WOMAN ARTIST IN INDIA
N Rajyalakshmi, the fictitious Chief Reporter of Ideal Times, interviews the real artist Pushpamala N
NR: Ms Pushpamala, do you enjoy being called a woman artist? Isn’t it derogatory?
PN: Yes, some artists like one of my Professors in Baroda, Nasreen Mohammadi, who was a very fine abstract artist, did object to being called a woman artist. But since the 1980s I think there has been a very strong feminist consciousness and many artists found a whole new world of subject matter and felt empowered. Women artists now are doing some of the most exciting work in India, taking risks and breaking barriers with their practice! They have also become more articulate and confident -
NR: You chose to study sculpture. Was it difficult?
PN: I was a 40 kg weakling in art school, but I was always in the sculpture department. When I wanted to specialize, I asked my Professor whether I was too skinny to be a sculptor and he said, what you need is mental strength, not physical strength! That instantly convinced me! It’s hard work but so is making any kind of art.
Sculpture departments all over the world are very conservative. There is this image of huge bearded muscular men carving stone or welding metal- its very macho, and intimidating.
NR: But your work was recognized early-
PN: When I was a student in the 1980s in Baroda, I was part of a new generation of young sculptors who started doing strongly figurative sculpture in new materials. Our work was immediately noticed by the art world. The sculpture scene then was basically Henry Moore and abstract sculpture in stone and wood and metal. I chose to work in terracotta as an indigenous and ‘poor’ material.
( NR: Aren’t there very few women sculptors in India?
PN: Lets say there are very few good sculptors in India – and the most interesting ones are women! Like Meera Mukherjee of the older generation of artists from Santiniketan, who worked with the metal casting process of the Bastar tribals. Or Mrinalini Mukherjee who made large iconic woven hemp sculptures and now works with ceramics, Sheela Gowda who works with traditional materials like cowdung, thread and pigments, Anita Dubey who does surrealist conceptual work, Navjot Altaf who has been working along with tribal artists in a tribal area doing very political work - but the funny thing is, that most of these artists don’t come from a background of sculpture! They are trained painters, printmakers, even art historians. And someone like me who is a trained sculptor is doing photography and video. But everybody is using different kinds of media, which didn’t happen in the past. )
NR: Your work is funny. Isn’t it just satire and caricature?
PN: You know, Ms Rajyalakshmi, women aren’t supposed to laugh out loud, to be boisterous? The world is full of jokes against women. But women, in fact, like all subalterns have a sharp sense of humour and wit. My use of humour relaxes the spectator but it’s very subversive. It’s also very aggressive!
And women love my work. Men can be very embarrassed about it- but women seem to enter easily and identify with the fun, the satire, the sensuality, the pathos and the open self-revelation and confessional element in the work.
NR: Why did you start working with photography?
PN: My earlier figurative sculpture, which was mainly in terracotta, was too narrative, too real. I started moving away from it into a more minimal language, doing very strongly political, conceptual work in the 90s, responding to the violence and turbulence of the times. But then the work became didactic and spare - I felt I had worked myself into a corner and was limiting the possibilities of my work.
The way I work with photography now, it is more expansive, more open, where I can put in all my interests-
NR: Why do you use yourself in your photographs? Are you a narcissist?
PN: Narcissus was a Greek god who looked at his reflection in a pond and fell in love with himself. Women cannot be narcissists by definition, Ms Rajyalakshmi, because we can never love ourselves, we are always seeking approval from men and society!
NR: Will you say something about your recent work?
PN: My first photographic work, done in 1997, is a photo romance, Phantom Lady or Kismet, a film noir style adventure of lost and found twins set in the city of Bombay [Mumbai]. The Phantom Lady character is based on Fearless Nadia, who was a famous stunt film star from 1930s Hindi films. My next work, Sunhere Sapne [ Golden Dreams] is the fantasy of a middle class housewife dressed in a housecoat and her alter ego, a mysterious woman in a golden frock with a bouffant hairstyle. The set of small hand painted black and white photographs have the sweetness and intimacy of old family photographs, but it is shot like a thriller, and the content is dark.
Bombay Photo Studio is a series of individual studio portraits taken by Mr. J H Thakker, big size sepia prints based on the typical family portrait or film star glamour pictures. My latest work, Dard e Dil [The Anguished Heart], a set of large handpainted photographs, is a tragic love story, a sort of Muslim social set in an old ruined mansion in the heart of Old Delhi.
I am also working on an ongoing project with a photographer friend, Clare Arni, in which we are creating a series of images of South Indian women, like an ethnography of native types.
In all these, I play the protagonist or both the protagonists [I love using alter egos] and use popular genres and archetypes.
I am also interested in referring to the history of Indian photography, which I see as the history of Indian modernity, which has had its own trajectory-
NR: But don’t you think you are reinforcing these stereotypes by enacting them?
PN: You know, I am much taller and larger than the conventional Indian woman. When I assume the character of the protagonist, the image changes immediately, becomes more powerful. And then I become an active agent, changing the popular images I work with- they become my own fantasies, projections of my own desires, and more nuanced, more complex. There is also a strong sense of vulnerability, of autobiography - so it goes back and forth between the personal and the social/political.
NR: Ms Pushpamala, there have been a lot of attacks on artists and women recently by fundamentalist groups. It is all about how women are portrayed or about enforcing a dress code. The accusation is that it is against Indian culture or traditional culture. Does this affect you?
PN: Women and artists are soft targets, easy to attack, Ms Rajyalakshmi. I was just thinking of the liberal climate that was there till the 80s. Savitri, an artist from a lower middle class traditional family who worked in a bank had an exhibition of ‘Self Nude’ paintings , as she called it, in the early 80s in Bangalore. It created a furore and there was a hot debate in the papers for weeks about her work. She was very confident and articulate and defended herself stoutly. But there was no question of her or her exhibition being attacked - nor was it officially banned! A Tamil magazine in Chennai castigated her work and that was it.
Recently, in Bangalore there was an exhibition of photographs of the making of the idols of the Goddess Durga which was attacked by a group of men. They told the owner of the gallery to take down works that showed the bare breasts and limbs of the idols because it insulted the image of their goddess. This is ridiculous- it is a common sight to see the craftsmen making the images and photographs of them are published everywhere! It is a way of intimidating people by irrational acts and creating an atmosphere for fundamentalism to grow. It is also very much to do with enforcing male supremacy and machismo.
NR: Indian artists are showing a lot internationally these days. Do you think your work can be understood abroad?
PN: No, maybe not all the layers, ‘in’ jokes, or references. But the work is performance related feminist art which I would say is its international context. Last year, when I showed Phantom Lady and my video Indian Lady in Montreal at La Centrale for instance, young people and students particularly loved the work. There is an image of India as either spiritual/ Orientalist, or as backward, rustic and disaster ridden. The funny thing is that people in the West and some people in India see Phantom Lady as ‘Western’. But the characters in Phantom Lady and the stunt and thriller genres I’ve used, have been popular types in Indian films for decades! And the shots of Bombay are at actual locations with real people in them. When we show internationally, I think we help break this ‘anthropological’ view-
Bangalore February 2003