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Nalini Malani: A female voice in art

The Centre Pompidou spotlights the cutting-edge oeuvre of this feminist stalwart with a retrospective

‘Onanism’, 1969. Photo: Centre Pompidou
‘Onanism’, 1969. Photo: Centre Pompidou

Altogether, it was a very rich atmosphere." This is how Nalini Malani described her experience at the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW), the multidisciplinary initiative run by veteran artist Akbar Padamsee from 1969-72 out of his Nepean Sea Road apartment in Mumbai, with part funding from the Union government’s Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship. “But, unfortunately, with very few women participants," was the caveat during a 2014 interview with Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South Asian art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for part 3 of his series Building On A Prehistory: Artists’ Film And New Media In India.

Was she the only female member of the workshop? asked Jhaveri. “Yes, I was," she replied. The interview was republished in an eponymous tome featuring a collection of essays on her work, released after Malani’s three-part retrospective, You Can’t Keep Acid In A Paper Bag, in 2014 at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA).

In October, the 71-year-old artist opened The Rebellion Of The Dead at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the first of a two-part retrospective spanning the years 1969-2018. Instead of basking in the limelight, however, she is already absorbed in the impending second installation of the retrospective at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, slated from 27 March-22 July. “The relevance of the huge body of work produced by her over the years has grown multifold in the times we live in," wrote KNMA director Roobina Karode in her curatorial essay in the 2014 publication. Karode sees her practice as so cutting edge and dynamic that it allows for exciting curatorial propositions that prompt new ways of seeing and interpreting works that have already been written about at great length. It’s no surprise then that each of the two venues will host unique selections, with no works repeating.

The Rebellion Of The Dead cements Malani’s reputation as one of India’s foremost feminist artists. “My own art was from the start female-oriented," she told Sophie Duplaix, chief curator at Centre Pompidou, in an interview. From the outset, Malani was drawn to the interiority of feminine narratives, beginning with the subjectivity of diary-based explorations, and moving into the multiple dimensions of the world of Indian and Greek mythology, extracting her female protagonists from the patriarchal set-up of the societies that had conjured them. It was not a popular practice to adopt, and the unprecedented, theatrical nature of Malani’s video, installation and performance art triggered an unfair share of criticism. For instance, in 1999, when she exhibited Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998) at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai, Indian art critics accused her of being an “installator", a pun on gladiator, for creating a spectacle for the public.

Similarly, one of the highlights of The Rebellion Of The Dead is the rarely exhibited Onanism, a 3:51-minute, 16mm film made at VIEW in 1969, exploring female angst through the quasi-cathartic movements of a dear friend suffering from mental issues. “You must try to understand that period; it was as if women had swallowed the concept that we are incapable," Malani had told Jhaveri. “It was almost as if doors were shut. It was a very, very strange situation because there was no openness on the part of the men. None." Was the attitude patronizing or did they view her with some sort of suspicion? Jhaveri asked. “Neither. They simply ignored me."

One senior modernist who helped further Malani’s career was S.H. Raza, whose recommendation letter helped her get a French government scholarship that took her to France from 1970-72, soon after her diploma from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art. In Paris, she was given the freedom to design her own education since the École des Beaux-Arts was still to reconfigure its new syllabus. This would be a foundational period for Malani, who practised printmaking at Atelier Friedlander and immersed herself in Marxist politics while attending lectures by Noam Chomsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as film screenings at the Cinémathèque Française, where she met directors like Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker.

‘In Search of Vanished Blood’, site-specific medium, single channel, video play, sound. Photo: The artist and Vadehra Art Gallery

Like her predecessor Amrita Sher-Gil, Malani decided to return to India in 1973. She soon began to document a Muslim slum in Bandra, Mumbai, striking a deal with Pundole Art Gallery, which offered her Rs300 a month for a year’s output of oil paintings. She was devastated when, one day, the municipality razed the slum. The footage languished for decades till her archivist Johan Pijnappel rediscovered and digitized it, a few years ago.

This slum project is a part of Malani’s corpus of work that is yet to be exhibited. However, on display at the Pompidou are other early works such as Tabloo (1973) and Utopia, a film diptych (1969-76), as well as two other significant later pieces. One, Alleyway, Lohar Chawl (1991), an installation of five reverse-painted transparent Mylar sheets with stones—the result of her long-term residential engagement with Lohar Chawl in Lower Parel, Mumbai. And the second, Remembering Mad Meg (2007-17), a four-channel video with 16 light projections and eight reverse-painted rotating Lexan cylinders with sound that was first shown as part of the landmark Paris-Delhi-Mumbai show at Centre Pompidou in 2011 and was eventually acquired by the Musée National d’Art Moderne at Centre Pompidou. In Search Of Vanished Blood, a six-channel video/shadow play, is an immersive feminist interrogation steeped in literary references to mythical characters from Greek and Indian mythology, created for documenta(13)—it will be exhibited at Castello di Rivoli.

Nalini Malani. Photo: Rafeeq Ellias/Centre Pompidou
Nalini Malani. Photo: Rafeeq Ellias/Centre Pompidou

“Is the female voice in the 21st century gaining momentum, and how important is this?" Pijnappel asked Malani in an interview published in the Irish Museum of Modern Art exhibition catalogue in 2007. “It is now a voice to contend with," she replied.

The Rebellion Of The Dead is on view till 8 January at Centre Pompidou, Paris. For details, visit

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