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Sister act

Artist Pushpamala N., known for her subversive wit, and British photographer Clare Arni team up for an exhibition of performance photography

Clare Arni (bottom) and Pushpamala play protagonists in a project exploring the history of photography as a tool of ethnographic documentation.

WHAT'S Pushpamala N. been doing since her December 2002 show in Bangalore? The secret will be out at Gallery Sumukha from March 6 to 27, en route to Mumbai and New York. The Baroda-trained artist's new series of performance photographs, in collaboration with photographer Clare Arni — titled Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs — spans the historical, mythological, religious, fictional, and real.

Realised over two years through an India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grant, what do its 10 main tableaux present? A mythical yogini or sorceress from a 16th Century Bijapur miniature painting, a pond heron perched on her wrist, against an exquisite backdrop of local foliage. Three of Ravi Varma's paintings — Lady in Moonlight, Lakshmi, and Returning from the Tank — each recreated photographically in exquisite detail. A 1960s still of Jayalalitha in action gear. A 1990s Kannada film shot of a flirtatious couple. Even a circus scene by celebrated American photographer Mary Ellen Mark. The display includes a heart-wrenching visual of a bare-breasted Andamanese native being subjected to colonial `ethnographic studies,' rendered by Pushpamala as a Toda woman against a chessboard backdrop, her arm stretched against a measuring device.

In the performative work, "Pushpamala, South Indian artist, and Clare Arni, British photographer who has lived most of her life in South India — one black, one white — play the protagonists in a project exploring the history of photography as a tool of ethnographic documentation," explains their IFA (India Foundation for the Arts) proposal. "Playing with the notions of subject and object, the photographer and the photographed, white and black, real and fake, the baroque excess of the images subvert and overturn each other."

Versatile Pushpamala is at the core of each image. "This is performance photography, not documentary photography," she stresses. "I've always been socially aware. By using generic or familiar images, I comment on the world and society by putting myself into the fray, so that I become part of the story. I transform the stereotypical with my persona."

Interfacing with gender studies, sociological critiques, the realm of studio photography, even art history, the artists' attempt is "not to document, but to deconstruct." That accounts for the props and painted backdrops that enrich the gallery, the process shots of the cast and crew having a ball, and the sepia-toned `ethnographic series' modified from each shoot.

Within the context of the women-only zenana photographic studios that existed in Hyderabad and Kolkata, Pushpamala elucidates: "The whole idea is artifice, to work with those who make up today's visual culture, like billboard or autorickshaw painters. We created a space for fantasy."

Exploring the niches of fantasy, we find a Ravi Varma protagonist on an antique lounge chair, a la Amrita Sher Gil's Reclining Woman. Or the Toda woman transformed with dark glasses and a gun. Or Clare, dressed as Lakshmi, shooting the lotus-borne Pushpamala in the same avatar. Some popular take-offs are sourced from sepia ethnographic images from an Australian catalogue of native Oceanic types, Clare's collection of colonial postcards, African studio photographs, or even Delhi-based photographer Satish Sharma's series on street studios.

Is subversive wit the pivot for Pushpamala's art? "Art can become pompous or ponderous. Though I loved using materials in my student sculptures, I wondered why they were dependent on a serious language," she laughs. "I've always loved humour, whether in film, fiction or art. I was influenced by two of India's wittiest artists, K.G. Subramanyan and Bhupen Khakkar, who gave me a language to express myself with. This makes art accessible to the public, though there's the danger they may not take it seriously, as my expression ranges from the ridiculous to dark humour."

Whether viewed as a sister act, a double bill or a gender-sensitive dasavatara, Pushpamala and Clare — as conceptual artists, as wacky auteur — present a show that jolts us out of our artistic preconceptions. There's no disputing that.

The works may be viewed at Gallery Sumukha in Wilson Garden from March 6 to 27.


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