The missing frame.

The Madhubani phenomenon arose when a famine relief programme was conceived to bring livelihood to women learning to paint on paper to sell what they painted on the walls of their homes. (Express Photo)

Indian art scene remains skewed in favour of male, upper class artists.

Written by Nilima Sheikh
Updated: January 25, 2023 08:01 IST

Women in art movements in India since Independence marked their place without aspiring to be leaders. Their search was for self-discovery or to illumine their own world, often by speaking from the margins.

The sparks they ignited diffused the centre, allowing others from the periphery to become torch-bearers. This might be strange to say, considering that no history of modern art in India can be written without Amrita Sher-Gil at the centre of it. Is it her legacy that allows us the freedom to be different?

I think of Nasreen Mohamedi, opting to weave the elements of nature into the abstracted space of light and air. Or of Zarina tracing the abstraction of maps but saturating them with memories of love and conflict. I think also of my mentors and fellow travellers — Arpita Singh and Nalini Malani, daring to contaminate the sensuous beauty of their vision with the sexuality of the ageing, pain, politics, ventriloquist make-belief, by whirling theatres of a world in conflict or like Madhvi Parekh, by obstinately using anachronistic language and elevating it to irreverent grandeur. They opened up routes without the encumbrance of needing to create the “masterpiece”.

Humour, which had been used as a tool or weapon by Bhupen Khakar, pilot in the search for alternative sexualities, multiplied in the arsenals of women artists like Pushpamala N. Performing impertinent and theatric games while sharing a self-deprecatory vanity with the obsessive self-portraiture of Anju Dodiya, Pushpamala unlocked cheeky new ways of retelling old stories in sumptuous, performative modes. With humour Mithu Sen bared her false fangs, literally.

The fun does not take away from the bodily pains, ruptures and blood she ritually incantates.

Through unorthodox, unexpectedly subversive use of material, Mrinalini Mukherjee brought an understanding of how everyday handmade fibres could create tensile and monumental sculpture. Take a hemp rope, gather it, knot, weave and “struggle” to fabricate it into — no, not just a wall hanging — but bodily icons of awe-inspiring scale. Her fibre mock-deities confounded those who expected clear demarcations between art and craft, those who preferred materials to behave with graceful ease within their aukaat; or those unprepared for the rude and abrasive to turn into the sublime.

In another turn, Sheela Gowda allowed her ropes, entanglements and disentanglements to map exhibition spaces; laid down ash as ash, as disintegration, and cow-dung as renewal. Anita Dube lit up other ways of upturning matter into the material for ruminations on death. Human bones, some velvet fabric, a little tinsel perhaps, were brought together to hold an unprecedented intensity of mourning, a personal theatre of grief.

Politics led Anita to another kind of theatre, a performance of impersonation to allow her to speak in the voice of the “other”. Shilpa Gupta spreads her wings across nations to map political divides, mark them with sharp acumen, concern and compassion. She has us enter prisons to listen to the poetry of political prisoners and records them for us, and for posterity.

I could go on. There have been so many women artists who have been path-breakers, teaching us different ways that art can be made. But there are some whose endeavours are particularly fulfilling. They learnt new skills to understand histories to which their trained hand could lead them. Varunika Saraf, Lavanya Mani, Prabhavathi Meppayil, Benitha Perciyal, Anindita Bhattacharya…

But wait. Is it all that hunky-dory? With the notable exceptions of a few, most women artists in the art world in the last 75 years come from the middle or upper-middle classes. The situation, if not ideal, is less skewed with male artists. In most Indian families, girls are encouraged to learn hand skills, but when it comes to practising professionally, it is usually upper and middle-class girls who have that freedom.

This is changing. But for a richer, more diverse art scene, we need women from all backgrounds of this country. More artists like Prabhavathi, from a goldsmith’s family, who can bring the skills and experiential sensibility of the crafting hand into our white cube.

There are deeper problems within the urban gallery spaces that are fenced off by caste and class. We are loathe to admit the amazing skills and sophisticated articulations of the rural or craft sectors at par with ours. Tutored with notions of originality, we are not prepared to meet halfway different kinds of individuation. There have been some valiant efforts to break these partitions.

The Madhubani phenomenon arose when a famine relief programme was conceived to bring livelihood to women learning to paint on paper to sell what they painted on the walls of their homes. Ganga Devi, doyenne amongst the array of remarkable artists that emerged, was celebrated and supported by the cognoscenti, but could that eventually change her circumstances? Jangarh Singh Shyam, the brilliant young boy of the Gond community rose to become a star, yet died a tragic death unable to extricate himself from the exploitative proprietorship of a Japanese collector. Some dignity, worthy economic parity is called for.

Galleries show Kalam Patua or Santosh Kumar Das (artists who have imaginatively extended the artistic language of their communities) and the remarkable Ojas Gallery in New Delhi consistently foregrounds the art of rural communities. But a solution to the diversification and enrichment of our art needs to be worked into our curatorial systems.

There have been efforts towards this. After Pupul Jayakar, there has been J Swaminathan, Jyotindra Jain, Gulammohammed Sheikh, others, and most recently Rajeev Sethi’s path-breaking curatorial intervention at the Terminal 2 of the Mumbai International Airport, where arts across borders and boundaries jostle with each other. They might conjoin, collaborate, argue, agree to differ or contradict. But yes, we need more such level playing fields.

The writer is a visual artist based in Baroda. This article is part of an ongoing series, which began on August 15, by women who have made a mark, across sectors


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