Bombay Showcase

Brushstrokes of power

Judgement Day (2012) by Anju Dodiya, one of the most lucrative artists in Indian contemporary art.  

We’ve just survived Women’s Day, second only to Valentine’s Day in a list that I have affectionately titled “Die, Day-maker, Die”. Many complain (and rightly) about how it’s pointless to have a single day to “celebrate” women when the misogyny is so all-pervasive. But it’s not really the tokenism of Women’s Day that annoys me. What makes me grind my teeth and want to scalp people are the gestures that are offered. You are a woman, so go shop, with discounts! Buy a diamond! Get fed by a man! Giggle with other women as though you are all hysterical and have nothing to actually say to each other! And as if these stereotypes weren’t bad enough, there’s the artwork that shows women who are about as real as the mannequin you can see from the Kemps’ Corner flyover.

The reason Indian advertising’s attempts at celebrating femininity usually falls resoundingly flat on its botoxed face are the women in Indian contemporary art. Gender is a prickly topic to raise in most circles, but not in the world of Indian art. It’s an arena in which women are key players, no matter which aspect you consider. Look at the best of gallerists, curators and artists, and you’ll find women, holding their own ably. They (and many of the men in the Indian art world) celebrating femininity on a regular basis, through their work. Some of the most lucrative artists in Indian contemporary art are women, like Anju Dodiya and Bharti Kher for instance.

Not that money is the reason we value these artists. One of my favourite series by Dodiya is one that isn’t necessarily the artist at her finest, given she’s primarily a painter. It’s a set of prints that were inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poetry. And yet, there's something about the pain that riddles those works that I can’t forget. There’s so much more about womanhood and the anxieties that haunt you because you've grown up as a girl swaddled in conventions of beauty in these prints, than in taglines of advertisements.

A few years ago, Kher raised a few hackles and disappointed many when she said she wasn't comfortable being called a feminist. I was one of those who were heartbroken. It was despairing to have to accept that someone who is so sensitive to the experience of being a woman — just think of how radically she used and reinterpreted the humble bindi, without ever losing sight of what it signifies in the average Indian woman’s life — felt uncomfortable about feminism.

I can still remember the first time I saw Pushpamala N’s Phantom Lady and Sunehre Sapne. Just looking at those mischievous and beautiful photographs of women in these fantasy-rich scenarios, I felt as though my head was full of glittering fairy lights. Each image made me think of so many stories: why is she holding herself at that angle? Does that bouffant hint at something about her? Where has that car, whose dicky she’s crawling out of brought her, and from where? These weren’t scenarios that too many of us had known in real life, but the sentiments and the emotional experiences that Sunehre Sapne tipped its bouffant to were so intensely and powerfully feminine. Sure, these photographs must speak to men just as eloquently as they do to women, but I can't help but think that as a woman, you don't just see the work. You feel it.

It’s a visceral sense of communion between the female viewer and the woman artist, arising out of the work that sees recognises that is true to the experience of being a woman. Femininity — its doubts, its triumphs and its despairs — are not remarkable. They're everyday to those of us who live according to the patterns of womanhood and not quite so humdrum to those who can step away for some perspective. That’s why taking a day off to observe them is ridiculous. Instead, look up the women of Indian art, soak in their work. Even 365 days may not be enough.

Deepanjana Pal is a Mumbai-based journalist working with

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 12:29:10 AM |

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