Inside the heavily guarded Swedish Embassy in Delhi’s Chanakyapuri area, Swedish photographer Johan Bavman shuffles quietly across the carpet, examining his own work in an unfamiliar setting — India. Gigantic photos on easels flank the foyer of the ambassador’s residence. Titled Delhi Dads meet Swedish Dads , the exhibition initially hints at the absurd, even comical. Will it be a gathering of the dreaded ‘meninists’ or a clever rip-off of the idea? Turns out, it is neither. Bavman’s photos of 45 Swedish fathers on paternal leave for more than six months is as endearing as it is enquiring of the many perceptions of masculinity.

Bavman, a 33-year-old father of two boys, says it all began with himself. “When I became a father seven years ago I was really scared at first. I wanted to become a better father so I read a lot of literature, watched television programmes even. Every picture I saw, represented the father as some sort of a hero, not anywhere close to the actual work it takes to raise a child that women have done for centuries, still do, and have never been recognised for,” he says.

Bavman’s homeland, Sweden, became the first country in the world in 1974 to introduce parental leave — a scheme that allows citizens to spend up to 480 days with their children, paid for by the state. But that is merely the technicality of it, as Bavman suggests; social change is what makes such schemes tenable.

A lot of Bavman’s photos show fathers tending to the feeding and toilet responsibilities that most fight shy of. But there are also those that show them following their other routines of exercise, work and so on. “For me personally, creating a family is teamwork. I wanted to be a dad as much as my wife wanted to be a mother. So I never saw it, like, one of us having to sacrifice. I am here in India because I can rely on my wife. And she does the same when she has to travel,” he says.

As part of the project, five similar stories of Indian fathers have been profiled by Delhi-based photographer Srimon Chatterjee. These feature the likes of Varun Khatare, a 38-year-old telecom professional, and the 30-year-old marketing executive Rajesh Murthy, both fathers of daughters. Chatterjee agrees that a similar structural overhaul in India will likely face much greater challenges. “The biggest roadblock is the lack of education relating to gender sensitisation. It is easier to review outdated patriarchal systems and bring in new social norms if we, as a society, have a better understanding of gender inequality,” he says.


We are family: Sumit Manchanda, a 31-year-old team leader at a firm, with his son Maanvik


A lot of these challenges can be traced to the perception of masculinity itself, the idea that parental responsibility is somehow at odds with robust and sexual masculinity. “I think we need to change the way masculinity is looked at. Most importantly, the way men look at themselves. Why can’t these scenarios be considered masculine, for example? Why can this not fit into the same sexy image of masculinity, we need to ask,” Bavman says.

Uffe, a father in one of Bavman’s photos, regularly visits the gym and does his chores, alongside regular trips to his wife’s office for feeding the baby. “If you meet him, you won’t for a second feel that he sees his responsibility as an impediment, or in any way restricts his style or reputation among his friends,” he says. But Bavman concedes that though Sweden purports a certain ideology through the systems in place, it is still some way to go before fatherhood and its responsibilities are no longer seen as an anomaly.

The project, for both Chatterjee and Bavman, not only required them to focus on their subjects, but also know them better, especially the moments that made them who they are.

“I remember I was on a call with Ola, a father who had been on leave for eight months. I called to ask if I could come and shoot, to which he said it might not be a good time because he was supposed to clean the house. I said it couldn’t be more perfect,” Bavman says, smiling.

Both photographers are fathers, and have included their own portraits in the project.

Given how distant India is from institutional change on the same level as Sweden, let alone social, Chatterjee still sounds optimistic: “I believe, in modern India, the change is here and happening all around us even now. Fatherhood is a privilege — this view was shared by all the fathers I photographed.”

As for Bavman, the man who has taken his project to 65 countries now, the journey has been personally transformational. “I am learning to cry as much as I can in front of my sons, because I want them to be able to relate to me and talk to me. I want them to come to me for comfort just as much as they go to my wife,” he says.

(Delhi Dads meet Swedish Dads will be on view at DLF Promenade, New Delhi, on March 2-3)

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture