Voice and Visibility
Women in Contemporary Indian Art
Art mirrors the society it emanates from, and reflects its culture including the status of women. Indian art and aesthetics, cutting across schools and sects, speak of female form as a child bearer who nourishes and sustains her creations with love and care. In essence most of the feminine portrayal conjures up two distinct groups of images. Centered on a fulsome body, chiselled features and fair complexion she is portrayed as an ever-young Sundari (beautiful damsel), evoking feelings of sensuality and eternal love. She comes in a recurring avatar of a gentle, nurturing and generous- lover or mother- ever caring and giving. Ajanta paintings, Gupta period artifacts and Khajuraho frescos depict ideal female beauty as per the canons in Shilpa Shastra (manual of art and craft), with a focus on her sexuality and fertility. In mythology and art she is recurrently figured as a multi-armed, three eyed, red-lolling-tongued, lion rider, fiery tempered celestial Durga who demolishes the demons or as Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) or Parvati (consort of Shiva). Manifest in different avatars (incarnations) playing multiple roles, she is fair and furious, often idolized or demonized in Indian art and thought, though, denied an independent status as a free willed woman!
A review of the country's current art scenario offers a peep into the changing mindscape of the society as reflected in the shifting image of Indian femininity. Contemporary art pouring is seen to re-play the on-going power struggle between the two sexes! Centered around a discourse on gender issues, modern day creative expressions suggest the emergence of a collective feminine voice and visibility. There is a large spectrum of expressions of high aesthetic merit in this genre credited not only to women artists but also to some of their male counterparts. Collectively the artists challenge the patriarchal perception of a woman and reassert her right into an independent identity, who is at ease with her physical attributes, narratives, emotional leanings and intellectual abilities. The illustrations in this essay affirm and celebrate womanhood as it also flits through her multiple identities.
The expanse of themes that engage the current feminine art is enormous and wide open. No longer restricted to traditional boundaries and subjects, it is traversing beyond domesticity, decoration, motherhood and mythology onto contemporary happenings, narratives and concerns. In its form too, the art practice is seen to tread beyond the traditional to include new media, materials and techniques. Reflective of concurrent socio-cultural-political scenarios in which they live, women artists interrogate, reinterpret, foreground and articulate their encounters, dreams and desires. Transforming subversiveness into opportunities, like activists, women artists articulate their voice and views. They help to push boundaries and break barriers through their art, much of which is receiving critical acclaim. They use 'the self', one’s body as well as personal belongings and encounters to speak for the whole and deal with censorship and subjects such as sex, violence and atrocities. There is also an impressive body of work that adorns a subtle conceptual framework with multi-layered meaning.
Much of contemporary feminine creativity is gender bender. The work challenges established notions of man-woman relationship and the role that a woman is expected to play or the way she is required to behave in a male dominated society. How 'she' perceives herself and how others perceive her and the theoretical positioning on the issue underline their work. The artists use their own experiences and encounters to articulate issues of concern to themselves and the wider society, as if to look at things from inside out and outside in, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Given its engaging visuals and contents, such work is widely appreciated, extensively exhibited and liberally collected not only across India but also internationally.
There is an abundance of work that exemplifies the above-mentioned shift. The photographic print from a performative video work by Radha Gomaty, The Drift re-constructs her journey during a research trip together with two other women artists along the river Ganges that forms a part of the large body of multimedia work created by the trio. Radha, an experienced floater herself, is seen sailing adrift the holy river dressed in her bridal fineries. The work recalls the artists' childhood memories of bodies of newly married distraught women floating away in a desperate bid to surrender and end their confined stagnating lives in the river's powerful flow. In a different form and media appears another artwork also from the Ganga project series by Shanthamani Muddhaiah, Kali. Her Kali, within a single sculptural entity, plays a double role of female beauty and male beast akin to Ardhanarishwar (half god half goddess) concept in Indian myths. The meditative quality of the iconography created with pieces of charcoal, depicts her rage against the evil, in the exaggeration of her tongue with its bright red colour.
Kanchan Chander's, Devi Nouveau 1 work is a reflection of her status as an independent single mother living life on her own terms bringing in an interface, the duality of life, of private and public. Daring to defy the misconstrued norms of morality, she steps out to reinvent the image and iconography of womanhood in her series of torsos. Embellished and dressed up with sequins, beads, bindis, flowers, lace, thread, paint and block-print or whatever else may catch her fancy, the work in L'art Naïfstreak carries a layered notion of woman's sexuality, her body, desires and emotions. In a differently popular mode appears the bold imagery based on mythological narratives and icons with modern day concerns and reality of feminine life ingrained within, in Nilofer Suleman's, Sitaram Marriage Bureau painting aptly titled, the colourful composition takes a dig at the prevailing tradition of arranged and in many cases forced marriages. Sitting below a witty banner that reads 'why worry… just marry' the anxious parents of a young girl are shown with offerings in front of the horoscope reader, seeking his help to find an ideal Ram like match for their daughter.
The articulation and assertion of women's rightful place in society is not confined to elite circles in urban India. Women in tribal terrains and hinterland are also voicing their anguish about the injustice meted out to them and seeking their rightful place in the society through art. Jaba Chitrakar from rural Bengal created mats and utilitarian objects with straw as a child to help the family earn some additional income. Having married into a family of pattachitra (cloth based scroll painting) artists, she now authors masterpieces that sell well along with managing her hearth. Her layered renderings spring from folk stories enlivened with newer elements that give it a contemporary twist. The colorful snippets are unfolded, to raise socio-economic and feminist issues around the evil of dowry and need for women's empowerment as featured in this scroll of Goddess Durga who appears to rescue the hapless people from the clutches of greedy moneylenders. Bharti Dayal (Mother Yashoda with Baby Krishna) from Samastipur in Bihar takes us through a similar route using mythic story painted in Madhubani folk art form. Starting with alpana (floral art) and sketching epic scenes on the walls at home, she has mastered the folk form that has also given her an economic independence. Religious icons and deities worshiped in the region continue to be the focal protagonists in her dense paintings. These are, however, assimilated with newer elements and philosophical underpinnings to focus on issues of gender engagement such as tenderness of mother–child relationship. In folk styles, artists use locally available natural vegetable dyes and crushed rice paste on handmade paper, cotton and silk fabric or canvases to paint with handmade brushes. Vigorous proponents of these forms, these two women also guide and support other struggling female artists from their respective regions to practice, enhance and market their art for their social and economic uplift.
Woman - Daughter/Lover/Mother/Dasi/Devi
Despite some shifts in perception, marginalization of women persists in the predominantly patriarchal mindscape. While legendry male artist Raja Ravi Varma highlighted woman's divine aspect, Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the earliest women artists of India, portrayed her female protagonists, within the parameters of their domestic interiors in rural Punjab enjoying their group dynamics and bonhomie. The women in her paintings appear at ease with themselves and with each other. However this one-dimensionality and rigid gender role demarcation is being challenged with some sarcasm and jest by contemporary artists. Anjolie Ela Menon one of the senior artists of her generation today, creates art that is symbolic of the coming of age of women artists in India. While her nude female figures exude a deep sense of melancholy, in Sakti she strikes with a vengeance, as she decides to resolve the injustice meted out to women. Combining the forces of Durga and Kali in Shakti, the Goddess holds the severed head of elusive sandalwood smuggler Veerappan instead of the traditional demon in one hand, while she pulls out her symbols of power with the others, asserting women's rights. In a different vein, comes Naina Kanodia's Mrs Aggarwal's Family, theatrical and chatty painting picturing a prosperous joint family. The girl sitting on her own on the rug holds a doll in her hands that she is expected to play with. The two boys, probably the much-adored grandsons of the old couple, are featured seated on the sofa, one holding a cricket bat and the other a ball. The older lady with covered head sits at a distance from the senior man possibly her husband, while the younger couple, perhaps the son and daughter-in-law is seated close together, the man holding the woman's arm. The two male members are wearing shoes while the females are all barefoot. These are significant reminders of the stereotyped modes and place of men and women in the society that are increasingly being challenged.
Seema Kohli offers a differently subtle articulation of feminine preoccupations in her multimedia creatives that celebrate female form and energy. Inspired by ancient chronicles her work re-frames the concepts in a contemporary context. Revolving around themes of fertility and procreation, like mother earth, she undertakes Parikrima (journey) dressing up and performing multiple roles as Saptmatrika (a group of seven mother-goddesses) for self-realization. In a much different genre, the notion of mapping and search within is carried forward in the garb of pieces of jewelry made out of her own hair by Mithu Sen in Unbelonging. Hair that women stroke, and make plaits and buns with, are symbols of femininity and beauty and stand for mother- daughter bonding. The same hair become unwanted and get discarded when broken or torn apart or cut after combing or other rituals. Mithu determined to retain her pride in her body and belongings, turns things upside down by rescuing this symbol of feminine desire and transforms them into necklaces and bands as objects worthy of possession, carefully tied in silver thread and decorated with beads, stars and other embellishments.
Surekha, another artist of this generation, much of whose work revolves around social issues of concern to women, is innovative and prepared to experiment with craft traditions as well as new matter, materials, matrix and techniques. Her mixed media work includes painting, video, and installations. She has used fabric, thread and embellishments with needle that sews, cuts and pierces to document in stark reality the struggles that women encounter in our society even today. The model in Stepping Out is Surekha herself. Confined within the bars she struggles to come out of the margins of partially open door into the wide-open space. The work symbolizes various taboos and restrictions encountered by helpless groups including women, confined to the sidelines.
Arpana Caur, passionate about environment and all those marginalized in the society particularly girl child and women, focuses on these issues in her art be it her series on women victims of the 84 riots, Vrindavan widows, Sohni Mahiwal, Kabir Nanak Budha and Yogini or other work. Yogini, autobiographical in its stance entails footprints of folkart forms and is an expression of her dismay at the prevailing gender bias and violence in society. The piercing and cutting instruments and bleeding cow clawed by the tiger in the imagery disturb the yogini's meditative state of mind as mirrored in her stare of disbelief and pain. The painting makes a connect with Bangladesh where women possibly share a similar fate and is a take off from Dhaka based artist Shambu Acharya's work, three of whose paintings are part of the collection at the Museum of Miniature and Folk Art in Delhi of which she is the Founding Trustee.
Female artists it seems share a common aesthetic sensibility in their gaze. There is an attention to detail of what goes on in the appearance of the protagonists, their dress/costume and the manner in which they sit/stand/walk/talk, their surroundings and what goes into the frame or what is left out. The play of gender politics is underlined in most of their works, in some cases discreetly, in others more openly in an up front manner. The bold articulation and self-confidence in a substantial body of work in this strand by women artists is reinforced in the work by many of their male contemporaries.
Despite some conflict of interest and the underlying competitive spirit, artists, male and female, represent a close-knit society that looks out as it stays rooted and bonded. Worth noting however is the variedly inclined gaze in many of the creative manifestations, particularly in the male artists' focus on feminine figuration. Laxma Goud’s Untitled and Thota Vaikuntam's Sundari, both based in Hyderabad close in on feminine figure as they challenge the notion of what is beautiful. Known for his masterly drawings and etchings, Laxma is fascinated by man/woman relationship and their interface with animals and nature. His women are earthy, fulsome and graceful. They breathe sensuality. Attraction for the opposite sex, he states, is a natural human instinct. In a similar vein though through different renderings comes theatrical posturing in Thota Vaikuntam's dusky women of Telangana. Inspired by folk theatre and their make-belief sets, props, and female artists, his infatuation with the seductive form persists as he continues to draw and paint their fulsome figures and beautiful faces, with elaborate make-up, colourful costumes and jewelry.
This voyeuristic gaze marked for a tunnel vision of women's form is countered by a selection of male artists who project them not as mute spectators but active participants with a voice and view of their own. Jogen Chowdhury and Kalam Patua from West Bengal were influenced by Kalighat style, who come within this category. Jogen's men and women are fleshy and malleable with hands, feet and body parts, springing out from here and there in odd shapes and sizes. They look hauntingly grotesque and naked even when dressed up. Rich in satire, as caricatures of creatures from another planet, they are creations of Jogen's imagination, even though likes of them exist in our midst. The trademark line and crosshatch work, highlights the macabre and indignity that women suffer in our times. The helpless woman in childbirth is left to fend for herself and her yet-to-be borne girl child, flagging the brutality of female infanticide. The woman in Kalam Patua's painting offers a contrasting picture. Majestically seated holding two snakes is the nagin (she snake) in the frame. She is no subservient dasi (maid). She is strong enough to stand up for herself and protect her own and other women's dignity.
Adding a touch of the cinematic and kitsch to the more popular but misconstrued notion of a woman as Goddess Lakshmi is played up in Dileep Sharma's Mahalaxmi composition. The work stands in stark contrast against the harsh ground reality where women are treated as objects featured in commercial advertisements or stay confined within the yoke of domesticity and valued as per the dowry they bring. Young Anuradha Upadhyaya’s Silent Conversation reflects on this despicable streak in a work, resulting from her protest performance following an appalling tragedy of gang rape. The painting made during a residency curated by Archana B Sapra and Puja Bahri as their Arts4All Trust initiative, features the young woman, standing up, within the precincts of the mosque, asserting her right to be where and as she wishes to be.
The bastion of feminism, exposure to education and economic independence of women is beginning to shift the focus, shake things up, reimagine her role and redefine her status in the society. She can no longer be kept out of public debate and domain as art and artists, dare to open up with expressions that resonate with outer and inner layers of women's world, their emotions and experiences, along with associated complexities and contradictions. Besides featuring themselves and other women artists in a juxtaposition of figuration and experienced narratives, imagined or feared, their work captures a close-up of feminine intellect and thoughts, joys and sorrows, dreams and encounters – may be recorded and reported or silent and kept under the wraps. The genre is engaged with issues ranging from equality and justice, identity and memory to politics and economics. Women's right to freedom, to challenge established notions about gender divide, to seek pleasures of life and to make their own choice can no longer be denied as more and more artists across and beyond the country bring their concerns alive through their art. Amongst the artists doing some remarkable work in the context one would also list video and staged photographic art by Sonia Khurana and Pushpamala N, paintings by Arpita Singh and Nilima Sheikh, multimedia installations by Sheba Chhachhi and Bharti Kher, prints and graphics by Anupam Sud and Rini Dhumal besides those featured in the essay and many others. While their art receives critical acclaim, it also confronts the reality to seek an end to discrimination and violence against women.
In addition to the practicing artists, there are other professional women who go out to work in offices and industries. They play significant roles as agents of change by challenging male domination and supporting feminine empowerment. Many of them as gallery owners, art fund managers, promoters, producers, curators, writers and heads of cultural institutions provide the enabling environment for women to work and break the barriers. As they come out of their cocoons onto the big metro stage, they expand their networks and get to share and show their art professionally. The art thus becomes a source of income generation and self-reliance. It can be pursued in one's own time and space. Women seem to have the creativity and grit that it calls for. However while women artists in India and elsewhere seem to attract a fair share of gallery space and media attention, their sale figures and command prices continue to be lower than their male contemporaries. The shift is apparently gradual and marginal still. Full justice and freedom continues to be elusive and women remain at the margins of society's mindscape. It needs public and legal push to gain a momentum and for women's voice and views to become more audible and visible. Only then women and their art will be seen and 'heard' leaving their footprints in a society that is still male dominated.
Sakti, Unbelonging, Stepping Out, Untitled, Sundari and Image X were part of another gender focused exhibition Fair & Furious that I have curated for Art Alive Gallery in 2003. The Drift, Kali, Sitaram Marriage Bureau, Godess Durga, Mother Yashoda with Baby Krishna, Parikrima, Nagini, Mahalaxmi and Silent Conversation are featured in the exhibition Forms of Devotion currently touring internationally that I have curated for the Museum of Sacred Art in Belgium. The photographs of works Devi Nouveau 1, Mrs Aggarwal's Family and Yogini have been provided by the respective artists.
SUSHMA K. BAHL, author of '5000 Years of Indian Art' published in English and Chinese editions, besides other books, and former Head, Arts & Culture, British Council India; is an independent arts adviser, writer and curator. She worked on the festivals of India in the UK in 1982 and South Korea in 2005. She was the Guest Director for XI Triennale-India 2005, Project Consultant for Bharat Rang Mahotsav X11, Jury Member for the 14th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh both in 2010, curator of India- ASEAN Artists' Residency & Exhibition 2012 and Yoga Chakra art exhibition in 2015. Most recently she has conceived and curated 'Forms of Devotion' a large ongoing art exhibition project for the Museum of Sacred Art in Belgium held at the China Art Museum in Shanghai in 2016 following its launch in Delhi and Bangkok in 2015. She is currently leading on another cultural project besides working on a book on arts and crafts of India. Recipient of British honour MBE- Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire- for her contribution to India-UK cultural collaborative work, and the IHC Art India Award for her curation of Ways of Seeing art exhibition; Sushma is a member of the Paris based International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and a trustee/advisory committee member of Abhyas Trust and Kala Sakshi Trust, both in Delhi, Arts Acre Foundation in Kolkata, Harjai Global Gurukul in Mumbai, Kerala Museum in Kochi and Florence Biennale in Italy.