An imaginary dialogue between Rabindranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore, conceived and presented by R.Sivakumar, the art historian had caught the audience by force. The search for a lost language and the ways that the Tagores had chosen for that search were put across the audience convincingly by the professor. As an appreciation to his presentation, a woman artist from among the audience got up and said that the lives of Tagores should still be an inspiration to the ‘Kalaakaaranmaar’ (artists) of Kerala. I was chairing the session by default as Sadanand Menon, the cultural theorist had to leave for the airport and had invited me to take his seat. The word ‘Kalaakaaranmaar’ used by the lady prompted me to ask her why she used the word Kalaakaaranmaar that connoted male artists when a word ‘Kalaakaarikal’ (female artists) was available in Malayalam. I also asked Sivakumar whether Bengali language had separate words to connote male and female artists.
The lady said that using a gendered word to connote an artist would further alienate a few women who are working in the art scene in Kerala and she preferred the word Kalaakaaranmaar because she thought and felt that it was a gender neutral word. Sivakumar also took more or less the same position as she had, but from within a larger context than forcing it within the Kerala context and opined that new neuter gender words like ‘artist’, ‘actor’, ‘singer’, ‘poet’ etc are in parlance accommodating both male and female persons without really underpinning that ideological differences that a male and female person could fundamentally have on certain issues. Familiar to the middle course of consensus though, I insisted asking him whether the Bengali language had any particular word that differentiated between a male and female artist. ‘Shilpi’ is the common noun used for both the male and female artists, he said. In his vote of thanks, Lalit Kala Academy Secretary, Ponniam Chandran too poked me for raising that question. According to him, choosing/using a different word for woman artists could amount to fundamentalism and he almost intended that gender disparities in art have been erased in Kerala.
In 2014, schools in Canada had dropped the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ for ‘Xe’ in an egalitarian approach to include the third gender into the academic parlance. Though the word Xe has not yet been a much preferred pronoun in Indian academies, I have been following the debates regarding the pronouns in both the academic as well as daily speeches and writing. Most of the feminists choose to use ‘she/her’ and the women in general even today use male common nouns to connote artists. As feminism is a multilayered theoretical discourse, insisting on the usage of one form of pronoun could amount to fundamentalism when seen from different contexts. For example, those women who think that the conscious categorization of a pronoun could go against the accepted linguistic practices and it could be capable enough to topple their own safe positions within the domestic and public spheres. Hence, not emphasising on a gender category could be seen as a survival strategy or pure ignorance. On the other hand there are women who take conscious position on using female pronouns to speak generic subjectivities like artists and poets and so on. There are feminists who demand parity in language by bulldozing ideologies down while accepting that the existing structures are hegemonic and by partaking in it would bring them the power they have been seeking.
Language is ideologically driven and ideology ridden. When we see a data that show a mere 3 % of the women participation in the art scene in the Middle East or in the Asian countries, what we apparently understand is the obvious minority of women artists. Such data makers fail to analyse the fact that it is not just in the art but the insignificant percentage is a reflection of the same condition of women in the given society in general. When this 3 % of women connote themselves with a male pronoun we should also understand that within the given context an artistic subjectivity is formed by the male ideas and male identities and women seem to take a very minor role in constructing the artistic subjectivity therefore they are forced to show allegiance with the prevalent language forms for the fear of being considered as intruders by framing their own subjectivities distinctively. Some languages have neuter gender pronouns or such neuter gender originates from the fact that those stipulated fields had been excluding women for a long time (the word ‘doctor’ connotes one such exclusive professional fields in the beginning and till early 20th century women doctors were not given full doctor-ship and had to be happy with the title mid-wife doctor), where as we have easy female pronouns like seamstress, mistress, seductress and so on.
(Wangechi Mutu, Kenyan artist)
The English word ‘artist’ is neutral gender like curator or doctor because making art was absolutely a male domain. Even if women had created art, their art was not considered art but hobby or pastime or filling the vacant moments. A much lenient society allowed some artistry to women and it was clearly demarcated within the domestic sphere of good housekeeping; mending, embroidering, crafting, beautifying and so on could be done without being called an artist. Art history as an academic discipline had not brought women artists in its purview for a long time and a practice of such exclusion had made Linda Nochlin to ask this question in her pivotal essay, Why there are no Great Women in Art? There are no great women in art because there are no words to connote great women in art. Nochlin pinpoints the economic structures that held the women down from raising their heads (like a Hydra) and its further analysis would reveal that no connotative word was produced in the language because of its socio-cultural and economic exclusion of women. In such a situation, fighting on a different word for ‘artist’ may sound hair splitting and useless. But if languages anywhere in the world have produced words that could connote women artists, then we should understand that in that linguistic group such women practices were a reality or allowed (by the patriarchal system).
When there is a word for it and even if it has not been in use for the fear of exclusion, the word has to be used by the practitioners of that gender. Parity feminists may not be addressing the underlying ideology of erasure of such words or even the very non-existence of such words. A utensil becomes out of use either when a modern replacement is brought into work or the ‘things’ that could demand the service of that utensil become unavailable or go out of fashion. We have several such things in our own memories. A word too shows such tendencies. A modern replacement can be possible only when an old word is in place. A word could become obsolete when the properties that have formed the word go out of use. In that sense, the world Kalakaarikal (female artists) could go out of use only when either a new word is brought in its place or women artists cease to exist in Kerala. I think women artists in Kerala should use the common noun Kalaakaarikal with pride.
Post script: As you know, every product has an ideology behind it. When the mopeds and scooties came to the market first, there was an objection from the male folk in India. They did not like their women sitting on it with obscenely split legs as men did. Slowly, the scooty design changed. Now look at the scooties; the seat has a slant (the body of the vehicle is designed in that way with a bulky back and a slender front) and none (including men) can sit with split legs on it. The design is done so cleverly that the thighs of the rider have to come close.
(images source internet)