‘Shifting Portraits’ is a solo exhibition of Mahula Ghosh at Delhi’s Arts and Aesthetics Gallery. An exhibition that suits to the mood of the on setting winter, it speaks about the lives and times of the tea plantation workers in Darjeeling, especially the women folk who do all the culling and sorting of tea leaves in the dewy mornings at the hill slopes of Darjeeling. Mahula had spent her childhood days in this part of the world and somehow the plight of women who have been doing this slaves’ job in the plantations even during the most hostile climatic conditions got etched into her mind quite deeply. Any kind of art, whatever contemporary inspirations that it has for manifesting through the hands of an artist, definitely does not eschew the inclination of the artist to plumb into the tunnels of memory. No work of art gains the enduring quality provided if it is not softened by the dews of memories. Mahula, like most of the sensitive human beings was making memories involuntarily while living in Darjeeling. Today, as a matured artist she chooses to paint them in a very subtle way, using very subtle mediums- water colour, tea bags on Nepali Paper.
The title could be a bit misleading for it would goad the viewer to think about a series of portraits of the tea plantation workers that would reveal the hazardous lives that they are leading in the plantations. However, the exhibition is not that literal and there is a very subtle sense of femininity running as a connecting thread between and through all these works. Mahula has used stitching, pasting, cutting, colouring and drawing for making these works speak to the viewers. She has not resorted to any particular narrative structures so that the viewers could understand the living conditions of the plantations workers. In that sense, Mahula does not intend to make a sociological visual document, rather her effort is to make a sort of revisiting to the annals of her own memories that have been lying dormant for all these years. The sudden spur that initiates into this revisiting must be very personal verging to the level of identification, not really physically but experientially. The constant drudgery that the plantation women goes through must not be radically different from the drudgery that an artist like Mahula goes through in her very urban existence.
(work by Mahula Ghosh)
This identification does not come from a sort of class consciousness but from a larger category that makes each and every woman irrespective of their social and economic standing one and the same in the contemporary world. Tea plantations carry the history of colonialism in any part of the world. And also these plantations are the standing evidences of human trafficking or forced migrations for the purpose of farm and plantation helps. There is a fundamental difference between those people who have migrated to the rich forest lands and also to the barren areas in order to tame and cultivate, and also possess the land for themselves. Plantations were regimented places and spaces where economy and the power of economic and political supremacy had consolidated their presence in subjecting human labour to the level bondage and the creation of wealth and profit. The colonial sagas always neglect the stories of women, old people and children as they are treated as third rate animals lesser than the farm animals perhaps. Births and deaths were not really marked and signed, and only the survival of the fittest made the plantation workers confident about their living even in the subhuman bondage.
Women carrying baskets hanging from their heads or shoulders and snipping tender tea leaves in chorus silently, steadily and rhythmically provide a very beautiful romantic backdrop for the backpacker who visits these plantations as a tourist. Popular culture has always made these locations into backdrops for the romantic love to thrive and jive. Plantation workers, in these magical conversions of the spaces, either become props or when the imagination runs wild, become chorus who move behind the singing and dancing lovers. In the blurred faces that grin from ear to ear as if they were experiencing immense pleasure in becoming just props, we fail to see the hardships that they go through and even the horrendous histories of colonial exploitations etched on their faces. Mahula is definitely not a backpacker tourist. She had lived and had made memories there. She had thought about the plights of the migrant populations that neither belong here nor there. They are the creatures of labour who are devoid of all kinds of human rights. In a very poignant effort to give them their rightful place in the contemporary discourse of human rights and aesthetic consideration Mahula has come up with a very sensitive body of works in this exhibition titled ‘Shifting Portraits’.
(Work by Mahula Ghosh)
As I mentioned above, what envelopes all these works is a subtle sense of femininity which is fast disappearing from our own female artists these days. Femininity, a majority of them see as a weakness. Keeping the western art historical traditions as a point of reference, most of our feminist artists are a bit vary of using ‘feminine’ sensibilities in their works. Still, as women they just cannot go out of the feminine experiences either. This is a very interesting conundrum that they try their best to negotiate. Many, by overtly using sexual imageries or sexual bodies as mode of communication go to the extreme of expressions, which is bold and beautiful (at times) and daring experiments in the conventional art scene of India. Many, by being overtly sentimental about the issues of women, paint or sculpt them as ideal beings which often end up as decorative pieces. Hardly we see those women artists who could manage an in between path where both boldness and beauty converge to highlight the strength and integrity of feminine experiences. We had Nasreen Mohammedi with that sense of femininity using very straight and slanting lines (can you just feel it?). We had Rumanna Husain and T.K.Padmini. In the contemporary art scene we have Shobha Broota, Madhvi Parekh, Arpana Caur, Nilima Sheikh, Anju Dodiya and Arpita Singh with such feminine sensibility. Mahula Ghosh belongs to this league of artists though she is young in age. One may wonder why I left the names like Amrita Sherghil who is considered to be the epitome of feminine or feminist voice. Also one may wonder why I am not talking about Rekha Rodwittiya. Amrita Sherghil was competing with the modernist male artists of her time and one could see the ‘male’ visual language. Rekha started off as a sloganeering feminist artist and has turned her feminist protagonists in her works into icons that oscillate between tradition and modernity, not finding an escape route to transcendence.
(Work by Mahula Ghosh)
Mahula does not paint like any of them. One has to really look hard into the paintings to see portraits of women and children. But they are all there. On the tea bags, on the stitched and cut and pasted pieces of paper, one could see the floating figures. Stitching that one has learnt in schools come back to Mahula’s scheme of painting and she uses it as a ‘mending’ activity of women than a ‘decorative’ activity. They are coarsely done but with a purpose of survival. That is the way women in plantations do. Mahula in a very quirky twist connects women and machines. Machines in the tea factories are often run by men. But the raw materials are culled by women. One could say that women themselves become the raw materials for the machines, while in turn they all become just hands and shoulders that cull tea leaves; they are just machine parts so that the gigantic machine of colonialism of different sorts could work smoothly. This connection is repeated in most of the works done by Mahula. She chooses to work in watercolour because she feels that in tea plantation there is always moisture and dew. In watercolour what binds the images and colours is wetness. For her, when she touches the paper with watercolour she does it with the morning dews from Darjeeling that still moisten her memories. Two little pieces of ceramics in the form of two obscure machines are really sensitive works and Mahula could work more in this medium.
‘Shifting Portraits’ drew me particularly because recently by providence I had the chance to involve in the tea plantation workers’ strike in Munnar, Kerala. Women workers, under the common banner of Penpilai Orumai (Women’s Unity) came to the streets asking for wage hike and they could persuade not only the managements and the state government but also the conscience of the people in Kerala. Women, in a bold move chased away all the political parties that came down to declare support to the striking women workers. They did not allow any political leader to sabotage and hijack their strike. It was a legendary and historical strike by women. As a social worker I could join hands with a few intellectuals in Trivandrum to support this strike. When I look at Mahula’s pictures I remember the solidarity of those women down south striking for better wages and human dignity. Those women reverberated the question raised by the first black feminist and the ex slave, Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ In Mahula’s paintings I hear the same question in a conscience pricking murmur.