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Contours of complexity

Through her canvases Sharmila Mohandas explores the female experience in a predominantly patriarchal society

THE IMAGES shock the viewers' sensibility with their candid and blatant nakedness; the large fixed eyes hypnotically consume the spectator in an act of devouring; the colours, dramatic, powerful and dynamic, engage with their flaring oranges, burning reds, earthy browns, haunting blues and acerbic greens. The experience is daunting as one absorbs the direct scrutiny of the nude female forms. The authority of representation underpins the artist's approach to her ideology, which invariably is one of passionate denial of her sexuality to project the duality that constitutes the human subject. Sharmila Mohandas who is showcasing her works at the Artworld is confident in reckoning this reality on her canvases.

Layered meaning

In the art historical discourse, the representation of female nudes by women artists is neither rare nor remote as exemplified in the oeuvre of Amrita Sher Gill or Frida Kahlo [Mexican]. But these artists definingly demonstrated that the female body was a carrier of layered meaning. While the former stressed her avant-gardism by inscribing her sexuality through the nudes, Kahlo, on the other hand, transcribed her physical pain through a similar mode of representation. The `nude-art-statements' by Sharmila Mohandas, who has emerged from her self-imposed exile, have energised her space in forcefully translating her predicament in a predominantly patriarchal society. The canvases though not very large cover the walls succulently giving out an energy that translates to a sexually aestheticised fe/male gaze. An alumnus of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, this is her first solo show in Chennai.

Sharmila's present series is programmed around the main character of the Red Queen from Lewis Carrol's "Through the Looking Glass". Through the dominant image of the Red Queen, she is metaphorically alluding to a fatalistic notion of woman who in a male dominated world finds it difficult to achieve success/recognition despite working doubly hard.

Sharmila rejects the idea that art is mimetic or representational, for images in art are merely tropes or effects of language. Celebrating this notion of linguistics she mediates through her individualised language the philosophical duality inherent in Indian thought through iconic imagery of Ardhanareeswara, Nataraja and erotic sculptures in union. The duality implicit here is the maleness/ femaleness within every individual, the powers of destruction and creation and the capacity and ability for procreation through the union of male and female energies respectively, are skeins of binaries weaving through her works. Interestingly with this ideology, Sharmila is also establishing the domain of desires, as the Red Queen surrounded by human seeds precisely notates.


Images of nudes have been commonplace in Indian art and have never been a prerogative of the western art tradition. In the modern discourse of art, the nude became deeply implicated in the politics of representation and also signified the modern artists' own sense of alienation. Within the modern Indian art practice, the nude is enshrined as an art form privileging formal qualities as the works of Husain or Ara implicate. The nudity that Sharmila metaphorically glances at is one of vulnerability wherein the exposed form is to be read as a renewal or the casting away of a layer of skin made manifest in the painting "Peeling" or "Exile" or "Cleansing the Self". Naked or semi clothed or fully clothed, the female body can never be an innocent category, beyond cultural definitions.

In addition to focussing on the female body, the emphasis is also on the eyes. Traditional codes [Jain miniatures] are interrogated through post-modern sensibility to significations of introspection — a continuous process in space and temporality for the exigencies of fruitful living. Constant engagement with duality and binaries conceptualised with equanimity is to drive the thrust of her tensions and frustrations of establishing her identity, trapped as she is within a female body. She seeks power, authority, liberation, individuality through the abject, to signpost her trace within the patriarchal cultural milieu.

The show is on at the Art World, Ganeshpuram, Off Cenotaph Road till December 2.


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