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‘The body doesn’t have nationality or a religion’

In the exhibition, ‘Ways of Seeing’, artists like Anupam Sud and Gogi Saroj Pal draw the gaze away from tags of gender to a more universal, humanist context

Detail from Anupam Sud's 'Untitled' work (2000), pastel on paper. Courtesy: DAG

The “gaze” has been one of the most debated topics in art, with the female form having been painted mostly from a male perspective through history. A new exhibition at DAG, with a mammoth number of 150 works, questions the way the body has been “seen” differently by female and male artists, the attendant privileges of patronage almost exclusively male till a certain point in history, and more, in the context of modern Indian art. The show has been divided into two parts, one being ‘Women as Muse’, showcasing work by M.V. Dhurandhar, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, K.H. Ara, and Jogen Chowdhury, among others. The other features 26 women artists such as Sunayani Devi, Devyani Krishna, Amrita Sher-Gil, Gogi Saroj Pal and Rekha Rodwittiya.

Here, one comes across a myriad styles and treatments, ranging from the staunchly feminist to the humanist. There are multiple points of view on display, often treating the viewer to different interpretations of shared myths and legends. So if Gogi Saroj Pal questions why nurturers are denied independence in thought and action in Being a Woman about Kunti, who has just given birth to Karna, Anupam Sud too extends this argument around patriarchy in Draupadi’s Vow.

'Mandi' (1984), an oil and acrylic on canvas, by Gogi Saroj Pal. Courtesy: DAG
'Mandi' (1984), an oil and acrylic on canvas, by Gogi Saroj Pal. Courtesy: DAG

“Anupam Sud turns... the event into an enquiry of her five husbands and their inability to exercise their valour, their code of honour or, indeed, their chivalry in ‘Draupadi’s Vow’, and extends the argument further by showing a woman taking charge of her own body, thereby challenging patriarchy,” mentioned Kishore Singh, consultant, DAG in a recent interview to the Architectural Digest.

Also on view are paintings of Sunayani Devi, characterised by their delicate hues and unique wash technique. The younger sister of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore was a self-taught artist and her works such as (Untitled) Viraha are marked by a romantic longing of sorts. “Hers was an interior world in the Tagore household. Married while young, she spent her time—even though educated—in the kitchen and the domestic courtyard, where she was expected to join the ladies of the house in supervising the household. It was here she would paint in her spare time, her brothers an influence on her work as much as the myths and legends she hoped to explore from a refreshingly female perspective as the first woman artist in the country—or, at least, the first woman artist whose works carry her signature,” mentions DAG’s note.

'Monkey with Ladder'  (2007),  acrylic on acrylic sheet (reverse painting), by Madhvi Parekh. Courtesy: DAG
'Monkey with Ladder' (2007), acrylic on acrylic sheet (reverse painting), by Madhvi Parekh. Courtesy: DAG

As one moves along, Madhvi Parekh’s work beckons, with its vibrant rendition of folk traditions and her childhood memories. In some, one sees multiple gazes, one of the artist interpreting scenes from nature, and the other of the inhabitants of the painting itself, who look fixated at one another. However, Parekh is impervious to how people perceive her work or its subjects. “I do not know them, I do not know what they are thinking. I paint for myself and the way I choose to,” says Parekh. Neither does she paint from the perspective of gender. Rather, she prefers to think of herself as a humanist. “In my childhood, I learnt not to do harm, nor to speak ill, but only to do good. What’s in the Gita is also in the Bible,” she adds.

Also striking is Gogi Saroj’s Pal’s work, from Dancing Horse to Untitled (Nayika), which has always been centred around the female condition. The female figures in her work are compressed within a frame to showcase the burden of patriarchy they carry. As art writer Seema Bawa has put it: “Gogi Saroj Pal is probably the first woman artist in India to consistently take up the issues of femininity, feminism, womanism and related issues: what she has called ‘being a woman’.” When Pal paints the form of a woman, she struggles with her own thought process, from one painting to another. “Women are responsible as daughters, mothers, nurturers, they provide and care and give, but there is no one to ask them what they want. It is this inequality I point to in my work,” says the artist.

'Florescence 2' (1996), ceramic, by Mrinalini Mukherjee. Courtesy: DAG
'Florescence 2' (1996), ceramic, by Mrinalini Mukherjee. Courtesy: DAG

A little ahead is Sud’s work, which has always focused on the human body. From two people entering into a quiet dialogue with one another to nude forms shorn of hair, her style has moved on to spaces of androgyny and gender ambiguity. The artist mentions that she began to work on figures because she was inspired by the play of light on tight skin, the volume of muscles. “I began to experiment with tonal variations to build this form… It has been fascinating to build these forms and shapes of nudes—old, young… age does not come into it at all,” she says.

Her creations are informed by both the society and her own experiences. She responds to society, its ambiguities, contradictions and variability of people’s behaviour. “My inspiration came from these contradictions, from day-to-day life. I tried to put it in a way as it is. My work is about relationships—with nature, with what we consume, with spaces we inhabit. It presents human psychology—an exploration of vulnerability, hierarchies, desires, tensions,” says Sud.

For her, the woman’s body is not only visual, but it is the source of experiencing the world. “I find the woman’s body very organic,” she elaborates. “Sometimes the way a body is covered can make it appear vulgar. A dressed person is related to some culture, community and gender. The body doesn’t have nationality, religion or anything. I don’t want to limit myself to cultural meanings. My work is about this universal context.”

Sud’s work has always been topical, be it a response to artificial insemination or the Mumbai terror attacks. But her response has always been through a woman’s body—a feminine perspective. “Sometimes you talk about pain, sometimes joy. I talk about emotions but don’t deal with them emotionally. This distilling is important because if I succumb to the emotions myself, then the work can become soaked with those. My work certainly has humour too—though some have called it cynicism,” she adds.

However, she doesn’t believe in tags. For her, feminism is an attitude. And it’s saddening when women are treated as objects, with their pain neither seen nor heard—a feeling that unites her with Pal. “The feminist point of view is certainly part of my work. I have observed situations of deprivation and exploitation of women and voiced it within my works. I have never wanted to be placed in a box,” says Sud.

She has always steered clear of compartmentalisation. At one point of time, it was fashionable to be framed as a socially committed artist, and she was told that she would do much better if she explained her work that way. “That I had missed out on the fame. These categories are limitations. Yes, I am making comments on society. My work is about everything around me. If I wanted to be socially committed, I would go out and work with people as a human being and not as an artist. I don’t want to be tied down to an ideology,” says Sud.

'Ways of Seeing' is on view at DAG's gallery in The Claridges, New Delhi and online on dagworld.com till 7 March

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