When Pushpamala N. embarked on her artistic voyage in the late 70s, she chose to do it with sculpture. She studied under Balan Nambiar in Bangalore, and Raghav Kaneria in MS University, Baroda. "Making sculptures used to be a solemn activity and I remember, once when I was stuck, my teacher Raghav Kaneria suggested that I turn my funny sketches into sculptures and it worked. This led to my first body of painted plaster sculptures of women which were very humourous - and I continued using wit and humour in my work,” remembers Pushpamala, one of Karnataka’s finest creative minds.
Today, Pushpamala is known for her experiments with photography, video and performance. Nature Morte, the Delhi-based gallery, which represents the artist mentions her as “The most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art”.
A scene from the film Rangoon , in which you see Kangana Ranaut running atop a moving train which is carrying her love Shahid Kapoor, a prisoner of the British, reminded one of the film “Fearless Nadia”. It also brought to mind Pushpamalareprising the first stunt woman of Hindi cinema in her work, “Phantom Lady/Kismet”, her first photo-romance made in 1998.
In Pushpamala’s studio in RR Nagar, we are privy to the artist's latest body of work in progress - a series of 100 sculptures inspired by a medieval copper object displayed in Government Museum. “Researching for my recent sculptures, I came across many ancient scripts like Brahmi, Phagspa, Vatteluttu, Dives Akuri, with their own histories of politics and trade. I've used ethnography and anthropology in my art, and this time epigraphy is entering the work,” she explains.
When sculpture became too conceptual, Pushpamala felt the need to refresh herself and that’s how her photo-romances began: she took on the guise of Raja Ravi Varma’s muse, a Toda woman, Lady Phantom, goddess Lakshmi, Mother India and many more.
Pushpamala resorts to references from history and popular culture to engage with theories of post-colonial identity and feminist historical satire. She then laces it up with wit and satire to churn out fun playful tableaux of images. “I think of my work as an investigation. By casting myself as the central character I put myself at the crux of social and political inquiry. I become part of the situation and compromised in it (and not only a commentator). The audience recognises me enacting something and laughs out loud. Or sometimes they get so caught up in the fantasy, they enter the narrative through my presence, which is like a conduit. It creates an emotional connect. I like the confusion between the real and fictional - I have many strange experiences with the audience when I have showcased my work. I use women’s narratives and twist the story.”
Student days in Baroda
In Baroda, Pushpamala came across collections of hand-painted photographs and the medium piqued her interest. “I like photography and video because they are very fluid and work in series. I also like the 'factual' nature of photography. An industrial form like photography is a record of our modern life, and it is a modern tool. The public sees every image as a ‘photo’, it is so popular! It is seduction.”
She describes her student days in Baroda as fruitful. “In the 1970s the modernist sculpture scene in India was extremely purist, basically abstract works in stone, metal and wood. As students in Baroda we started breaking the rules, doing figurative works and using alternate materials like fibre glass, terracotta, papier mache and plaster of Paris, and painting sculptures. This began to be noticed and several of us, like Ravinder Reddy, Prithpal Singh Ladi and I got National awards. The series of terracotta works that I made as an MA student are still remembered and I got the gold medal at the VI Triennale for them.
For teachers and mentors, they had Gulammohammed Sheikh, K.G. Subramanyan, Raghav Kaneria and Bhupen Khakar, who influenced her work, directly or indirectly. “Gulammohammed Sheikh was our art history teacher in Baroda, who used a lot of global art historical references in his work. Looking back, I think he was a major influence in the way I use quotations.”
From where it all started
The seeds of her multi-disciplinary work were sown in Bangalore, the city where she was born and raised. She was studying English literature at Mount Carmel College and was part of the milieu that discussed Navya literature, as well as New Wave cinema. She attended evening art classes of Balan Nambiar and was friends with influential personalities like Prasanna, Jayanth Kaikini, and Ramachandra Guha. She was introduced to U.R. Ananthamurthy by Prasanna.
“In the 1970s, it was a time of great creative and political ferment. Bangalore was the centre of Modernist Kannada literature (Navya) , New Wave cinema and New theatre. I was a teenager doing my BA in Bangalore University. We were reading Germaine Greer and Kate Millet and were stout feminists. I was a part of a group around the influential intellectual T.G. Vaidyanathan who was an English professor in the University. It was the time of the Emergency, the atmosphere was energetic, lively and rebellious. We were discussing everything under the sun. This was when I joined Balan Nambiar's Bangalore Art Club for art classes at St. Marks Road. He encouraged me to take up art seriously and helped me to join the Fine Arts Faculty in Baroda. It was also the time of rock music and bands. Konarak Reddy was a friend and we used to go over to Pattabhi Rama Reddy and Snehalatha Reddy's house often, which was a meeting place for creative people. I met U R Ananthamurthy there, first in his earlier avatar as a college professor in Mysore, clean shaven and in pant-shirt. Snehalatha Reddy was arrested during the Emergency and tragically died soon after she was released.”
Her paths kept crisscrossing with practitioners of different crafts even in Mumbai, where she moved after her marriage to film scholar, Ashish Rajadhyaksha. She was part of the alternate cinema crowd and engaged in discussions with Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. The multiple encounters went on to inform her art practice.
After she returned to Bengaluru in late 90s, she built a studio, and called it "Somberikatte" – the idler’s platform. Every Sunday, she invited three speakers who discussed the notion of the folk.
The Idea of The Folk series ended with six editions but in 2010, she began curating another series of lectures at 1, Shanti Road -- ReLook: Lectures on Art presenting new research in art history, visual anthropology and art practice.
“Bangalore has become an important art centre not because of any patronage or market, but because of the artist community which is very lively and constantly organising things and supporting each other. But I felt there was a lack of discourse on art, and started a series of lectures on Indian art (called Re-Look) in 2010 at the art space 1, Shanthi Road, inviting scholars to speak.”
Weren't those times more conducive for art and artists? “One has always tried to engage. I find visual artists are more interested in having a dialogue with various disciplines but others are not as interested. Cross-pollination has been crucial for all important movements in the world. Visual artists are more interested in having a dialogue with various disciplines, but others are not so interested. Many of us have designed sets for films. Umesh Madanahalli has acted as a villain in a film. Babu Eshwar Prasad is making films but filmmakers are not interested in art. Also, visual language is different. It has nothing to do with language nationalism but there is so much emphasis on the spoken and written language, so art gets a little ignored. From the age of three, one starts to learn the poems of Kuvempu. There is so much political support to language nationalism. Visual languages which may not have geographic boundaries are also important to understand the world. It is also to do with the idea of the 'cultivated' cosmopolitan person."