Years back when I met a woman artist friend at her studio she found a good listener in me and unbundled her life before me. Sinking deep into a brown leather sofa and sipping an extra large glass full of salty lemon soda I gave her a patient ear. A story that covers a few north Indian towns and many continents, lonely journeys into the wintry mornings to hostile government institutions, false accusations, attorneys, legal tangles, extreme depression and wrench like grip on optimism would have made into a gripping novel had it been written down without adding an iota of imagination by the writer or it would have made into a great cross over movie. It was the journey of a lonely woman who had found her way to justice not only for her partner and kids but also for her own wronged self. Back in India, she decided to dedicate her life completely for making art; more than making art, she wanted to live the life of an artist. But she was restless. The reason was simple- whatever she painted turned out to be beautiful flowers. She tried again. Flowers made way to vegetations and from there to abstractions. It was then she decided to invite me to her studio to vent her aspirations and frustrations.
By the time the winding narrative culminated into a soulful reunion of the family, I had sunken further deep into the leather sofa and the huge glass was still half full with lemonade. I was at a loss for words as the immensity of her story had fallen on me like an existential weight which wouldn’t be mine even if I tried to emulate her life. I looked at her; she was mumbling something to herself while dragging at her cigarette. “Why my works do not speak anything?” she asked me. The works were already on display along the walls, between book shelves and on the floor in clumsy half opened rolls. Why, I too thought? Either she was avoiding the gruel experiences by painting vegetations and flowers or she was painting what was opposite to her experiences. Whatever be the case, she was not painting her own self. I could see the torment in her face. “If you could paint your life, may be people will understand and the recognition that you have been seeking would come to you easily,” I said. “But I can’t,” she said. “I do not want to reveal those private sufferings on the canvases. I want it to be within me, safe and sedated because I have overcome that trauma. I do not want to relive it,” she went silent for a long time after stating that.
My friend is still struggling with her art. She has not found her solace in art and as she has not found it in art, she is still on a search to find it there itself. Perhaps, her solace is not there in art. Or may be her frustration comes from the fact that she has all solace and comfort on the earth but she remains incomplete without doing art. But when she is at her canvas, she expresses what she is not. Each canvas is a denial and each moment she stands in front of a complete canvas is a trial by fire, never ending. Abstraction comes to her naturally because she wants her inner life to be hoodwinked by abstraction. Abstract art sometimes is a vessel into which one could pour any kind of meaning, mostly transcendental kinds. Or it could be her lack of craft in painting figures due to lack of practice. One wouldn’t accept this view if you prefer to tell an artist so. Ability to craft an object/image by paints or by chisel or by any other medium could be a curse at times because your skill to make it or spoil it would tell the truth to the world; even bad skill needs some sort of consistency to prove its status as a skilled style. Abstraction could be a boon for it could hide not only your inabilities but also your own inner self. What you need to do is to cover it up with transcendental jargon, which comes so cheap in Osho publications.
I did not judge my friend as I was listening to her story and looking at her works. Even today I do not judge her because it is her life and art and she is responsible for both. But I understand that she is not the only one; she is not the only one who refuses to address their own selves. Most of the artists are like that. Talking about the gendered selves in art, female artists suffer from this. They want to speak out and explore their own selves in their works. But they are afraid of the society, the family, husband, children and finally their own selves. Recently I came across a woman artist whose canvases had a lot of images that represent female genitals. I asked her whether she was celebrating her autonomy as a sexual subject. Upon hearing this question she gasped and blatantly refused her intention to create an autonomous subjectivity for herself. When I insisted that I could see female sexual organs in her works, she said it was just accidental formations and she never thought they looked like vulva. That was quite a disclaimer! May be art is in the eyes of the onlooker, one could say. If you are looking for a vagina in a woman’s canvas may be you will see one somewhere. But I was not looking for one. Women artists refuse to acknowledge their bodily autonomy in India due to many reasons including moral perceptions of the society and the replication of patriarchal values.
A few woman artists have acknowledged their physical as well as mental autonomy and by hook or crook, with good skill or without skill at all they all have made it in the market and in the intellectual circuits. If you ask why most of the women artists in India fail to earn a name (even if they earn fame they are temporal and lasting only till the end of the exhibition and page three appearances and a few paid writings here and there) I would say it is because of their fear to express their own minds. They are so worried about their domestic and social roles as daughters, wives and mothers that they want to replicate the patriarchal values that define a good woman. Right from Karwachot fasting to washing and powdering a wife beating husband they want to be perfect social beings first and artists next. And the moment they hit their studios or workspaces, they become rebellious and the rebellion takes the turn of complaint than bold statements through art forms. These complaining selves find the final vent in abstract art because this art language gives them social dignity (because it is sexless), modernity (because abstraction is a pure invention of modernity) and gender parity (because abstract art cannot be seen in gender terms because hardly there is something to identity as gender even if there are vaginal and penile appearances by chance or by design). Complaints also manifest in the form of moral critique on other successful women artists, often doubting their abilities to hop beds.
Another debilitating factor that Indian women artists (the majority) suffer from is their perceptions on feminism. As these women artists do not take any pain to understand their art or their lives (maximum what they do is to find a mentor who would be another abstractionist idiot or attending satsang and yoga classes) they view feminism as a marriage breaking ideology. Yes, feminists could break marriages and homes (depending on the emphasis that one gives on the reasons of such breakages) but at the same time we pretend not to see the number of marriages broken by non-feminists. If someone does a stock taking, one could see that maximum home breakings come from non-feminists women and men. Like they understand Communism as a foreign wife snatching ideology (along with land and socio-economic opportunities), feminism is understood by them as a spoiler of their own beliefs. They do not recognize the fact that there are feminisms and the slogan ‘personal is political’ comes from such varied possibilities of feminisms. Though many feminists have misused the ‘personal is political’ slogan for ulterior motives, feminisms is a relevant theoretical tool that has to renew itself at every turning of the annals of contemporary history as events unfold in breakneck pace. But our women artists seem to be absolutely unaware of all these. They are happy with their karwachots and fasting.
If one asks why there are no great Indian woman artists, the answer should be sought in the above cited points. Artists who are not able to take a position in their own art can’t be good or successful artists. It is applicable to both men and women. The histories that we have built around our women artists like Amrita Sherghil, T.K.Padmini, Nasreen Mohammedi and so on are juvenile histories. Amrita Sherghil was a seeker of opportunities. She worked when India’s nationalist struggle was in full swing and her imagination seemed to have untouched by all those struggles. Amrita Shergil did not create a feminine language of her own but what made her important was her European experience and lineage that gave her a larger edge in the art scene than even her male counterparts. T.K.Padmini is an artist who passed away before she could really evolve as an artist. What we have as her oeuvre is the embodiment of her urgency to be at par with the male colleagues of her time. At times, they do not even move beyond stylised illustrations. Nasreen Mohammedi is perhaps an over rated artist for her minimalism which could be read at par with the conceptual works of Sol Lewitt. As history was written from those quarters certain inclusions became imperative and also when there were no woman artists to reckon with, whoever showed the potentialities of becoming a bold artist got a permanent place in the modern art history of India.
India could have great women artists only when they are able to express their own selves freely. Quasi and shy approaches to self will never make a good woman artist. Even if we have a few names in Indian contemporary art scene who have transcended the boundaries to become international artists, their art is basically read and judged by the parameters created by the western art historians, theoreticians, critics and curators. Even in their bold attempts to politicize their stance and art languages one could see a tremendous amount of abstraction, means going from the concrete and particular to the generic which gives them an immediate recognition as ‘international’ art. When one of our woman artists scream it finds its resonances historically in the scream of Yoko Ono. When one artist cuts meat to write words, it becomes a surrogate Abromovic act. We have a few bold woman artists in India but they are not yet been included in the high profile shows. May be it takes a few more years for them to replace the sanitized women artists who do politically correct sanitized art now.
(all images from net. For illustrative purpose only)