Friday Review

Raucous cries of a canvas

RohiniMani  

Perched on the railing of the balcony of a quaint little house, a crow cawed continuously. Its raucous cries seemed as if they were trying to make known some kind of urgent turmoil within itself. Inside the house, a similar tumult seemed to unfold, this time through ceaseless brushstrokes on the canvas. The lines organised themselves to create the form of a female figure whose complexion was dark and eyes, filled with deep intent were looking directly at us. She appeared again and again as one flipped through the canvases, each time expressing a new facet of the same turbulence. What made the sketches and paintings more interesting was the fact that the recurring female figure was none other than the author of the art works, RohiniMani, an artist based in Perungudi in Chennai.

A graduate of the Sarojini Naidu School of Fine Arts, Hyderabad University, and the Government College of Fine Arts and Crafts, Madras University, RohiniMani’s art bespeaks a racial politics that is inherent in our society: that dark is undesirable. “Each artist develops their own style which evolves over time and takes shape to deliver some kind of intent. I discovered that I was most comfortable doing portraits and sketches of myself and each time I drew, I discovered that the painting was trying to unleash a hidden facet of my thought process. I’ve grown up listening to people around me say, 'she is dark but is also beautiful.' I’ve seen hoardings around the city that champion fairness as a desirable notion. What I have never understood is why being dark is just so undesirable,” she says.

Compositionally, Rohini’s subjects which include mostly herself and sometimes other objects around her are placed in the centre of the canvas. She is not the first artist to do this. Many artists through history have placed themselves at the centre of their artistic enquiry often attempting to understand something that plagued them. For Rohini, it was easier to draw her own face and body because she felt she was closest to it. “I believe if we know ourselves well enough, or at least try to, we are in a position to understand others as well,” she says. So, in the hours she spent in her hostel room between lectures, she indulged in understanding what she was most comfortable drawing. She observed her own features and moods and saw the consequence of her mind in her art.

“Observing the shape of an eyebrow or a nose taught me a lot. The curvature of the nose, the unending strokes of hair in an eyebrow - all are symbolic of the inherent beauty in nature. When each individual aspect is so beautiful, how can we call anything around us ‘ugly’,”she asks.

‘The Self and its Investigation’ as a theme, is evident in not just her self-portraits but in other paintings too. For instance, a three hour long activity of scribbles and etchings resulted in a series on an orange. “I noticed the fruit, how it is peeled revealing layers beneath it. Gradually, the fruit is eaten and then what remains is the seed. Out of the seed, they say, the fruit, is born again. But, I think it is a new fruit, with a completely new identity that is born from the seed. For me, the peeling of the orange is symbolic of the manner in which we are analysed and dissected. We have secrets that are hidden between and behind layers waiting to be discovered.” she elaborates. As she continued with her quest, Rohini produced art works that were political and radical. In one of her canvases, she stands in a bathroom holding a pair of scissors. She seems to be cutting through what appears as her skin. “Skin is like a layer of clothing on us. The skin has a colour which makes people categorise me as dark or fair. Through this canvas, I wanted to do away with these notions. It’s as if I’m saying that I’m tired of this and do not want any of it,”she explains.

Rohini also attempts to subvert canonical paintings by placing herself in the middle of it. For example, she places herself in the centre of the famous Astarte of Rosetti. In the place of the fair, European divine female form is Rohini, subverting notions of fair skin with her own. “In a way, this is my attempt to make the onlooker look again. But not just passively. By placing myself at the centre of European canon, I want to question standardised notions of beauty. I want the audience to look and at the same time to block the male gaze,” she explains.

Over the years, Rohini has exhibited her work as part of group exhibitions such as Nun Kalai Kuzhu in 1999, Camilin in 2000, Lalith Kala Academy in 2000 and 2003 and Russian Cultural Centre in 2011. She has also illustrated for several magazines, children’s books and taught art in schools.

In many ways, Rohini’s paintings evoke the famous artist Pushpamala, who placed herself at the centre of her photo-canvases in an attempt to initiate an enquiry into the representation of the feminine. There was the element of drama in Pushpamala’s canvases which made the onlooker pause and question accepted norms of visualisations of the female. “Of course, I’m familiar with Pushpamala’s oeuvre. But, my work is focused on the subject of race alone. Pushpamala’s project was more complex and nuanced,”she says.

Like Pushpamala’s series on Indian goddesses, Rohini too has a little notebook tucked away in her repertoire that has etchings of Hindu goddesses, dark in complexion, sitting freely, sometimes hunching or with legs apart. “Why cannot goddesses be dark? Do they always have to be fair? And, why do they always have to sit in a particular manner? As women, we are always asked to sit properly, keeping our legs together. But sitting freely is just an automatic reflex of the mind when it is relaxed. Why is it everyone’s business to tell a woman how to behave?”

Settled in Perungudi today with a family of her own, Rohini paints from home, hoping that one day she will put up a solo show of her paintings. “I’m yet to find a space that I deem appropriate for my art works. I’d like to showcase my work where everyone can see. A street, perhaps,” she explains.

The crow continues to caw interrupting our conversation. Noticing its calls, Rohini says, “I spend a lot of time painting in this room. The crow, therefore, becomes a recurring subject of my paintings. You may ask why. But, why would I paint a peacock, when I know the crow better?,” she asks.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 1:21:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/interview-with-rohinimani/article6704416.ece

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