Celebrated artist Rekha Rodwittiya talks about her work, feminism and political views.

With the new government settling in, everyone has a different view on what it will do for the nation and for individuals. Rekha Rodwittiya, who has a penchant for all things bright and brilliant, a passion for family and an abiding involvement with cats, has her own definitions of politics, change and being a woman. And she is immensely quotable, sometimes enigmatically so, her words needing some interpretation. And when she is asked to do just that, she is expressive indeed.

“I’ve always identified with things that are marginal” —You were responding to a question on your feminism…

Make no mistake that the night will fall as dark as yesterdays, and that the moths that die may lead you to your light. Carry with you on your journey that garment that camouflages the vulnerability of your identity, so that the corpse that lies unattended is not yours. I bury my soul in my choreographed dreams. I am awake as I sleep.

The marginal is a space of life that holds, within my definition, many areas of human existence that fails to receive the attention that it requires, often due to prejudice and the lack of sensitised awareness for issues that are not comfortably comprehended or populist in nature. The under-privileged sections of Indian society bear the shame of our collective lack of will to assert the rigours of according basic human rights and development as the fundamental essential for human dignity to be honoured by all, in relation to their well being and progress.

I had the privilege of being born a much-desired-for girl child in a middle class economy of yesteryear, and grew up encircled in the mantle of empowered confidence my parents inspired that moulded my spirit of survival. My own personal choices have always been outside the prescriptive dictates, and so the attitudes of traditional mindsets that prefer conformity continuously make a challenging backdrop within which I set the stage of my own existence with an outside world. Feminist and other oral histories chronicle some of the most powerful narratives of valour, and are often the stories of survival of those most vulnerable and dispossessed. It is these legacies of human triumph that command my attention and hold my spirit captive, inspiring me to place my energies to conjoin with these ancestries of determination and courage.

My preoccupation as an artist is with the human existence, where one observes how areas of the marginalised are the ones most fraught with tensions, and which are the most problematic to bring inclusiveness to; yet it is these precise energies of conflict that provide greater possibilities of clarity to be finally realised through the endeavours of focus that each of us must surely be committed to, if we are to interpret and execute the guidelines offered in our democratic constitution which speaks of equality and liberty for all.

I desire to hold an optimism that must inform the functioning of my daily existence. I see this as essential if I am to hone my energies with the purposefulness that believes is change. India, with its converging histories from over the centuries that include diverse and varied influences, makes for a huge tapestry into which contemporary life reflects many worlds of differences, suggesting that plural co-existence is accommodated and straddled within this multicultural society as a proud heritage.

The kaleidoscope fragments of many differing human existences that still makes for cohesive patterns of inter-related belonging, creates the space of hope that an understanding surely must be realised that the marginal in Indian life is of equal significance, and that it must be viewed as a vital contribution that is not to be squandered merely to accommodate new political agendas of an imagined monolithic country.

“My perception is sewn into the fabric of Indian life and politics” —Indian politics is changing fast, for better or for worse. Is your perception evolving too? How?

I came back to live and work in India as a conscious choice after completing a two year MA program at the Royal College of Art in London in 1984, turning down a lucrative invitation to start my professional career as an artist in the UK. This was a choice motivated by my political beliefs to situate my life within my own country, and to engage with its progress as a participant, with a clear idea of the areas that were of concern for me. Women’s issues of development, child welfare, education and workshops for the underprivileged, interventional assistance through fund raising, drug and marital counselling, alternative teaching practices within the fine arts and many other areas of perceived need have been areas that I am actively engaged with over the last 30 years.

I desire to hold my conscience accountable in relation to issues of strife. I believe even the smallest contributions consistently delivered and which are heartfelt, can offer resonating belief which uplifts and propels the human spirit to maximise its potential to survive against all odds.

To contextualise who I am within the evolving changing spaces of Indian life and politics is what determines how I understand the territory of those concerns I am examining, and to know what is required from me to negotiate this space of commitment and alertness, and how to keep it real and effective. Optimism does not translate into idealism for me. I am extremely wary of clichéd tokenism and fight shy of labels to define these spaces of interaction.

History will always deliver periods of governance that challenge the preferred ideological moorings of individuals. Today the Indian mandate suggests it has voted for a change to address the grievances of a system that failed to deliver on its promises. My allegiance will always lie with a governance that is secular and which does not propagate divisive rhetoric, which cast the shadows of the fear of communal reprisal as a means to silence minorities.

“Culturally and historically, colours signify something” —you use colour with intelligence and subtlety, but what do those colours mean to you?

My colours are strident, almost insistent of attention, as they occupy a space of belonging that holds an authority as an element of relevant significance within the overall structure of a work. The colour palette that feeds my art works is informed by cultural traditions and factors of influence that correlate to the ideas I wish to deliver. The specificity of particularised meanings associated with colours comes from many regional territories across the world that contain expansive narrative traditions and cultural practices, and which are invested with particularised meanings. In exploring such practices there are certain symbiotic relationships that one finds for oneself, to personalise and appropriate to one’s own need, and which offers suggested meanings that contribute to the specific reading of a work of art.

“India now is a cacophony of multiple roars” —this is more true today than ever. Does this ‘colour’ your art and your life?

I believe that mature art holds radical positions that contextualise and examines prevailing issues of its time. Art is a space that strategises arguments, problematises as a method of introspection, is confrontational, is often used as a subversive tool, and is not a space that is designed to entertain the consent of another to validate its existence. This is what independent authorship and artistic autonomy must mean within a democratic space of a secular nation. The world that we place ourselves central to becomes a tapestry patterned by incidents and histories that demand our participation willingly or otherwise. As artists we often become the chroniclers of larger narratives that hold both the particularity of our lives as well as a wider world of information.

Pictorial language is often about the engagement with re-examining traditions and modernity within the contexts of changing requirements. Artists take it upon themselves to revaluate and mediate with existing realities and take positions that then reflect their views. The artist becomes an interesting chronicler of the ethos of these times negotiating through the known and the imagined, to leave yet another legacy to be conjoined within the compendium of other histories.

“The politics of relationships” —is what you like exploring, you said. There have been many changes in your own world of relationships. How has that affected your work?

I was attempting to highlight that in my own life I hold myself very strictly accountable to the personal politics that governs my existence at all times. The premise of my work celebrates the ideals of womanhood and explores the multiple avatars that a positioned stance of female empowerment embraces. Though gender equality is far from the norm as a reality of this nation, there is nonetheless a multitude of voices that stridently call to attention the need to dispel the bigoted stereotype of gender bias, and seek to accommodate the changes that we know to be possible and real. In a world where atrocities are committed against women in the name of upholding traditional values, a focus to redress this is vital if we are to define true liberty for all humanity. It is to such collective concerns that I reaffirm my allegiance and remain proud to call myself a feminist. It is these attitudes that define and form my personal politics, allowing me to creating an ideological premise derived from experiences and chosen influences that serves as the canon that guides my perceptions of the personal and the outside world I inhabit.

However, if I am to address the politics of relationships I share and value, I have never found them to be in conflict with the values I have chosen to determine how to live my life. I understood that as an artist the most liberating lesson learnt is that one’s own sense of belonging is held in multiple histories that form the stories of the world. And it is the curiosity of wanting to know about the unfamiliar that invites us through the doorways of many new discoveries. And that to be open, one does not in fact relinquish one’s individual uniqueness.

On June 10, 1977, while still a student and with the complete approval of my family, I married my friend, a foreign student from Thailand. I was diagnosed with issues of infertility soon after and was medically advised to conceive if I desired to have a child; my son Mithun was born on November 2, 1978, when I was 20. Unfortunately, my marriage broke down while I was expecting, and I filed for a divorce that was sanctioned in 1983. I met the challenges of being a single parent, and as Mithun was a much desired and planned addition to my life, there was never any quandary regarding this lifelong commitment, the responsibility to parent and nurture. Being a parent at a young age offered me invaluable experiences that propelled my energies with more focus than if I had no such responsibilities. I therefore always acknowledge the debt I owe to my son for the gift of this maturity and for the delight of rediscovering innocence.

In 1985 my friendship with Surendran Nair widened to include our commitment to conjoin our personal lives and to become a family. This partnership of 29 years is a relationship that keeps at its core of love, our engagement with one another as artists at all times uncompromised, and holding as precious the need to be truthful to ourselves as individuals so as to honour the personal journeys that have shaped our mental landscapes, and to hold with passion our personal politics as relevant to our self representation at all times.

You have some delightful images of yourself painting with your very tiny grandson on your shoulder—what has that special bond brought into your life and your work?

Mehran is, as all children are, a precious gift of life who allows all those who engage with him to rediscover the beauty of selfless nurturing and unconditional love. My work often holds references to the immediacy of what my life engages with and so my grandson will undoubtedly bring new areas of discovery to the explorations within my work. I am a strong believer in a family being closely united and inter-dependent emotionally, and so without doubt our little Mehran holds my heartstrings within the grasp of his tiny hand with the utmost ease!

What are you working on these days?

My art often employs myth and legends as territories of references from which the notion of life, viewed as a journey of assimilation, is explored. The photographic image reappears after I put down my camera 28 years ago. A series of personal occurrences brought back the connection— I had to take photographs once again. The bodies of my female protagonists now become the site of retrieval of personal histories. Retraced like mapped terrains, the contours of these figures are extracted from previous paintings, archived like from an archaeological survey. The montage of images lace together quite literally to become the second skin.

The painted faces of these figures become the masks to an otherwise intensely personal space of deliverance. Tall and erect, these guardian figures evoke the space of reflection and memories.


Sunday MagazineJune 15, 2014