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Saluting the indomitable spirit of Gogi Saroj Pal

A retrospective in Delhi celebrates the artist’s legacy, while delving deep into her close engagement with feminism and justice

Detail from ‘It is Raining Outside’, (2010), acrylic on canvas board. Images: courtesy DAG
Detail from ‘It is Raining Outside’, (2010), acrylic on canvas board. Images: courtesy DAG

You can’t simply look at Gogi Saroj Pal’s work. You need to pause, and allow her nayikas, or heroines, to speak to you. It’s only then that you can meaningfully engage with her art. The artist, who passed away in January this year at the age of 79 after a fall, is remembered by many in the art fraternity as feisty, brave and courageous.

DAG is celebrating her legacy with a retrospective at its Delhi space, titled ‘Gogi Saroj Pal: Mythic Femininities’, which will run till 25 May. This is the second show to celebrate the artist’s six-decade-long career, spanning the 1960s to the 2020s. According to Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director, DAG, the show has been in the making since the beginning of 2023. Anand first met the artist in the 1990s, when he had started his journey in the art world. “Outspoken in her opinions, her art reflected her humanitarian and feminist concerns. Hers is an important voice for the distinctive character and language, and she will be part of discussions on Indian art for a long time to come,” he says.

It might be helpful to read the catalogue and then view the exhibition. The essays by Delhi-based curator Roobina Karode and writer-activist Urvashi Butalia are insightful, offering moments of discovery to the reader. The realisation that most of interviews in the catalogue were among the last given by Pal before her demise make them even more precious.

Butalia forged a deep friendship with the artist in the last four months of her life and met Pal several times. She remembers the artist as someone “bursting with life with a glint in her eyes; someone who was full of humour, having the ability to laugh at herself”, despite being in tremendous pain. Ved Nayar, her partner and fellow artist, notes in his essay: “I saw her struggle a lot in life but not once did I see her give up, lose hope or motivation, such was her incredible spirit.”

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Pal’s health was never perfect—an unsuccessful ear surgery often left her dizzy, causing her to have falls, one of which fractured her hip-bone in 2008. This occurred within less than a decade of her losing her only child from her first marriage, Marish, who met with a fatal road accident in Bengaluru, on the day when he was set to have his very first exhibition as an artist. The viewing of her art, in the context of such severe loss and grief, becomes all the more poignant.

‘Relationship’, (1980), oil on canvas
‘Relationship’, (1980), oil on canvas

A lifetime of art

The retrospective, showing 50-plus works from her illustrious career, is divided into nine categories. They feature early still-life works done in the 1960s as an art student, self-portraits from the late 1980s, and works from famous series such as Relationships and Young Monks, which navigated the emotional connect between people and animals.

Most compelling, of course, are her works that celebrate women and talk about feminist identities, agency—or the lack of it, patriarchy, domesticity, misogyny. This is where works such as Being a Woman, Nayika, Hathyogini-Kali, Aagka Dariya and Mahasnan acquire critical importance.

Hathyogini-Kali sculptures in fibreglass, done in the last three years of her life, bear witness to the restless spirit of the artist. Then there’s Kinnari, her series from the 1990s, which evolved into another series, Kinnari Mantras, after Pal was bedridden in 2008. The protagonist, a mythical winged creature portrayed as part-bird, part-woman, is seen by art critics as an abiding symbol of feminine freedom in Indian art.

Pal was deeply interested in Buddhist philosophy and Hindu mythology. In her work, she referred to myths and legends, and interpreted them through a feminist lens . The decorative wings in Pal’s painted kinnaris became a symbol of liberation. Both the series reveal the artist’s response to her own physical limitations. The legs of the figures, curator Roobina Karode notes in her essay, resembled Pal’s own immobile torso: “The legs (like her own) remained attenuated, weak and lifeless, disproportionate to the body, which experienced a sense of being awkwardly deformed and being constrained.”

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Pal belonged to a family of freedom fighters, and grew up in a household that valued women’s rights. Her grandmother was a feminist in Lahore, who also ran a rehabilitation centre and home for orphaned children. The fight for justice came naturally to Pal.

The artist's words 

In her last interview to DAG, the artist spoke about making preparatory notes for her uncle, Yashpal Singh’s book Jhoota Sach, rated even today as one of the most important books on the Partition. In 2009, her own book, Phulkari, a collection of short stories in Hindi was published shortly after she painted her series All These Flowers Are For You. The paintings showed forlorn female figures in bright floral scarves or dupattas. In the book’s foreword, Pal observes that the art of embroidering phulkari is liberating—not only does it allow women to congregate together to discuss their everyday trials, but the fabric also allows a woman to wipe away her tears when she is alone and sad.

According to Anand, Pal’s art continues to appeal, particularly to women collectors. Butalia concurs and says that Pal’s works will continue to influence the discourse in feminism. Her work should also be seen as the triumph of an artist who wanted to correct all that was wrong in the society, particularly with respect to women. She created from her imagination, as well as everyday scenes at home and leisure, to visualise gender discrimination in society.

Along with that, her works continue to show how creativity can effectively transform grief, anger, and sadness into a healing journey. “When I paint, I do not feel the pain. My body ceases to exist,” is what Pal often said about her art. Her rich body of art is a testament to that.

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.

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