The Indian Subcontinent has produced numerous artists of international renown, who are fetching millions at auction worldwide. Some of the most successful and innovative artists from India are women and their varied practices explore a wide range of themes, from identity and memory, to politics, history and contemporary culture. We bring you 10 of the most famous contemporary female Indian artists.
Courtesy Shilpa Gupta
Examining a wide range of themes including consumer culture, desire, security, religion, nationalism and human rights, Shilpa Gupta’s interdisciplinary practice utilises interactive video, photography, installation and performance, often relying on audience participation. Functioning like an interactive video game, her series of video projections entitled Shadow (1, 2 & 3) incorporates the viewers simulated shadows captured by a live camera. The shadows are projected onto the white screen and interact with other shadows created by objects, dolls, houses, birds and other figures dancing, jumping and walking. In the interactive video projection Untitled , Gupta examined the roles played by women in society: seven women in different poses and clothes act and react only by command, when the viewer touches the screen. Gupta is one among a young generation of Indian artists whose work responds to the country’s postcolonial societal divides. She often blurs, re-draws or erases geo-political boundaries through her work, such as in 100 Hand-drawn Maps of India, comprising of maps of the country hand-drawn by viewers from memory, or her untitled 2005–06 work, a yellow police tape flag reading ‘there is no border here’. Gupta’s work also blurs religious and social divides, like her 10-metre light installation I live under your sky tooblinking in English, Hindi and Urdu. I keep falling at you (2010) revisits and plays with metaphors of colonialism, boundaries, nationalism and globalisation – a beehive or bunch of grapes cleverly become the installation of more than 1000 microphones that mix the sounds of construction and marching with the artist’s voice reciting a poem.
The stick-on, ready-made bindi – a traditional Indian forehead decoration – is central to Bharti Kher’s practice and invites ambivalent meanings – oscillating between tradition and modernity. Kher thrives on creating art about misinterpretation, misconceptions, conflict, multiplicity and contradiction, and on exploring human drama and contemporary life. The bindi appears in her paintings as well as in her sculptural installations and it symbolises a challenging of the role of women in a continent rooted in tradition, but above all, it references its traditional spiritual meaning of the ‘third eye’ – ‘another way of looking, another way of seeing.’ The record-selling The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own – a dead or dying fibreglass elephant sculpture covered in shiny sperm-shaped bindis – embodies multiple aspects of Kher’s practice, the mythological, the spectacular, the uncanny and the bindi. Her work further engages with allegorical tales, fantastical creatures, magical beasts and mystical monsters, as seen in other animal-based pieces such as Misdemeanours. An Absence of an Assignable Cause (2007) – the life-size replica of the heart of a blue whale, based on the artist’s imagination, with the iconic intricate bindi decoration – emphasises the romantic idea of a ‘big heart’ and the mysteries that bind the heart to concepts of love, life and death. Kher describes her practice as ‘the hunt for the chimera’, a hybrid that symbolises a mutating identity in conflict with itself. The Hybrid Series of photographic work reveals her interest in hybridity, her portrayed subjects, photoshopped into part-human, part-animal individuals, exude self-confidence, sensuality and determination through their multiplicitous and multiplying selfhoods. Kher also expands the hybrid to embrace the idea of the monster, which for her is almost always a warning of something in the future. Her series of sculptures of monster-goddesses are ‘like portents’ of contemporary times, with no mythological or religious significance.
With paper as her primary medium and a minimal vocabulary rich in associations, Zarina Hashmi creates abstract work that resonates with her life experiences of exile and dispossession and the concept of home – whether that is personal, geographical, national, spiritual or familial. Her contemplative, poetic oeuvre includes woodcuts, etchings, drawings, rubbings and casts made from paper pulp. Her handcrafted and calligraphic lines constitute a unifying element in her compositions. Language is a pivotal element in Zarina’s oeuvre, as she says: ‘for me, the image follows the words and they all come from, they all have a reference somewhere, mostly in poetry.’ ‘Letters from Home’ comprises prints based on letters from her sister Rani, who lives in Pakistan. In a Tate video interview, Zarina recounts how receiving those letters helped her to preserve a sense of identity. Handwritten Urdu is overlaid with maps and blueprints of distant homes and places, bearing the shadows of significant moments and impressions of places relevant to her family’s life. In Atlas of My World IV, the border between India and Pakistan is represented by a thick, long jagged black line, on a map showing the two countries, while in Dividing Line, that thick black line occupies the whole print, emphasising its significance. Home is a Foreign Place(1999) comprises 36 woodcuts that examine the perception and remembrance of one’s place, or more particularly, the memory of the house she grew up in. The prints each represent an element of her home in bold, unwavering stylised black lines on paper, below which a single-word inscription in Urdu describes the image. In Zarina’s works there is a tension between the familiar and unfamiliar, as seen in her latest exhibition Descending Darkness (2014) in New York. The work of the same title, a chandelier installation of black marble light bulbs – which normally generate light – here absorb light into darkness and are transformed from ordinary familiar objects into something mysterious.
Transcending boundaries is at the heart of Nalini Malani’s practice, which draws from literature, mythology, history and personal life to create art with relevance across cultures. Working with diverse media, including drawing, painting, projected animation, shadow play, video and film, she juxtaposes traditional and modern elements to address pressing issues pertaining to contemporary society. Her family was affected by the 1947 Partition, a theme that is dear to Malani, as seen in ‘Remembering Toba Tek Singh’ – a video inspired by Sadat Hasan Manto’s short story of the same title. Malani uses the symbolism of Bishen Singh’s death – a mental patient who, refusing to move to India during Partition, dies in no-man’s-land between the two borders. Malani, then, is exploring the effects of Partition on people’s lives and she extends this exploration to the effect of the nuclear testing in Pokhran, Rajasthan. The female characters in her art – such as Sita, Cassandra and Medea – are representative of the ‘suppression of the inner instinctive voice’ and are ‘deviants […] acting in a quirky manner, challenging societal norms.’ Malani’s interest in Cassandra lies in her belief that each of us has insights and instincts. Her exhibition Cassandra’s Gift at Vadehra Art Gallery, focused on the possibility that humankind foresees the events of the future and really ‘listens’ to what is happening around them.
A love of substance, fabric and texture, coupled with experience of living in communities of mixed cultural/racial locations, provide the basis for Rina Banerjee’s poetic multimedia works. She defines her oeuvre as an exploration of ‘specific colonial moments that reinvent place and identity as complex diasporic experiences intertwined and sometimes surreal.’ Banerjee creates colourful assemblages of textiles, fashion items, colonial objects, furnishings, taxidermy and organic materials, sourced from New York junk shops and reconfigured into objects imbued with new meaning. Unusual materials include taxidermied alligators, wooden cots, fish bones, ostrich eggs, feathers and antique furnishings. While the hybridity of her works is a reflection of her cosmopolitan background, the visual language she creates is rooted in mythology and fairy tales. ‘Take me, Take me . . . to the Palace of Love’ (2003) is an installation that was shown at Paris’ Musée Guimet in 2011, among its historical artefacts. Articulating a discourse about her origins and the western-Orientalist view of the East, it comprised a pink plastic pavilion made in the shape of the Taj Mahal – evoking a view of India through rose-tinted glasses, characteristic of the colonial British presence in India – with a central assemblage of ‘exotic’ materials.
Creating curious narratives of everyday life through the photographic medium, Dayanita Singh defines herself as ‘a bookmaker working with photography’, giving visual expression to a landscape that juxtaposes the artist’s imagination with the real world. Her black and white photographs are presented in installations entitled ‘Museum’ as well as in her favourite medium – the book. Paper holds a particular significance for Singh, as she explains about her latest book, ‘File Room’ – a collection of photographs of archive rooms, library and other paper-filled spaces that refer to human systems of conservation and memory. ‘I have a visceral response to places like that’ she explains, ‘to paper factories, old bookshops, people’s private libraries. I find the thought of the secrets and knowledge contained in all that paper deeply moving.’ Singh portrays everyone, from the upper class to the fringes of society, giving a wide-angle view of contemporary India. Mona Ahmed is a recurrent figure in her work, ever since her first encounter with her in 1989 on a commission for the London Times – a eunuch living in a cemetery in Old Delhi, a double outcast rejected by her family and by the eunuch community. Singh’s portrayal of Mona is an exploration of those with fragmented identities and a lack of a sense of belonging, which is the subject of the book, ‘Myself Mona Ahmed’. Singh’s ‘House of Love’ blurs the line between photographic book and literary fiction, with images accompanied by poetry and prose that narrate nine short stories.The portable ‘museums’, such as the File Museum(2013) or the Museum of Chance (2014), are large wooden structures that can be arranged in different configurations, holding between 70 to 140 photographs. This ‘photo-architecture’, as Singh calls it, allows her to endlessly display, edit and archive images, as well as offer an intimate space for the viewer to engage with her work as an interconnected body rather than single images.
Reena Saini Kallat
Working with painting, photography, video, sculpture and installation, Reena Saini Kallat often incorporates more than one medium into a single artwork. Kallat’s oeuvre engages with the never-ending cycles of nature and the fragility of the human condition, reflecting the constant shifts between birth, death and rebirth, building and collapsing, defeat and resurgence. She frequently works with officially recorded or registered names – of people, objects or monuments that have been lost or have disappeared without a trace. A recurrent motif in her practice is the rubber stamp, a symbol of control and of the bureaucratic apparatus – a ‘faceless state’ which obscures and confirms identities. Kallat has been using rubber stamps since 2003, investing her works with irony. In Falling Fables, she used stamps with the addresses of missing monuments protected under the Archeological Survey of India, creating forms of architectural ruins, bringing attention to the state of collapse and fracture from collective memory happening in India and around the world today. In 2013, she created ‘Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings)’, a cobweb on the façade of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. Her creation comprised one ton of rubber stamps bearing the former names of streets surrounding the museum and highlighting lost histories. Kallat has previously used the motif of the web to engage with issues of migration and those who control it. In ‘Untitled (Map/Drawing)’, an intricate map of the world made with electrical wires and fittings traces the often hidden migratory paths of labourers.
Through photography and sculptural installation, Hema Upadhyay engages with notions of personal identity, belonging, dislocation, nostalgia and gender, reflecting on the contemporary state of Mumbai – a metropolis with its multiculturalism resulting from migratory movements. A recurrently autobiographical work includes pictures of herself, as if she was looking for her own place within the city, to which she was forced to migrate with her family during Partition. Recently, she also has been commenting on the underlying truths covered up by the official apologies and explanations given for serious tragedies and violence throughout history and politics. ‘Loco Foco Motto’, referencing the India-Pakistan divide, comprises of chandeliers made of matchsticks, which juxtaposes beauty to a symbol of violence. In her first solo exhibition Sweet Sweat Memories (2001) she presented works that spoke of feelings of alienation and loss. The series featured miniature photographs of herself pasted onto paintings that depicted aerial and subaltern perspectives of an overwhelming new city – Mumbai. ‘I Have a Feeling that I Belong’ sees the artist precariously balanced on the balcony of a tall building, overlooking the city. In 2002, Upadhyay started working on ‘Dream a Wish – Wish a Dream’, a large-scale installation made out of aluminium sheets, car scraps, enamel paints, tarpaulins, pieces of metal and found objects, which represented Dharavi in Mumbai – Asia’s largest slum. An updated version of the work, entitled ‘Modernisation’, featured at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, USA. Shanty towns are also a focus in some of her other works, such as ‘Killing Site’, in which Mumbai’s dilapidated slums are presented upside down, as a reference to the repercussions of the socio-economic inequalities that emerge from the relentless urbanisation.
Incorporating sculpture, installation and photography that evoke urban and rural India, Sheela Gowda creates work using everyday materials, including found and recycled objects and materials, cow dung, red kumkum (turmeric), incense, human hair, gold-leaf, ceremonial dyes and domestic materials such as coconut fibre, needles, threads and cord. Gowda’s practice heavily relies on its process, which blurs the boundaries between craft and art and questions the role of female subjectivity in the context of religion, nationalism and violence that constitutes contemporary India. In ‘And Tell Him of My Pain’, over 100 metres of coiled thread dyed with red kumkum was suspended and draped across the space to form a three-dimensional drawing. The work referenced spice culture and the textile industry – traditionally parts of a woman’s experience – to highlight the pain of female domestic life in a patriarchal society. ‘Gallant Hearts’, made of cow dung and red kumkum thread, references the complex relationship between India’s rural population and its role in the agrarian economy. Gowda also uses other materials that can be traced back to the labourers, such as tar drums sourced from workers who tarmac the roads in India – first used in ‘Blanket and the Sky’. Workers also use the sheets of metal from the flattened drums to build their temporary shelters and ‘Kagebangara’ combines flattened and un-flattened drums with red and yellow tarpaulins to create an apparently abstract installation. This combination is, in fact, a kind of ‘urban scenography’, evoking the workers’ dwellings.
Through photography, performance and video, Pushpamala N critiques the Indian female socio-cultural stereotype and the reductive classification of ethnographic documentation. Trained as a sculptor, Pushpamala turned to the photographic – and performative – medium in the 1990s to explore her interest in narrative figuration. Using elements of popular culture and tradition, she examines notions of place, gender and history. Her landmark exhibition Excavations features assemblages of discarded cheap papers and materials that attempted to look at contemporary history as an archaeological site – inspired by Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project. Pushpamala’s ‘photo-romances’ sees her as the subject in various roles, with imagery borrowed from popular culture, mythology and historical references, humorously exploring the complexities of India’s contemporary society and urban life. In her first photo-romance, ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet: A Photo-Romance’,she dressed alternately as a masked adventurer and a gangster’s moll, in a noir thriller-inspired series. In other series, Pushpamala draws from a variety of sources – including ghost stories, sentimental romances, ethnographic portraits and 50s vintage recipe books. In drawing from such sources, Pushpamala further questions notions of femininity, the nation, the native, the gulf between rich and poor and the place of the big city in the imagination. In The Ethnographic Series, in collaboration with photographer Claire Ani, Pushpamala dresses in period costume, to evoke the choreographed stylistics of early anthropological studies, challenging the authenticity of the photographic image and subverting the stereotyped forensic classification of humanity.
By C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia