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May 2, 1997


Amrapali Singh in New Delhi

Arpana Caur I took part," said famed artist Anjolie Ela Menon, "only because it would have looked churlish if I had refused." It was clearly not the best endorsement for an exhibition featuring the biggest names in Indian art, what with Menon complaining that it was an exhibition of gender bias in reverse gear.

The Self and The World: An Exhibition of Indian Women Artists, held in Delhi in April, was meant to be a visual expansion of the recently published Marketing And Research Group publication, Expressions and Evocations: Contemporary Women Artists of India, edited by Gayatri Sinha. Curated by her for National Gallery of Modern Art and Gallery Espace, it spanned six decades and the work of 15 women artists, painters and graphic artists.

"I agreed only because Gayatri had included me in her book. But I don't understand this concept of having an exhibition devoted to female artists. Then, why not have an exhibition of male artists only?'' asked Menon.

Singh, though, begged to differ, "Any exhibition on this scale had to have a common binding thread; here, it was the gender. What's wrong with that?"

> Gogi Saroj Pal She had a staunch backer in painter Arpana Caur, who felt that the concept was criticised only because "it is fashionable to say you are different, that you are a feminist. In fact, the issue of whether or not a particular show should be gender-based trivialises the entire effort both of the curator and of the artists. By harping on one aspect alone, one tends to overlook that a particular artist's growth and development has been showcased for the first time. Nowhere else did we have a platform where one could see the last two decades of any artist's works under one roof.''

Also on display were the artists' personal sketchbooks, letters and photographs, which lent a rare insight into events that gave direction to their works. Like the letter painter Amrita Sher-Gil wrote to her sister, Indira. Or the one she wrote to art connoisseur Karl Khandalavala, where she said: "I think all art, not excluding religious art, has come into being because of sensuality: a sensuality so great that it overflows the boundaries of the mere physical.'' Or Parekh's sketchbooks, which hark back to a rural childhood now lost in the urban chaos represented in her works.

The paintings and sculptors exhibited did not always Nilima Sheikh tally with the book since all the works were not available. Besides, as Sinha said, the choice was not easy, considering the many artists the country has thrown up in the last 50 years or so. "It would have been impossible for me to represent all that talent. I had to make a selection from the available resources, which I did according to my understanding of the artist and their contribution to the art scene in the country.''

But, exhibited as they were in 10 rooms at the NGMA, each artist had enough individual space to exhibit works that had evolved over the years. On view, therefore, were voyages of self-discovery for the artists themselves.

Understandably, the pride of place went to Sher-Gil -- acknowledged as the painter who removed women from the delicate dimensions of Rajasthani miniature paintings and gave a different voice and form to women as viewed by women. Prominent amongst her exhibits, which occupied an entire room, were nudes like Bride's Toilet (1937), Ancient Story Teller (1940) and Woman on a Charpoy (1940) which had shocked puritan Indian society when they were first unveiled.

Meera Mukherjee Two other women artists -- Arpita Singh, whose nudes amidst fully-clothed men celebrate female sexuality, and Nalini Malani -- shared a room, based on their common binding theme of the female form.

Ostensibly, though, there was no link between the artists: apart from Menon, Sher-Gil, Arpita Singh and Malini, the works of Devayani Krishna, Piloo Pochkhanawala, Meera Mukherjee, Nasreen Mohamedi, Madhvi Parekh, Anupama Sud, Nilima Sheikh, Gogi Saroj Pal, Latika Katt, Navjot and Arpana Caur were also displayed. The show was a visual delight towards gaining an insight into a world viewed from a woman's eyes.

Since every artist was represented by both her early and recent works, every room became a mini-retrospective that allowed art lovers to follow the artist's creative growth and development. Pal's style, for instance, had matured from her initial soft aqua-tint, doleful-eyed feminine faces to works like Hatyogini Shakti in gouache on paper.

Anupama Sud Likewise,Caur's recent series on Bihar's Godna work was a studied contrast to the materialistic, commercial world where creation and destruction, reality and aspirations co-existed to show the woman both as nurturer and destroyer. Or Sheikh's miniatures which attempted to clear the romantic haze that envelopes motherhood. Or Navjot of the 1990s, who used scale and mass to squash the notion of woman as demure, dainty and delicate.

Among the sculptors, the late Pochkhanawala stood out with her Teeming Millions (1950) -- which displayed men, women and children entwined in the spirit of togetherness. There was also the enigmatic Meera Mukherjee, described by the curator as "the last great romantic", with her bronze pieces Spirit of Daily Work (1975) and Kenduli Mela (1995), and Katt's works in traditional mediums like mud, cow dung, metal and stone.

Sud -- whose etchings of people are replete with tragedy as in the Dialogue series -- was thrilled with the concept behind Self..., "Gender is important; it helps build a platform to prove that what you see is not just women's art, but some of the best artists in the country. That's the positive outcome of the show."

Arpana Caur Yet, Menon's view cannot be ignored, "One can't say that these artists are representative of women artists in India. If artists like Shambhavi, Vasundhra Tewari, Rini Dhumal and Jaya Ganguli had been included, the show could have avoided the label of being largely figurative.''

Criticism apart, Self... was undoubtedly a milestone; it succeeded in bringing forth the feminine sensibilities in art and the world as viewed by women. The exhibition was a remarkable effort in showcasing women artists who had struggled to achieve their identity in the fierce, male-dominated world of art. It projected a refreshingly different view, far removed from the conservative and, often misunderstood, viewpoint of mythology that viewed women as goddess or sirens. Or male artists who see the female form without its sensibilities and emotions.

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