Bengaluru-based artist Pushpamala N inherited the art of staged performance from her mother, who organised numerous amateur theatre productions for festivals as well as ladies club events. It was a passion that drew Pushpamala and her brother too, as they played many characters for tableaux, fancy dress shows and even studio photographs. Some of those photographs, the artist recollected, featured her mother playing historical characters and other people from everyday life. But it was a photograph of Bhupen Khakhar that triggered her interest in the self-portraiture form of photography—an extraordinary kind of experimentation that has shaped a large part of her artistic practice, partly because of which she is often referred to as ‘the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art’.
“I have always been an admirer of and influenced by Bhupen Khakhar’s work. There is this whole catalogue of his in which he is acting as James Bond or some model advertising a toothpaste. I found it very hilarious and I just felt that it was a lost moment because nobody took that up. It was for a show that I decided to recreate this picture of Fearless Nadia, which is a film still. And then I decided to build it into a body of work like the ‘Phantom Lady’, which was the first one and then it started developing in different ways,” the artist said at the opening of her latest show at New Delhi’s Nature Morte.
Titled ‘The Body Politic’, the exhibition features a highly versatile collection of exhibits—photographs, short films, sculptures—which explore contemporary investigations into the idea of the nation-state, while referring to historical interpretations of India through works of artists such as Raja Ravi Verma, Abanindranath Tagore and others. Based on the oft-quoted metaphor of the Body Politic, “by which a state, society or religion and its institutions are conceived of as a biological (usually human) entity”, Pushpamala revisits, re-enacts and problematises moments of history that specifically crafted the public image of what was and is being perceived as India.
As a trained sculptor from MSU Baroda, Pushpamala’s interest in the theatrical element predates the shift in her artistic practice to performance photography—a form of work she often refers to as ‘photo novellas’ or ‘photo-romances’. Her masquerades involving registers of popular culture and history represent a search for multiple truths—as against conventional narratives or received wisdom—through the realm of fiction and photo-based inquiry, for example. An important contemporary voice because of her unique art practice, Pushpamala’s work can be placed in the tradition of self-portrait photography, which was started by Robert Cornelius in 1839 and has since been pioneered by so many artists, including Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Azadeh Akhlaghi.
Known for her deceptively simple feminist works, most famously the “film noir style” Phantom Lady photo-performance, Pushpamala places herself at the centre of the social and political inquiry in the current show, by acting out multiple roles that have historical significance and contemporary relevance. For example, in the exhibition, she is the frightened Draupadi, facing the threat of the rape by a prince—which is a recreation of Raja Ravi Verma’s 1890 painting on the well-known Mahabharata episode. She is also the apocalyptic figure of Kali; the old, ailing woman sitting next to the symbol of British imperialism; the Queen; the saint-like Bharat Mata inspired from Abanindranath Tagore’s 1905 watercolour; and the glorious Motherland, riding on a lion and flanked by the map of the subcontinent.
Whether it is the critique of governance-led practices of moulding people into certain prototypes of ‘ideal citizens’ in a series of silent films, to highlighting land-related conflicts through an archive of copper plate sculptures, or pictures showing marginalised communities with their eyes deliberately patched out, the works of Pushpamala set out to establish a dialogue with the viewer.
That she is able to adopt multiple roles, including the involvement of her artist friends in the process of role-playing, opens up the possibility of re-examining so many aspects of social and public life from multiple perspectives—one that does not necessarily belong to the artist alone.
In this respect, there are many questions raised by these exhibits, from the perspective of the visitor:
Does the figure of ‘Bharat Mata’ also inform my identity? What is my idea of India? As Pushpamala, dressed in the Bharat Mata costume in the silent videos, titled ‘Good Habits’, would I want to wash the anatomical model of a brain, or dismantle another model of a ‘bi-sexual torso’? In a recreation of Atul Dodiya’s 1999 painting, do I relate to the figure of the ‘old hag’ toiling over the stone grinder?
However, given the expanse of Pushpamala’s artistic focus, with multiple thematic perspectives and subversions playing out simultaneously, it is fairly tempting to fall into the trap of reducing her work to a particular social-political incident or movement (read #MeToo, for example).
“I wouldn’t like it to be reduced to one movement. The image of rape was used as an image of colonisation during the nationalist period. So that’s how these paintings and postcards by Ravi Varma were being circulated, in plays and all kinds of forms and it was a veiled metaphor for colonisation.
“My being in them makes them absolutely contemporary. Why am I choosing that image? It is obviously something to do with now. Why am I doing a whole series of Mother India? Because there is some crisis in the nation. And there is some strange idea of nationalism,” the artist explained.
As notions of nationalism become increasingly contentious, it will be interesting to see how the artist pushes boundaries of her dramatised critiques.
The Body Politic by Pushpamala N is on till
Cover Image: Kali.
Images courtesy: Nature Morte