N. Rajyalakshmi, Chief Reporter of Ideal Times, interviews the artist Pushpamala N.
NR: Ms Pushpamala, for the last few years you have been getting photographs taken of yourself and exhibiting them. Are you a narcissist?
PN: No, I am a humourist! [laughs] . Bhupen Khakhar in an early 1972 catalogue had photographs of himself posing as James Bond, Mr. Universe, and a Man with a Headache- it was delightful! In fact it was turning artistic narcissism on its head! I always felt that it was a lost moment in Indian art because nobody really followed it up…
NR: But Madam, what is the purpose of this?
PN: The first work in which I performed, ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’ was a photo-romance set in Bombay, about a masked adventurer and her search for her lost twin sister separated in childhood, who has now become a part of the underground mafia. It was shot like a thriller using real locations, with typical scenes and characters. Bombay has a place in the Indian imagination as the Great Modern Metropolis – a place of great opportunities and freedom but also of decadence and cruelty. It was a homage to the city as a centre of theatre and film, as the producer of modern fantasies.
When I become the protagonist, I put myself into various kinds of narratives; one of them is my own story…
NR: There are so many artists all over the world using masquerade. Isn’t it a cliché?
PN: But clichés interest me! I am using an existing form because I find it useful to work with.
At this point of time, in my 40s, I find autobiography interesting, for instance. And there are so many eccentric aspects of modern culture around us which in fact use masquerade - like celebrations, political events, tableaus, studio photographs - that are crying out to be used as artistic raw material.
But I find many artists in India today doing self- portraiture in different ways. Perhaps it’s something to do with the turbulent and changing times - a way of self-questioning.
NR: Ms Pushpamala, earlier you worked mainly with poor materials like terracotta, waste paper, etc. Why are you now working with an expensive medium like photography?
PN: Earlier, I believed that India was a poor rural country and so artists should use poor or humble materials to talk about our reality. But in fact here I am, a very metropolitan person who is a citizen of one of the highly industrialized countries in the world with a long history of modern technology. We are falling into an orientalist stereotype if we seek reality only in the pre-industrial, Ms Rajyalakshmi. The art critic Hans Mathews made an observation which I like - that because photography and film making entered India almost as soon as they were invented, they don’t carry an oppressive colonial burden for us. We have our own history of photographic image making, for instance - the early photographs painted like miniatures ignoring Western perspective, the manorathas or pilgrim souvenirs made in Nathdwara in Rajasthan using painting and collage. What interests me about the photograph is its documentary aspect - its I was there part, and the possibilities of overturning and questioning that factuality.
NR: Your work looks very jokey and flippant. What is the point? Is it art?
PN: Yes I like to use humour! I use it to seduce, to provoke… I like my art to work on different levels. The humour makes you relax, it’s an entry into the work. I also use references to the popular for the same reason. But this is only one aspect - my intentions are quite serious!
NR: Madam, you are a trained and recognized sculptor. Why are you doing this kind of work?
PN: I like the lightness and mobility of working with forms like photography, Ms Rajyalakshmi. As a student in Baroda I was formed by the Narrative Movement in the 1980s. There was a lot of interest in 19th c. hybrid arts like Company painting and early photography. This was part of an interest in all indigenous developments in art. So there was a background to this. When I was finding it difficult to use narrative and the human figure in sculpture - perhaps because of its very concreteness and realness - I found that photography creates images which float on the surface of the paper: shimmering, other worldly. And I like working as an outsider, you can break all the rules!
But it’s quite different from making sculpture, where I physically made the work. Here, I am working more like an architect or a theatre or film director, the creativity is in conceiving and directing; it’s collaborative work.
Besides all this, I’m just following my instinct as an artist! I think I’m on a hot trail!
NR: Ms Pushpamala, you seem to be interested in the past, in old things. Why this nostalgia?
PN: No, Ms Rajyalakshmi, I’m too critical to be nostalgic or sentimental! I’m interested in history and memory. I sometimes use autobiography, nostalgia and melodrama as devices to evoke a whole range of associations, to connect in different ways to the experience of the audience. But the issues are very contemporary.
NR: Isn’t art universal? Feminist art is like a reservation category.
PN: Working consciously as a woman artist need not be a limitation! It can open up unexplored territories and subject matter, which can create powerful new ways of seeing and making.
A book like Women Writing in India [edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha] tries to create an alternate tradition to the mainstream literary tradition, which is enormously interesting.
NR: Why are you borrowing images from films? Can’t you be original?
PN: But I am interested in stereotypes and archetypes, Ms Rajyalakshmi! And it is popular media that is creating these images. It’s not only film that interests me, but novels and songs and plays, and photography itself. These scenes and situations are like found objects - they are so recognizable and common. I like to mix up different genres and alter them, to interject my own point of view.
NR: Will you say something about your recent work?
PN: Sunhere Sapne [Golden Dreams] a photo-romance, is the fantasy of a middle class housewife dressed in a housecoat and her alter ego, a girl in a golden frock and a bouffant hairstyle. The work is enigmatic, there’s no real story; though each scene is evocative and together the pictures give rise to a certain feeling. I’ve used different kinds of references: the thriller, the fairy tale, the honeymoon snapshot…
I did the series in a small town near Delhi and commissioned a local studio man to hand paint the pictures. They have a sweet, old world, intimate look, though in fact the content is quite dark and the period contemporary.
Bombay Photo Studio is a set of portraits taken at the studio of Mr JH Thakker, who used to be a still photographer for Hindi Films in the 1950s and 60s. He also took photographs of the stars in his studio, experimenting with expressionist Hollywood style lighting.
There are a set of studio portraits – of a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian woman, which are posed in the conventional way but where the subjects are veiled. With some other photographs, I’ve used images of Nayikas or heroine figures - the pining woman, the woman caught in a web of deceit.
As a sculptor, I am also interested in the material richness of the photograph itself – the large size sepia prints on fibre paper have an intense, visceral quality-