N Rajyalakshmi , Chief reporter of Ideal Times, interviews Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni on the Native Women project.
NR: Why Native Women of South India?
PN: Well, Ms. Rajyalakshmi, Clare and I met several times to discuss my proposal for the India Foundation grant. While we were tossing around ideas, she said since I had earlier worked on images of Indian women, why not work on South Indian women? I loved it. For one thing, most typical images of Indian women were from the North, the North is the norm. And then we were both South Indian women. I am a Kannadiga from Bangalore, and Clare is British but has spent most of her life in South India. A native is the original inhabitant of a place, but who is more native, one who comes from there, or the one who chooses to be there? And who is “typical”? The project really plays around with the idea of the “native”. At this time of regionalist and religious politics, it’s a most contentious idea.
CA: I grew up and went to school in Madurai in Tamil Nadu and came back to live in India when I fell in love and married an architect from Bangalore. In school I wanted to have an arranged marriage with a Tamil Brahmin when I grew up! I’ve travelled all over South India extensively, and have been documenting images of South Indian women in the course of my work. I love the film posters with the actresses in uplift bras!
NR: Why masquerade?
PN: You know, when I was working on the project, and borrowing things from all sorts of people, old family friends said this reminds them exactly of my mother. There was one story by an uncle who said that when he was newly married – this was in the early 1950s - there was a knock on the door and when his young wife opened it, she found a holy man standing in the dusk. He barked at her that she was insulting him by not greeting him with the proper rituals. When she went back with all the puja things, she found him laughing uproariously- it was my mother in a yogi’s costume! She was a keen amateur actress and we grew up doing “Great Women of India” and “Costumes of India” pageants - this project is a bit like that. The performance brings in autobiography and subjectivity, besides the irony that is implicit in replicating a cliché. One is inside the image, not just outside, looking.
CA: This is completely different from the way I work, but I was interested in experimenting with something new. I had done some family portraits earlier in England based on Raja Deen Dayal’s royal portraits. And my father makes “home movies”- the last one shot on a holiday in Goa was a murder mystery, very funny.
NR: Why did you choose to copy images?
PN: Copying is a very traditional way of learning how something is put together. A cultural theorist friend was very irritated with the whole show and said he didn’t understand at all why we didn’t just paste my face onto existing images. But then this can be done by any school kid who knows photo-shop, we didn’t have to spend years on the project. And as a sculptor, I’m interested in the materiality of it. Recreating the image meant that the entire picture was physically constructed life-size as a three-dimensional painted tableau, with backdrop, props, costumes and accessories, and then photographed. The production for each tableau took three months, because of the care in detailing. And because I was performing physically in them, we were able to further use the costumes and props to freely create many hundreds of new images from the original scenes, which became the ethnographic, popular and process series, which made the project so exuberant and playful.
CA: Initially we concentrated on replicating the original, with great attention to the costume, props and mood of the image. In the first shoot we used only studio flash lighting and experimentation was limited to the use of different photographic filters. The second image, “Returning from the Tank” used a variety of lighting from diffused daylight, reflectors and flashes. We also broke away from the original image, taking inspiration from my collection of nineteenth century British postcards depicting typical Indian scenes. The idea of documenting the process of shooting came up, which became important images in themselves. Shooting these images made me break from away from my “advertising” way of seeing where careful composing cleans up the reality of the scene. I began looking at the photographic studio with its inherent play of equipment, crew and chaos as a set piece in itself.
NR: If you were really interested in “types”, what is the point of being so faithful to the original picture down to the smallest detail?
PN: It’s a kind of discipline. If one gets sloppy, the picture loses its rigour. For “Cracking the Whip”, I needed that particular kind of dagger belt in the original image. Ealamalai, my set painter advised me to get it made by buying a readymade belt from the market, and having the dagger pockets sewn on by an autorickshaw decorator. The authentic looking handstand in the Toda shoot took three months to make. Sculptor Balan Nambiar worked out the design and made a scale drawing for me. The stand was made of wood, with a steel geared wheel fixed on top as in a beach umbrella. Balan and I went to the metal scrap yard at the City Market looking for parts but could not find anything readymade. Finally we got the wheel made in an industrial estate and then welded it at his workshop nearby. The first carpenter I went to misunderstood the perspective drawing and carved what looked like a temple pillar! Another carpenter I found later modified it. It was then stained with bitumen to make it look old.
CA: Ms. Rajyalakshmi, each time we chose an image to replicate in the studio, we would spend time analyzing its physicality as well as its emotional content. What was this woman feeling in this situation? The fear and unease of a tribal woman confronted by a British camera, the terror of a criminal in an Indian jail, but also her strength in her criminality. Why was that lady alone in the moonlight with her pallu adrift? We became at one with these women and were able to share in their story. We would then empower her by taking her out of her milieu and re-contextualizing her in differing histories.
NR: How did you go about the research?
PN: From the beginning of the project, we started putting together material dealing with images of women, particularly south Indian women. It was an ongoing process and we went shoot by shoot. This consisted of books, catalogues, magazine and newspaper clippings, post cards, toys, votive images and photographs. Besides gathering readymade material, Clare took photographs of a circus, and of roadside shrines for the “Velankanni” shoot. The original project was much more modest, to create fifteen pictures, but as we kept working, we started elaborating the scenes in each shoot. For example, when I was trying to pose as Ravi Varma’s “Lady in Moonlight” we realized that it was a very strange picture, where this woman was sitting alone at a lake shore at night quite immodestly, with her pallu falling off, and her sari hitched up to expose her calves. It was an early “cheesecake” picture, using the mythological story of Radha waiting for Krishna as a pretext to paint a sexy woman! So we collected images from calendar pictures and advertisements for an extra shoot where we had the Lady pose in a series of “glamourous” images, which formed the popular series of the tableau.
CA: As a process, the collaboration moved from replicating an existing image where “copying” the original was important, to the emphasis being on experimenting. At one point the idea was to do only Ravi Varma works, but then we decided it would be more challenging to make each image different from the other. The final two shoots, “Circus” and “Our Lady of Velankanni” did not take their inspiration from a single source image but from differing ideas, memories and pictures. My desire in this collaboration, Ms. Rajyalakshmi, was to have the freedom to experiment with an artist rather than to build up a body of work that could be seen as a cohesive exhibition. I visited religious shrines, festivals and bookshops, documenting imagery to use for the final shoot, for finally creating a tableau from our own imagination. We took inspiration from exhibitions in London, Indian and European Art History, contemporary exhibition catalogues and many other sources. Images that were not used in the main category were then incorporated in the loosely called, “Popular” and “Ethnographic” series, but to me these were often as important as the “main” images and could easily be interchanged.
NR: Ms. Pushpamala, can you say something about your performance?
PN: I had the same problem as the set painters who found it difficult to copy things! The wigs and crowns would get displaced or there would be elaborate mechanisms for holding up the costume as in the “Yogini” tableau, in which strings were tied to the ends of the scarves and held by an assistant outside the frame, to make them “fly”. Since I was producer, director and actor, and the shoots were done in my home studio, crew members would come up as I was trying to get the right expression and ask where various things needed urgently were kept - hammer, extension cord, paper clips, chalk piece etc. Sometimes there was a crew of sixteen people wandering all over the house looking around with no supervision. Each pose had to be maintained many times over, for the black and white shots, next for colour, next for the transparency, for every scene that we shot. I’m talking about the mechanics of it, because the entire mise-en-scene was important.
Clare walked in as Make up Ramakrishna was doing my “Lakshmi” make-up and said she wanted to be Lakshmi too. Strangely, I had hired or borrowed two of everything: two crowns, two saris, two wigs - so she had a complete costume ready. We had two Lakshmis on the lotus, Lakshmi shooting Lakshmi, four- armed Lakshmi. For the last tableau of “Our Lady of Velankanni” she decided to perform along with me. I thought I would have dark make up in contrast and became a Black Mary. We had two nuns and two angels, one white and one black. The ten- hour shoot was hilarious. Clare would set the camera up, run and take position on the set, and one of the assistants would click. The studio had 200 burning candles and studio lights. The angel wings kept falling out of place. I had to climb on a ladder and hold out a garland from the top of the set, with my make up running in the suffocating heat…
NR: Ms. Clare, this kind of photography is very different from your documentary work-
CA: In my regular photographic work, I prefer to use only natural light and ambient light, and liked to use colour transparency film before I started using a digital camera recently. I rarely do studio photography as my work involves architectural, travel and outdoor photography. For this project, we photographed each shot in black and white, colour negative and slide film so that at a later date we would be able to experiment with these images further. I had to juggle between three cameras with one tripod because we used film rolls, and each camera had one kind of film. Around 4000 images were shot on fourteen shoots. This was the first time I used studio lights and worked with an experienced film lighting crew. The crew would give their ideas and advice, which often created a wonderful variety to the images. And when I became my own subject in the shoots, I experienced what it was like to be put in costume and make up and undergo a character transformation, to be on the receiving end of the camera!
PN: Historically, so- called ethnographic records were really concocted in the studio using exotic props and costumes, with no great regard for true documentation! At the same time, they were records of a highly constructed reality.
NR: Ms. Pushpamala, your project involved working with urban artisans-
PN: I worked with almost the entire gamut of people producing popular visual culture in Bangalore, the experience could form another project! Prabhat Costume Company had photo albums of some sort of garish theatrical tableaus which they showed to customers. One day the man explained that a traditional business community here had elaborate ceremonies when the daughters reached puberty and spent a lot of money on sets and costumes. Usually it was done when several girls in the extended family came of age. The girls were dressed as both gods and goddesses, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita for example, or Krishna and Radha in a palace setting. I remembered as a child seeing my neighbour’s daughter dressed as the goddess Saraswati in full make-up along with paper mache peacock, being worshipped on a throne. It seems that the masquerade is a kind of rite of passage, with young girls dressed as both men and women!
The funny thing is, what is presented as “traditional” is in fact cooked up from an eclectic range of ingredients to be “effective”. Cinema hoarding painters, who are mainly Tamilians who have moved here from the film industry in Chennai painted the tableaus. My first painter G. Ealamalai works for Rockline Productions, a Kannada film company, but he also has a small studio in the Rajarajeshwari temple nearby, where he is employed to do the artwork associated with the Madurai style painted temple. His work ranges from religious art, film sets and hoardings to popular architecture – he told me he designed the huge kitsch archway forming the entrance to my suburb. The ideas are a strange mix taken from traditional iconography to comic books – a Swamiji nearby had commissioned him to design a new ashram complex based on Heaven and Hell!
NR: But what does this work mean?
PN: The original project envisioned the setting up of an imaginary photo studio, the sort of old fashioned portrait studio with painted backdrops, to investigate popular images of south Indian women using the genre of photo-performance. This resulted in a large body of work which was exhibited as an installation based on the concept of a film or theatre museum, with more than 250 photographs in four series, each printed and framed in a different format according to the meaning of the work, and finally shown along with the painted backdrops, curtains, props and costumes.
Ms Rajyalakshmi, rather than looking at it as a perfect art work it should be seen in the light of the number of questions that it raises in so many areas: of female representation, high and low art, ethnography and ideas of race and caste, colonialism and Indian modernity - and the history of modern Indian art and photography itself.
We never had a regular production unit. A large number of artist friends and other people also became involved in the project as actors, direction assistants, or as advisors, by lending clothes and props, and giving information and suggesting reference material and ideas, making it a very interesting collaboration in a larger sense. The project somehow touched a chord by dealing with very familiar material and remaking it in the form of art…