- C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
The Indian Subcontinent has produced numerous artists of international renown, many of whom 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 ten of the most famous contemporary female Indian artists.
Examining a range of themes from consumer culture to desire, security, religion, nationalism, and human rights, Shilpa Gupta’s interdisciplinary practices utilize interactive video, photography, installation, and performance art, often relying on audience participation. Functioning like an interactive video game, her series of video projections entitled Shadow (1, 2, and 3) incorporate 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. 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, and erases geo-political boundaries, such as in 100 Hand-drawn Maps of India (2007-2008), comprised of hand-drawn maps by viewers from memory, or her untitled work depicting a yellow police tape flag reading, “There is no border here.”
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 depicting misinterpretation, misconceptions, conflict, multiplicity, and contradiction, exploring human drama and contemporary life. The bindi appears in her paintings as well as in her sculptural installations, challenging the role of women in a traditional country, and referencing its traditional spiritual meaning of the ‘third eye’. Her record-breaking The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006) depicts a dead or dying fibreglass elephant covered in shiny bindis. 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) is a life-size replica of the heart of a blue whale, based on the artist’s imagination, emphasizes the romantic idea of a ‘big heart’ and the mysteries that bind the heart to concepts of love, life, and death.
With paper as her primary medium and a minimal vocabulary rich in associations, Zarina Hashmi creates abstract works that resonate 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, and casts made from paper pulp. Her handcrafted and calligraphic lines constitute a unifying element in her compositions. Language is pivotal for the artist. Letters from Home (2004) showcases a series of 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.
The concept of the transcended boundary 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. From drawings to paintings, projected animation, shadow play, video, and film, the artist juxtaposes tradition with modernist 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 (1998), 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. Malani’s interest in Cassandra lies in her belief that each of us has insights and instincts. Her 2014 exhibition titled 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 the Musée Guimet in Paris in 2011. 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 to evoke 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 gives visual expression to a landscape that juxtaposes the artist’s imagination with the real world. Her black and white photographs are presented in an installation titled Museum, as well as in her favourite medium: the book. Paper holds a particular significance for Singh. The artist 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 their first encounter 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 photography 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.
Reena Saini Kallat
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. 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 Mumbai as an overwhelming new city.
Incorporating sculpture, installation art, and photography showcasing urban and rural India, Sheela Gowda creates works using everyday materials, including found and recycled objects and materials like cow dung, red kumkum (turmeric), incense, human hair, gold-leaf, ceremonial dyes, and domestic materials such as coconut fibers, needles, threads, and cord. Gowda’s practice heavily relies on its process, which blurs the boundaries between art and craft, and questions the role of female subjectivity in the context of religion, nationalism and violence that constitutes contemporary India. And Tell Him of My Pain (2001) employed over 100 meters of coiled thread dyed with red kumkum, suspended and draped across the space to form a three-dimensional drawing. The work referenced India’s spice culture and the textile industry – traditionally parts of a woman’s lived experience – to highlight the pain of female domestic life in a patriarchal society.
Through photography, performance and video art, Pushpamala N critiques the Indian female socio-cultural stereotype and the reductive classification of ethnographic documentation. Trained as a sculptor, Pushpamala turned to photography and performance art in the 1990s to explore her interest in narratives. Using elements of popular culture and tradition, she examines notions of place, gender and history. Her landmark exhibition, Excavations, featured assemblages of discarded papers and materials that attempted to look at contemporary history as an archaeological site. Pushpamala’s ‘photo-romances’ see 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. From ghost stories to sentimental romances and ethnographic portraits, Pushpamala questions notions of femininity, the nation, the native, wealth versus poverty, and imagined cities.