In the course of discussions before the seminar The Issues of Activism: the Artist and the Historian (2003)’ at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, Nilima Sheikh commented on the close relationship that the body of her work has with the concerns of the women movement in India.
In fact, Sheikh has, several times, invoked the feminist context in which her work was shaped. She has argued that her practice of painting could be seen as a resistance to ‘the inherent pressure to engage with the political life of a nascent democracy, where there seemed to be little space left, within the definitive terms of radicalism, for a quest as personal, as the search for a feminine voice’.1 In fact, she has sketched the slow processes through which the quest for the feminine voice as radical practice was thought through with definitively feminist tools. However, the discussions of Sheikh’s work have tended to focus on what is called her lyrical’ language and its implications.
There is a sense in which this focus on the lyrical in the discussion had an unsaid dimension that gestures to the feminine. While the lyrical as a description of a style and a mode can and has been used in the context of other genres and styles of art and even in the discussion of contemporary male artists, the term certainly carries implications of the sensuous and the sinuous, of the dominance of affect over thought, which, in the context of the woman artist seems to connote the feminine, particularly so when women are explicitly thematised in the work. It would appear as if a concept derived from music in the classical Greek context and which has been the dominant mode of poetry-writing in the West from at least the 18th century has almost acquired a gender connotation in this context. Here, it appears as if the lyrical is posed -rigorously analytic the sharply historical, precluding any possibility of harnessing it to the political tasks of Indian feminism
Why does art historical/critical language need to overwrite questions of gender through the deployment of categories such as the lyrical? On the one hand, the lyrical seems to invoke a notion of the feminine; on the other, it appears to be evidently informed by categories of feminist thought. This is not to suggest that the feminine and the feminist are oppositional categories; indeed, feminisms the world over have sought to theorise femininity in multiple ways. How is an understanding of the lyrical useful in this context? Instead of setting up a discussion around whether the lyrical is feminine (or feminist) or not, might it not be more productive to examine what the function and effect of terms such as lyric’ have on the manner in which we read a work? What are the readings that it enables? Is it possible to work across the notion of lyrical’ in order to formulate an engagement that allows a feminist dimension to emerge? The issue, as I see it, is not so much whether Sheikh’s work is lyrical or not, or even traditional or not. Rather, its significance lies the manner in which she restructures a language designated as lyrical and practices designated as ‘traditional’ by the broad framework of art-writing to make it available for a political praxis; and a personal idiom that can acknowledge and politicise the representation of a world shaped in complex ways by gender and community. In working away from a conventionally masculinist modernist idiom, relocating ‘traditional’ techniques to the site of the contemporary, energising them with a new charge that engages questions of the minor, Sheikh’s work offers a powerful reading of our time.
What I attempt to do in this chapter is to locate Sheikh’s paintings in the realm of the political by establishing linkages between her work, feminist thought and the women movement in India. In this, I will refer to the processes that consolidated the category ‘Indian woman artist’, a term, which, as one reads the writing on modern Indian art in catalogues, articles, books, enters the lexicon only around the mid-to-late 1980s. My intention, therefore is to look at the moment and the manner in which this category ‘Indian woman artist’ was put together in the sphere of modern Indian art. I argue that the reshaping of this elite site took place in the context of the women movement in India, particularly in the way the movement reformulated popular ideas about women and instituted a new kind of visibility about violence in women’s lives. The category seems to have emerged across a range of factors, partly art-institutional, partly art-historical/art-critical and certainly in conjunction with feminist thought and the women movement in India while having a quite decisive effect on the art market. And although one is aware of the key role played by international capital in the arena of the art market, it would be too reductive to tie down women movements in art to a simple instrumental relation with capital.
It is clear that the Indian woman artist as a category does not seem to exist before the mid-1980s. If one looks at the curriculum vitae of art practitioners who now fall under the purview of the term—Arpita Singh, Madhavi Parekh, Nalini Malani and Nilima Sheikh—it is evident that they begin to practise and show well before the 1980s. Singh exhibits in group shows from the early 1960s, and has solo shows by 1972; Parekh starts painting in 1964, participates in group shows in the 1960s and has solo exhibitions in the early 1970s; Malani participated in group exhibitions and had solo shows by the 1960s and Sheikh too had started showing by the early 1970s. However, the art-critical discourses, which frame them at that time, are those regarding the debates occurring around modernism in the post-Independence context. They are positioned as ‘young artists’ or ‘new contemporaries’ or seen as players in the debate around tradition and modernity as in the ‘Pictorial Space’ exhibition.3 They could be characterised as ‘naive’ (Madhvi Parekh) or ‘expressionist’ (Nalini Malani), ‘traditional’ (Nilima Sheikh) or ‘decorative’ (Arpita Singh): nevertheless, their thematic choices and concerns, though recognised as women-centred, even feminist in the case of Malani, were not seen as belonging coherently to a cogent body of work that could be theorised under the rubric of the Indian woman artist.
In 1978, Gulammohamed Sheikh curated ‘New Contemporaries’: the show was a passionate assertion of an artist’s right to draw on a visual stock that was not circumscribed by a simple nationalist ‘rejection’ of the West. In his catalogue essay, in an authoritative intervention in the then current debate on the ‘derivative’ status of modern Indian art, he argued that the contemporary artist came into a multi-layered visual inheritance that ranged from traditional art in India, to mural-making m Mexico to Pop Art of America. The impact of this visual exposure he maintained, was largely catalytic than decisive’, and the engagement with these other (Western) art movements took a trajectory that led to ‘the reinterpretation of Western norms in the non-Western context’ (Sheikh, 1978: n.p.). It is with this as his frame, that he had noted that.
…the most distinguishing feature of the art of the younger artist is its growing involvement with the local environment, its shift from generalities to specific areas of interest. This has led to an approach which is more realistic and intimate. A pronounced interest in print making and emergence of a number of women artists too ought to be recognised as important developments.
These comments have the value of underlining at least two dimensions crucial to the constitution of Indian women artists: firstly they gesture towards the question of the professionalisation of the woman artist. The recognition of the emergence of women who were professional artists and not hobbyists paved the way for the construction of the modern woman artist in India and, indeed, of a tradition of women artists. Amrita Sher-Gil’s relentless characterisation of herself as a professional painter allowed her to be easily taken over as an iconic figure in the tradition of the Indian woman artist that was being invented. In addition, the re-evaluation of the monumental sculpture of Piloo Pochkhanawala, the innovative and pioneering print-making of Devayani Krishna, new recognition of the manner in which Meera Mukherji problematised the question of village artisanship allowed the constitution of a post-Independence trajectory of women artists.4 Not least, these early moves placed under question the unmarked category ‘artist’ which, as the very nomenclature ‘women artist’ showed was, in fact, gendered. While such recognition as well as the problematisation of the site of the professional practice of art was important, the constitution of the category and the tradition of the ‘Indian woman artist’ did not materialise solely through the collectivisation of the newly emergent professional class of women artists. Rather, one can see it getting formulated across and through pressures of the women movement in India.
Secondly, Gulammohammed Sheikh’s framing Of the question of the impact of Western art movements on modern Indian art as catalytic rather than decisive foresees and, to a certain extent preempts the charge that the collectivisation of women artists in India was the result of a simple reduplication of Western feminism. Feminist intervention in art history in the West can certainly be plotted in terms of the second wave of feminism which powerfully engaged with the question of representation of women; literary and visual representation were privileged sites of feminist investigation. The thrust of many of these efforts was in challenging disciplinary canons and early work concentrated on addressing patriarchal art historical assumptions about women artists. The construction of a tradition of women artists and their new visibility also reorganised the art market in significant ways and surely one outcome of second-wave feminism was a new awareness of women artists from non-Western spaces.
At the same time, the UN Declaration of the years 1975 to 1985 as the International Decade of Women globally, the setting up of the Department of Women and Child Development as a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 1985 locally, also consolidated the validity of moves that thematised women and gender. This acknowledgement of the invisibility of and discrimination against women that can be read in the UN Declaration and the Government of India’s creation of the specialised Department was clearly a consequence of the force of the women movement all around the world.
Arguably, the contemporary women movement in India was born in the mid-1970s. The women movement in the 1970s was quite successful in raising the issue of dowry deaths, rape and women’s health, orchestrating a sustained campaign at the national level These drives were accompanied by an aggressive media campaign which allowed these ‘women’s issues’ to enter popular consciousness Moreover, each of these issues centred on the woman’s body m a way that rendered conventional representations of women problematic. Notably, the body in pain became an important motif. The 1980s marked a shift in the women movement in India: from its beginnings in the 1970s where the women movement for women’s rights focused on one or two issues such as dowry and rape, operating ^h a social welfare-based ideology and with a quite straitjacketed understanding of women’s problems, it shifted to positions where the focus was on a range of issues systemically interrelated with explicitly feminist ideology that allowed more complex understandings of the issues involved. The idea that women were systemic victims made room for a more individual approach that emphasised the ‘creative’ aspects of women’s life.
While such a reading of the women movement is debatable, one can certainly track a new feminist interest in the arts, as also history, during this period which crucially focused on the question of representation. One key effort in this direction was Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha’s project on women’s writing [1989-1991] (Tharu et al., 1992). At this juncture, Tharu and K. Lalitha were setting out a position which strained against simple notions of the loss and recovery of women’s cultural productions and, more importantly, sought to work through ‘the problem that arises as the concept of experience which, in feminist practice, has a critical deconstructive charge, is uncritically conflated with an empiricist privileging of experience as the authentic source of truth and meaning’. It is in these moves to work out an aesthetic of the personal that engaged with the themes of the women movement that one could productively locate the consolidation of the category ‘Indian woman artist’ in the 1980s.
The invention of the tradition of the Indian woman artist can partly be tracked to the critical and artistic decisions by Singh, Parekh, Malani and Sheikh to hold a series of group shows organised around a set of artistic parameters that centred on their gender. Sheikh recalls that though they were offered work and visibility by the art institutional networks in place, they were interested in reframing their work in such a way that questions of a gendered art practice might be foregrounded. She comments that the issue was not about individual opportunities or recognition; rather, it was more a question of investigating the manner in which a grouping as ‘women artists’ would reposition individual oeuvres in ways that could meaningfully open the field to them.5 Looking at the extensive work that each of them had done and shown previously, one could wonder at the sense of dissatisfaction that led to the formulation of the shows. Yet it is possible to surmise its use-value in positioning their work in art networks in a manner that worked against the logic of the unmarked, ungendered category of ‘artist’.
Staged over several sessions of consultations, their collective decision to work out a set of shows rather than to produce a one-off effort as well as to ensure that each artist would exhibit at least some new works for each show enabled them to build up a body of work. Their decision to use water-colour, a medium that at least one of them had not used till then, and to work or paper rather than canvas, was also significant; more so, because oil and canvas were certainly markers of ‘high’ art. While these ‘material’ decisions were partly motivated by the easy movability afforded by small format water-colour work on paper, especially considering that the plan was to have many shows at different places, it was also because the artists wanted the shows to be seen as metaphoric of the marginalised site of gender. Also, opting to show away from major national art exhibition centres in New Delhi and Bombay in places such as Bhopal and Bangalore (then), and in smaller galleries in the major art centres, consolidated the logic of the marginal and the minor in gender relations that was brought into play.6 The shows, by Sheikh’s account, were reasonably successful in market terms, with each of them managing to sell at least two works every exhibition. Nevertheless, despite the conceptual investment in an understanding of gender as it structured the art world, its markets, its modes of display, its imagined histories and its criticism that energised these shows, they did not attract much critical attention.
Crucially, though, these shows positioned the exhibited work as gendered; nevertheless, the catalogue essay by Ashish Rajadhyaksha shies away from attributing feminist intent to the show as also to their step to exhibit only water-colours:
It would be quite wrong to ascribe feminist intent to this show-as it would be to associate the scale and medium used with ‘women’ artists. (Rajadhyaksha, 1987: n. p.)
Recognising the necessity of rethinking the conventions that bring together the personal and political, however, he attempts to situate the practices framed in the show in the political climate of the nation:
at a crucial time when, as perhaps never before in recent Indian history [when] the siege on the ‘real’, of our circumstances, has become as much a battlefield of the everyday as of larger issues and subject-matter.
In an endeavour that locates a distance between the critical edge of feminist thought and the practices of the women movement he seeks to bypass the ‘timeworn feminist slogan’-the personal is political—and instead reads these works as a site where ‘the intensely personal carves out an area of practice’ in the context of that national moment. Though he is forced to acknowledge the value of strategies that foreground a gendered (women’s) practice of art, he hesitates to admit its value, seeing it, rather as a condition to be overcome:
The sheer willfulness present in each of the artist’s work, and in the organising of such a show: to point out that the effort here is not only one that brings to the fore several issues concerning contemporary Indian art, but also a terrain of cultural, and hence social, practice that must now be appropriated to support practicing artists__ Women artists, painting in the medium of water-colour, may get relegated to a certain slot that can only be overcome by an alignment of critical means with the effort being made by these artists to paint and, now, to exhibit.
It seems quite clear that the artists themselves were engaging with ideas born of the women movement; indeed, they were familiar with Tharu’s arguments about women writing particularly through their association with the Kasauli Art Centre, where she had made a presentation on the women-writing project. If one takes Sheikh’s work as an example, it is easy enough to locate the impress of the women movement on the Champa series. It would be possible to argue that the conceptual visibility of the ubiquitous ‘dowry death’ was enabled by the women movement of the late 1970s and that Champa was shaped precisely by the women movements articulation of the issue. The emotional charge that Champa carries surely draws from the manner it situates a local event and a personal experience in an overarching conceptual scaffold constructed by the women movement. Equally the Champa series formulates strategies of representation that illustrate the single instance even as it connects at instance with other analogous events that are bound together through the frame ‘bride burning.’ Rajadhyaksha is clearly able to read the representational strategies involved in Champa: ‘…Nilima’s Champa…had responded to our gaze with a blankness, forcing us to question our involvement with her condition’ (Rajadhyaksha, 1987: n. p.); yet at that time, it appears to be difficult to make the connections that link these strategies with the questions raised by the women movement. Consequently, it was equally difficult to theorise the implications of these new modes of representation for the women movement, as also, for art practice.
The 1986 NGMA exhibition of Indian women artists as well as the Festival of India’s USSR initiative to showcase contemporary women art practitioners, were also organised at the same time. These events,
and the work of several individual practitioners, have had a critical role to play in the context of the emergence of the category ‘Indian woman artist’. A few examples are: Anupam Sud, Gogi Saroj Pal and Arpana Caur, based in Delhi, who were working with gendered thematics from at least the 1970s; so also were Arnawaz Vasudevan and Padmini of the Madras School. Navjot Altaf too is an artist who has systematically engaged with feminist thought during this period. In the 1980s, Rekha Rodwittiya, on her return from Royal College of Art, London, consciously positioned herself as a feminist and the sculpture of N. Pushpamala sharply foregrounded issues of female sexuality in a different idiom. However, their shows as well as other parallel government-sponsored initiatives such as the NGMA
exhibition were understood, by and large, within a modernist paradigm: for art historical discourse, this helped domesticate a category born out of the critical energies of the women movement. One can speculate that this was so at least partly because the theories of the avant-garde that structured the understanding of modern art in India were not framed in a way that allowed a feminist engagement to be read as productive. The process through which art historical/critical frameworks get restructured in a way that permit them to engage with the critical edge of feminist practice is clearly visible in the work of Geeta Kapur. In the significant show that she curated in the 1970s, ‘Pictorial Space: A Point of View on Contemporary Indian Art’ (Lalit Kala Akademi 1977) the work of women artists was framed m and across the language of the modern. For example, she says of Malani: ‘Nalmi paints alienated deeply introverted, possibly psychotic persons and the space therefore is a private one, a sealed, dimlit, chamber.’ However, by the early 1990s just a few years after the group shows of 1987-89, she has already been able to draft her enormously influential ‘Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work’: of Malani she says
Nalini Malani began, when still very young, in the early 1970s, to introduce female trauma as the subject of her otherwise conventionally expressionistic painting. Gradually the masochistic injunctions of a body receptive to violence were worked out into an experience of female being as survivor.
Along with this movement that has begun to deal with ‘transactions, on gender terms, between private fantasy and public concern’ (Kapur, 2000: 3), the chapter, which ‘sets up equations between four women artists’ (ibid.), effectively fabricates a tradition of women artists that moves backward in time embracing Amrita Sher-Gil and laterally across space to include Frida Kahlo. By 1996, in her catalogue essay for the exhibition ‘Inside Out: Women Artists of India’, she acknowledges the impress of women’s struggles ‘to press into service objects coded into cultural significations indifferent or hostile to them’. In fact, she powerfully argues that ‘Feminist politics in women’s art is at times over and above the intention of the work; it is inherent in the historical context of its production’ (Kapur, 1996).
This arrival of an otherwise innocuous category ‘Indian woman artist’ should also be placed in relation to a range of other moves in art institutional spaces: the search for lost women artists, the re-valuation of women artists who were dismissed or marginalised, the re-examination of the criteria by which art-works acquired canonicity, and the legitimation and problematisation of gendered themes. These moves, which drew from the feminist thrust of the 1980s, seemed to have had the potential of energising art historical discourse, yet the direction taken has substantially been along the lines of ‘loss and recovery’ and ‘valorisation of the personal’ mode in the engagement with the idea of the Indian woman artist.
Such critical practices have tended to naturalise the category and imbue it with an essential presence that defines it away from any historical specificity.
In doing so, they locate the thematic of Indian women artist in the realm of the ahistorical, apolitical feminine. Arguments that erase the historicity of categories, I suggest, obscure the relationship between questions raised by the women movement and the question of women’s art. Consequently, a productive interface, which could enrich the articulation of issues of representation within the women movement as much as within the art world itself, gets erased.