she has layered typical dowry items over the new brides, obscuring them from view so where you might see a nervous, shining face you just see dollar bills. Her imagery is simple and yet evocative — the cartoonish renderings of some of the items add to their glamour but put them in stark and gross contrast with the surrounding photo. Dowries, are grotesque and yet remain.
When I was a child, my grandmother would send me jewelry from India — perfect, solid gold earrings or chains carried across the ocean in the hand luggage of family. While I didn’t need a reason to appreciate these sumptuous gifts, my mother told me they were to build up my ‘dowry,’ a hard word that encapsulated the future as well as tragedy. And in that moment I felt myself climbing on to a scale, with my weight being balanced by piles of gold coins and jewels in the plate opposite.
My Nani-ma, in her shrewdness, had gifted me with items that I could ostensibly run away with if my future marriage, a distant preoccupation at the time of gifting, went sour. She gave me liquid currency as a safety net against abuse. But dowries are rarely salvation — something we know to be true every time a headline appears on the topic: Women have been killed for dowries, abused for dowries, cut off from their families as a sort of ransom kidnapping through marriage because of dowries. The treatment of dowries in the Western imagination as some sort of joke, a case only reserved for backwards brown people, makes us believe that they are not a threat for us. But with the excessive gift-giving that happens at weddings, often with the girl’s side out-giving the boy’s, our assertion remains unproven.