It took almost half a century after the pioneering work done by Amrita Sher-Gil for a whole slew of women artists to rear their heads in cities. By the early 1970s, however, they were more than a presence on the art landscape, and had attained important positions in the art world. Many, in fact, like the sculptor Meera Mukherjee, archived folk and tribal consciousness and fashioned her own propensities to make pungent, witty statements about city life. Nasreen Mohemmadi and Zarina Hashmi are also important with their delicate signs on paper, making an Asian contribution to the Minimalist critique of modernism.
When artists like Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, and Mrinalini Mukherjee and many others made bold and individualistic works, which drew from a whole range of aesthetic traditions, they impacted the Indian art scene with a space for reverie and reflection. Right from the start, their concerns were with their own lives as well as with the larger social situation. The seamless reality which was their arena, transgressing borders and conventions, was one which was to gain momentum in the ensuing years.
In the very textures of her paintings, Arpita Singh (b.1937) introduced a multilayered, dense surface, which was ornamental and at the same time spoke of subterranean tensions. This was also apparent in the buoyant forms that floated in the air, humans traversing the upper layers, ducks walking over the table, objects in the room with a life of their own, creating an incessantly animated day-to-day world. It is these daily encounters with ordinary people with which Singh engages and archives a language for an ironic existence, which is suffocating humdrum and at the same time suffused with an intensely imaginative 'other'.
Singh's work shifted from the figurative to the abstract in the 1960s, and then back to the former in the 1980s. At first it seemed like an enchanted world where objects, humans, and vegetation were imbued with a magical life. Fruits, flowers, boats, figures, all achieved an equal significance in animated manifestation. By the 1980s, her paintings became even more lucid, bringing to the fore the many contradictions existing in India. As White Ducks squat on a chequered tablecloth, creating an uneasiness, a Car in the Rose Garden invades the peace, and a still, sad twilight envelopes the Evening Tree.
While oil painting remains the primary way of articulating art practices in India, albeit in radical and inventive ways, watercolor and indigenous methods like tempera on paper have also been forefront as a means of consolidating a pan-Asian sensibility. To remap territory and reinvent traditional means has been a growing preoccupation with an artist like Nilima Sheikh (b.1945), who trained in Baroda under the tutelage of K.G. Subramanyan.
More often than not, Sheikh laboriously prepares the wash which is a mounted surface prepared by laminating three or four thicknesses of handmade paper, which are then given a glue and whiting surface. This enables her to paint on a finely textured surface, highlighting areas where the color is brushed in or worked lightly across, to show the skin under the thin garment or at places rendered opaque. The Indian white or khari, it must be pointed out, takes time to dry to its correct density, and requires both control and foresight.
Sheikh's early work, Midday (1984), made in this medium, is inclusive of several activities which occur in a limited area - a woman peeling vegetables, birds picking grains off the floor, a boy bouncing a ball up in the air, a dog stooping to lick water from the tap.
The trajectory of Nalini Malani (b. 1946) has been of transgressions between communities, classes, and countries. She has traversed many mediums to translate this and privileged recall, mythology, and literary texts to interweave narratives of oppression.
In her paintings of the 1970s and '80s, Malani's protagonist was the woman as subject of flagellated violence. By the 1990s, her oeuvre had expanded to register the individual situated within the machinations of the city. As she scrutinized the lanes and bylanes of Lohar Chawl, a crowded market area of Mumbai where her studio was situated, she negotiated the lives of ordinary workers and their daily interactions with the larger mechanisms of production. In her City of Desires, made in the early 1990s, Malani had evolved a surface image which, with its defacement and erasures, would critique the very notion of aesthetics and simultaneously, by overlaying and seepages, create a palimpsest of critical junctures.
In the 1980s, Pushpamala emerged as an important sculptor who worked mainly with terracotta. Her works were laced with a sharp irony and humor and were distinctive in their sense of movement and control over the medium. In her sculpture, Woman (1982), for instance, an adolescent girl with eyes shut adjusts her bra strap in a double take on fantasy and reality. Trained at the Baroda Arts Faculty, her mentors were K.G. Subramanyan and Bhupen Khakhar, and she took a leaf from their involvement with artisanal practices and pungent wit.
Since the 1990s, she has featured in her own photographs, starting with Phantom Lady or Kismet (1996-8), which was taken in Mumbai as a thriller, with a masked lady appealing to an ex-don to help her in her search for her lost twin sister. It was an homage to the metropolis as the commercial and film hub of the country, which harbors modern fantasies.
In her Sunhere Sapne (Golden Dreams, 1998) and Dard-e-Dil (The Anguished Heart, 2002), a set of hand-tinted photographs create fictional narratives where middle-class housewives, as the protagonists, fantasize about their romantic dreams through an interplay with actual situations. Despite the nostalgic old-world appearance of these photographs, the content is contemporary and ominous.
Pushpamala dresses up as the 1950s-style film heroine in the series, Bombay Photo Studio (2000-3), where gender stereotypes are explored. Taken in the actual studio of a still photographer for Hindi films during the period in Bombay, she delves into his experiments with portraits and Hollywood-style lighting. These are valorized to explore the identities of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian women, posed in the conventional manner, but the subjects are veiled.
With these women artists, as with others, their preoccupation with gender issues forms a part of their larger aim of understanding and articulation of the self, and its interface with society. There is an involvement with everyday, concrete facts of existence, a forefront of the marginalized, and a degree of compassionate concern with the chaotic conditions of their environment. As with their counterparts in Pakistan, there is a subversion of norms and a sub-alternate approach, which is handled with considerable wit and humor. The multi-layering and complex space, which has resulted from the emergence of women artists, has contributed substantially to the matrix of artistic consciousness in the subcontinent.
(Extracted from 'Memory, Metaphor, Mutations: Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan' by Yashodhara Dalmia & Saleema Hashmi; Oxford University Press; Pages: 227; Price Rs 2,950)