For a total of 10 months, German photographer Karolin Klüppel took pictures of women living in a region of India known as Meghalaya, literally "the abode of the clouds." It's a beautiful and strange name, perfect for a place whose social structure in many ways sets it apart from the larger Indian political system.
"Women in the villages earn only half as much as the men, and they don't question that." —Karolin Klüppel
From 2013 to 2015, Klüppel stayed in a Khasi village, where women control every aspect of family life. In this matrilineal society, girls and girls alone traditionally have the right to inheritance and property; mothers manage their families' finances, granting their husbands an allowance; and daughters carry and pass along the names of their clans.
Below, Klüppel shares images from her new book, Kingdom of Girls, offering a glimpse into the daily life of a culture at the threshold between modernity and custom.
How did you first get connected to this community?
I was very interested in matriarchies and matrilineal societies. When I finished my studies, I decided to do a project on matrilineal culture, and got a scholarship for a residency in India. After that, I traveled to Meghalaya to meet the Khasi. Originally, I wanted to just stay with the Khasi for two or three weeks and go to China afterward, but I stayed for six months and canceled the China trip. I returned two other times.
"I was allowed to enter nearly every house." —Klüppel
I lived in a very small village (Mawlynnong) with one of the Khasi families, and everyone knew me. The son of my host family introduced me to many villagers, and I was allowed to enter nearly every house. They were very open-minded.
In the introduction to your book, you mention that the girls often directed you when you were shooting them.
Often, they wanted me to shoot video when they were singing or dancing, so they could watch themselves afterwards. That's like usual children's stuff. But they were also very eager to get their picture taken, and they visited me in my room and wanted to spend time with me.
I think because village life was not so exciting, I was kind of an attraction and a distraction. It was often the case that I was just spending time with them, and I had my camera with me. I didn't know if I would take a photo or not; most of the time I was just waiting for something to happen.
Do you have a sense of whether most of these girls will spend most of their lives in this village?
Most of them will move away, because nowadays they have better opportunities to go to college. It's usually the youngest daughter who stays in the parents' house, and then she will have to take a job as a teacher or something that could also be done in the village. But usually there are no good jobs in the villages, only farming jobs.
You said you'd studied matrilineal societies, but what about living in the Khasi society did you find especially surprising?
I was surprised that the family life was so conservative. Women in the villages earn only half as much as the men, and they don't question that. I was always saying, "OK, but that's not fair, you should all earn the same because you do the same work." And they would say, "But women cannot do as much as men." Fathers of children who leave the family don't pay anything in the way of child support. Because the men don't own the house, and they don't trace the family name, they don't feel responsible for the family.