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Brushstrokes: Growing Up Matrilineally in Meghalaya

A photograph of a woman from Meghalaya, smiling and working in the field. She's wearing a pink and red saree

In the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, the major tribal communities of Khasi, Garo and Jaintia are all traditionally matrilineal. Matrilineal societies trace their descendancy through the female line. Each member of the society is identified with their mother’s lineage, and this often includes the inheritance of property and family name from mother to daughter.

As a society, we raise our children to embody a place reserved for them in the hierarchy of power. When patriarchy, patrilineality and patrilocality are the norm in most societies, those communities that do things differently tend to stand out, and the liberties afforded by this difference shape its people, as the photographers of these two series of portraits capture.

The first series is by Rucha Chitnis, who documents in her photographs the value placed on tribal women of Meghalaya because of their traditional status as land owners. Being inheritors of land, the responsibilities of the women of the community include preserving a deep, ancient knowledge of seeds and medicinal plants. Karamela Khonglam, a farm owner in rural Meghalaya, grows over 35 varieties of crops in an ancient method of shifting cultivation. “Being from a matrilineal system, I am respected as a woman,” she says. “While a majority of rural women in India struggle for land ownership, as well as recognition of their immense contributions as farmers, Khasi women are valued as food producers in their families and larger community,” adds Chitnis:

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A culture in which women inherit property and take on their mother’s title and lineage does a great deal for their self-esteem. The respect and position that women hold in Meghalayan communities is reflected in the independence afforded to their girl children.

Photographer Karolin Klüppel visually documented how daughters are raised to feel about themselves and the world around them in the matrilineal Khasi community, the tribe that comprises the largest chunk of the Meghalayan population. Klüppel traces how girls are brought up in a little Khasi village, capturing girls in their everyday, mundane routines, revealing the carefree quality of a childhood not burdened by a sense of body-consciousness and restrictions of mobility that girls in most societies grow up with.

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