Bare walls greet you at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road. Rows of small wooden frames have been arranged on tables all across the space. You feel you have entered a library—there is silence all around as the frames invite you to “read” them. For artist Shakuntala Kulkarni has arranged her drawings in these.
Quieter Than Silence: A Compilation Of Short Stories is her first solo at the gallery in five years. Each row reads like a short story, with the interpretation left to the viewer. “In the series Swaha, we see a procession of twenty-one women of firm bearing walking forward, holding their headgear above their heads as if preparing to crown themselves sovereign, or maybe to make a final offering of their burden and become free,” writes artist Sudhir Patwardhan, about one of the seven series of drawings on show.
The Mumbai-based multidisciplinary artist trained in painting. But her investigation into the condition of urban women constrained by patriarchy moved slowly from flat surfaces to sculpture and performance. For some years, she has been working with cane armour in site-specific performances, with these exoskeletons being outer skins that can’t be easily dented or pierced, thus becoming protection and cages at the same time.
Kulkarni, who returns to the flat surface for this exhibition, says she has never abandoned drawing. Be it performance or sculpture, her process always starts with drawing. “Every time a show ends, I end up drawing scribbles and sketches on paper and board fixed to the walls of my studio. It keeps my hand warm and my mind active. Whenever I do large works, it is followed by small drawing works—it is part of my riyaaz,” she adds.
The seven series came about by happenstance. Kulkarni’s studio was being readied for renovation just before the pandemic struck. She began opening up closets and boxes to see what to discard and was amazed by all the material she had collected—handmade paper from Khadi Bhandar, charcoal sticks, compressed charcoal, and more. “In one cupboard, I also found spare museum acrylic sheets left behind from an earlier show,” she says. When the nationwide lockdown was announced in 2020, the artist was not able to meet her cane-making team, which was in Assam. So she decided to use the material at hand and started by painting on museum acrylic sheets and glass in reverse with acrylic paint. The process started to feel interesting, with the drawings looking like lino-cuts because of the way she scooped up paint from the non-bristle side of the brush.
During the lockdown, the plight of migrant labour moved her deeply. “The series on them walking, often crouched and often standing straight, and then falling down, came about as a result of that,” explains Kulkarni. Around that time, she also found a pencil with a wax tip that is meant to be used on a smooth surface like glass. She started drawing with it on acrylic sheets.
“The other incident that really shook me was the Hathras gang rape and murder case (of 2020). It was not that I read about it one day and the next day I started drawing, influenced by it. It was a slow process of taking in the enormity of the incident,” says Kulkarni. “My drawing was my little way of protest around it.” In the series Lullaby, you can sense the anguish in the way a mother is cradling a child’s body. “A mother will never accept that a child is lifeless, she will always try to revive it. Singing a lullaby is one way of doing that. The thought hurt me a lot,” she adds.
Around the same time, she came across a short newspaper item about a pregnant woman hospitalised for covid-19 having been raped repeatedly by the doctor on duty. Once discharged, she was ashamed to tell her family and eventually died of excessive bleeding. “I was aghast. What must the girl have felt between the time she told her family and her death? Where is the woman’s right over the body? I have been addressing issues of body politics, objectification and the gaze for years now and yet there is no end to violence on the body,” she says. The artist is never one to give up hope, but in the series of eight drawings called Fallen Warrior, there is a sense of resignation and helplessness about what was happening around her.
The pandemic phase was also one of discovery. Kulkarni found a roll of handmade paper purchased decades ago. She started pinning up the sheets to draw forms of ageing women. Always interested in costume design, she began scrutinising the work of well-known designers and happened to read an article about two Japanese designers, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, who once presented all-black works in Paris. “She was stunned by their use of black. Sharp forms, sometimes bulging, sometimes ballooned—they felt as if floating in space. The black charcoal came to instant rescue, aiding the costumes that her women began to dress in—with their dark, dense, and heavy shapes, creating an opacity that felt unexpected and joyful in their ‘non-colour’,” writes gallerist Shireen Gandhy in her note. She finds it fascinating how Kulkarni’s forms began to take their own forms, sometimes butterflies, sometimes bats, or other times ducks and swans. “Like clouds, one has the freedom to let one's imagination fly in making one's own shapes with these women in their erstwhile designer clothes,” she writes.
Kulkarni also started looking at hairstyles, from artist Frida Kahlo’s to African hairdos. In each drawing of the Swaha series, you can see a woman stretching her hands up, with the dense black of the outfits and hairdos almost pulling her down. “What they are holding in their hand is open to interpretation,” says the artist. “Swaha means to offer, to let go of burdens and anxieties. In Tibetan, it means ‘so be it’. The visual looks like women walking together in silent resistance and protest.”
While she was working on these forms, she came across videos of a Japanese figure skater, Yuzuru Hanyu, on YouTube. The unfettered movement of the athlete inspired Kulkarni to imbue her forms with a unique energy. “There was something joyous happening in the process. If the artist was constricted within her home/studio, these women she drew, felt freed, uncased, uncaged, ready to fly… . There are moments if they are about to topple - almost falling out of their own shadows only to be saved by their immense sense of balance,” writes Gandhy.
The title of the show is an interesting one—that too is a work of serendipity. Kulkarni loves listening to music—jazz, Indian classical and Spanish—while working. While creating these forms, she was hooked to the Roots Revival series on YouTube, especially the album, Quieter than Silence, by Mehdi Aminian and Mohamad Zatari. Something about their music connected with her. “I liked the title, and wondered how could anything be more silent than silence itself. When I searched more about it, I found that when you go beyond the noise of the world, there is nothing. And you can create anything out of this emptiness. It’s amazing that an educational organisation that I am associated with also propagates this philosophy. The idea connected and that’s how the title of the show came about,” she says.
Quieter Than Silence: A Compilation Of Short Stories can be viewed at Chemould Prescott Road till 30 April, 10am-6pm (closed on Sundays).