1920 - 2010

Nine Women Artists: From Sensual to Amorphous

Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

(Highlights from the Exhibition series DIFFICULT LOVES.  (31st January 2013 - 8th December 2013) 

Women artists in the Indian art scene have traversed a journey from realist and figurative to formless and amorphous. Irrespective of being woman artists, the themes and ideas range from feminine to feminist, from spiritual to urban, from anthropological to individualistic, from sexual and corporeal to abstract. The diversity of this collection resides in that the artist’s vantage point oscillates from themselves or even as the onlooker, subverting their personal into political.
 If we imagine, Amrita Sher-Gil and Nasreen Mohamedi as two pillars, the journey from the former to the latter may lead us to few contemporary artists like Anita Dube, Bharti Kher, Dayanita Singh, Ranjani Shettar, Sheba Chhachhi, Sheela Gowda and Mrinalini Mukherjee. Each of these artists have in their own right impressed the Indian Contemporary art scene with respective inimitable style or signature. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art remains a fortunate and a proud institute to have exhibited these nine stalwarts leading to define a seminal contribution of women in Indian art.
(FROM SOLO EXHIBITION : The Self in Making). In the context of early Indian Modern art, Amrita Sher-Gil stands apart as holding her own among the few women artists of that era. Born in 1913, and home schooled in art by her Hungarian-Jewish mother and Punjabi Sikh father, Amrita explored drawings and painting from a very early age. Amrita as a teen was able to develop a keen eye and attitude for her own individual style: the self-portrait. She lent a certain performative edge to her own personality being fully aware of her feminine charm and enigma, which easily got translated on the canvass. One finds impressions of European masters in her style but her infallible portraiture as an Indian woman, embracing the mask of womanliness made all the difference. Ironically then and rightly so, parallels are drawn between Amrita Sher-Gil and the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo(1907-1954). One can find traces of commonalities not just in self-portraiture but also self-attuned and fearless womanhood. By 1930’s, she had developed a significant body of work which left an indelible mark on the Indian modern art scene which comprised predominantly of male artists.

Amrita as a young adoloescent showed great interest in her self image. She practiced for hours on bold contour lines of her beginner sketches.

(From KNMA Collection) Most evident in this portrait is Amrita the artist working on her easel wearing capes or smocks, her hair cut short or tied back and always blending of gender identity in calm subtlety.

Often times, Amrita imagined herself as a gypsy and adorning bright hues, on her and in the background

Her brown body and luscious long hair found a prominent visibility in Amrita's paintings. Here, she sees herself akin to how Paul Gauguin depicted his Tahitian women, also mostly painted nude.

The gesture of her hand resting gently on her bosom is a distinct feature that surfaces in her paintings and photographs as well.

the presence of the curtain behind the easel ascertains the attempt to recreate the intimate privacy in which Amrita worked.

Set of photographs of younger Amrita where she posed with acute and unmissable seriousness.

Amrita's early sketches where she labored on her bold contour lines bore a unique personality similar to her own, each reflecting a facet of her persona.

(FROM THE EXHIBITION Seven Contemporaries) If the there has been a woman artist trying to subvert the female body in order to trick the male gaze using banal objects as well sacrosanct paraphernalia, it has to be Anita Dube. Trained in art history and criticism at Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, Dube’s art practice has evolved to be multifarious making use of discarded objects, photography, performance and poetry/text. The beginning of her career had been infused with active art criticism and writing being involved with the formation of Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association(1987) which was based in Baroda and whose manifesto was written by Dube herself. Post disbanding of the group, she got increasingly invested in art making and her own individual practice. Using a vast variety of materials including raw flesh and mediums like text and performance, she expressly devises her art installations responding and intervening into urban architecture. She has been widely exhibited in Indian as well as foreign shores. Recent solo exhbitions worth mentioning are “In Her Own Language”, Vancouver Art Gallery, Perth, Australia; “Misdemeanours”, Rochbund art Museum, Shanghai, China and a few at New York and New Delhi. 

Parul Dave Mukherji on this work notes that "the corner precisely offers her (Dube) this interstitial space between two and three dimentions, between the modular and the organic, between architecture and sculpture".

"the corner precisely offers Dube this interstitial space between two and three dimensions, between the modular and the organic, between architecture and sculpture" - Parul Dave Mukherji

"it took me a long time to move away from traditional understanding of sculpture. Like in the work Blood Wedding, i could use my family history of medicine as a source to make sculptures"-Anita Dube

One of the most magnificent aspects in this series of sculptures is the sewing of feminine finery with the most lifeless structures of corporeality, the human skeleton.

Trained in Painting at England’s Newcastle Polytechnic, Bharti Kher practices in India with a plethora of mediums. She has worked with the readymade, abstract installations, image making of hybrid forms, and incorporated mythological references hinting upon magic realism. Her installations are often integrating space with the method of juxtaposition to create a larger than life effect. She achieves abstraction with her ‘Bindi’ work where she uses them in a large number to sometimes narrate a fluid imagery inspired by the sperm whale, or sometimes to depict a sedentariness of a white elephant.

"when you look at this work, the anxierty or conversely the sense of abandonment, from the title, seeps into the landscape of the work, suggesting sensuality and yet loss".

She achieves abstraction with her ‘Bindi’ work where she uses them in a large number to sometimes narrate a fluid imagery

Her installations are often integrating space with the method of juxtaposition to create a larger than life effect.

"The skin bears the blame of guilt, time, history, death. it protects the integrity of the soul. You could be made more entire, more yourself, by taking on another skin"

There is significant presence of the hybrid in this artwork where the sophistry of tea cups balance themselves with the oboriginal.

This work continues with her engagement with the questions of existence and artifice, the animistic set in the facade of emotive-expressive eyes of a woman.

Trained at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and then in Documentary Photography at New York’s International Center of Photography, Dayanita Singh is perhaps one of the most well-known female photographers in India. She has perfected the art of showcasing humane intimacy and relationships and focused deeply into the intricacies and details of emotional expressions. She has successfully been able to carve a niche of her own in the form of photo-books and published several of them, the first being on the Tabla maestro, ‘Zakir Hussain’ (1986) followed by several like ‘Myself, Mona Ahmad’(2001) that forayed Dayanita into photojournalism. Her wide collection has been exhibited in several solo as well as group shows, the latest being at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi and Queen’s Museum, New York.

a view of few among 52 silver gelatin prints, from the series, The Silver Set (2008)

Her black and white photographs not only define and bring out the characters in her subjects but go on to narrate the story behind them as well. She has evolved a distinct style in the form of photography books which comes perhaps from her deep appreciation for literature and books.

Her way of looking at her subject is not exotic but intimate and private. Her collaborations with other artists has allowed her to develop an alternative practice of photo production and viewing which she calls the Museum Bhavan, a travelling museum of photographs.

Born in 1977, Ranjani Shettar is a Bangalore based artist who is trained in sculpture. Neat and aligned are the words that come to mind looking at Ranjani Shettar’s work. Evolving a signature style by incorporating a multitude of materials like scrap metal, silicon rubber, beeswax, beads, pins and other such everyday objects, she continues to inch towards and oscillate from phenomenological to metaphysical.

There is also the aspect of becoming part of the imminent light, the nails on the wall becoming visible and invisible from various angles.

Ranjani in this work has juxtaposed tension with suspension in a netted environment as a 3 dimensional drawing.

If someone can be rightly handed the title of an artist-activist working majorly with the Indian feminist movement, Sheba Chhachhi is perhaps who comes to mind the first. Her medium of art making has been documentary photography, film-making and often has delved into installation art as well. She has worked extensively on women issues and those relating to urban transformations in the social and environmental context. From raising awareness about the presence of the violence meted to women in Kashmir to taking up issues of human rights, justice violations and environmental damages in Bhopal gas tragedy, Sheba Chhachhi is one of those artists for whom art was not merely celebratory of their womanhood but also shared a strong solidarity with women from all walks of life.

Her video installations have many a times delves into the mythologies associated with rivers like Ganga and Yamuna and multiple ecosystems that surround it. She has been widely exhibited in India and internationally.

Her video installations have many a times delved into the mythologies associated with rivers like Ganga and Yamuna and multiple ecosystems that surround it.

Lending an apocalyptic dimension of abstraction to the character of a woman tied to home and hearth is Sheela Gowda, trained as a painter and practicing as a sculptor and an installation artist in Bangalore, India. Working with and utilizing a vast array of materials, Sheela reminds one of a householder woman consistently building and perennially unfinished structure.

She translates the architecture of a woman’s dwelling into poetry by often incorporating elements like the process of intricate labor, human hair, common rituals and totems besides incense sticks and the traditional kum-kum paints.

She digs deeper into the nuances of the feminine form and brought out its violence to massive detail, so much so to the magnitude of abysmal abstraction, thus realizing its ultimate paradox.

Two elements that’s arise from her body of work are minimalism and abstraction whilst maintaining the brutality and the violence in everything feminine. Her penchant to create large scale magnanimous installations from the finest of materials like human hair acts as a metaphor in itself. Sheela Gowda establishes herself as one of those women artists who have delved deeper into the nuances of the feminine form and brought out its violence to massive detail, so much so to the magnitude of abysmal abstraction, thus realizing its ultimate paradox.

Mrinalini Mukerjee or ‘Dillu’ as she was known to art world remained a non-conformist throughout her life. Her desire to break with all form of convention and constraints in terms of material and method was only matched by her sparkling absurdist humour. Dillu could bend iconic hemp to her will forcing it to take on a monumental artistic sensibility away from the ‘craft’ quality that her early critics dismissed her with. Her choice of material was considered weak and un-sculptor like. She had a remarkable ability to set things on their head, making them quirky, contrarian, political objects. She had the power to conjure up secular gods and organic bronzes. She has participated in many distinguished group shows and has held several solo exhibitions too. Some of her other solo shows include Palm Scapes, Nature Morte, New Delhi, (2013); Lava, Gallery Espace, New Delhi (2010), Sculpture in Bronze, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi (2007) and Mrinalini Mukherjee Sculpture, a touring Exhibition at  the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, Oxford to name a few.

“My anthropomorphic deities owe much to the equation with awe and reverence that a traditional invocatory deity inspires in her spectator. But my mythology is de-conventionalised and personal, as indeed are my methods and materials.”

Arboreal Enactment is partly informed like several of her other works by her love for the natural world and botany.

Through sheer complicated knots, braids, and twisting of the hemp she builds up sculptures that have a commanding presence, sensuality, and feel organic all at once.

(FROM THE SOLO RETROSPECTIVE A View to Infinity) Beyond the women who were exploring unfathomable vastness of the feminine form, there was an artist like Nasreen Mohamedi who was keen to renounce from the enchantment of that very form itself. Nasreen Mohamedi was born in 1937 and emerged as a pioneering figure in the Indian Modern Art establishing herself as one of the masters of Abstraction along with a few lot of male artists like V.S Gaitonde.

Nasreen drew lines that followed a symmetry giving an impression of movement and elevation.

Some of Nasreen's early work contain faint patterns in colour, somehow hinting towards her future style.

Nasreen's photographs also depicted a distinct landscape, seeped in abstract minimalism

A photograph shot by Nasreen that details the vivid nothingness in lines that get formed

Nasreen wove ink and graphite on paper like a meticulous crafts-person and deep intricate meshes were achieved.

With other mediums like water colour in free hand, Nasreen was still able to bring forth lines set in the most natural of fashions.

Exhibition view of the curation of Difficult Loves where gallery walls were constructed in keeping with the style of Nasreen's line drawings.

Exhibition view of black sandstone slabs that made the floor of Nasreen's studio room in Baroda.

Exhibition view of Nasreen's room setting recreated along with her tools spread over her desk and the lamp under which she worked.

Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
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