Mashkola Aur Zameen Ka Ek Tukda by Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai (Courtesy: The Artists and CSMVS)
A SHORT-HAIRED GIRL stands with one arm raised and the other resting on her hip. The raised hand opens into an unclenched fist with the index finger pointing up. She wears a plain unprinted kurta. She sports no adornments other than a bindi on her forehead. Both her gaze and gesture transfix. Her raised arm could be that of a dancer or a protestor or it could be both; the grace of a dancer, the certitude of a protestor. It is after all for the viewer to interpret. In the second image, a portrait sketch, a woman also has her arm raised. But here, the outstretched arm is straight and stiff with the single finger pointing to the sky like Krishna carrying Mount Govardhan. The woman here is elderly and short haired, and her only adornment is not a bindi, but a watch.
The first photograph is of Revanti, from Gauri Gill’s Balika Mela series. The second is a portrait of the iconic activist Kamla Bhasin by Jannatul Mawa. The paths of Revanti from rural western Rajasthan probably never crossed with those of Kamla Bhasin, founder-member of Jagori, a women’s resource centre. But here at Woman Is as Woman Does (WIAWD), an exhibition curated by Nancy Adajania for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) museum, Mumbai, both women come together under one roof and can be imagined as sisters in solidarity. The exhibition has been mounted to celebrate the centenary of the CSMVS and 75 years of India’s independence. The exhibition is presented as a collaboration between Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation and the Museum.
At WIAWD, one can see the work of 27 women artists, across generations; with the oldest being the late Zarina Hashmi born in 1937, and Al-Qawi Nanavati born in 1995 being the youngest. As the title suggests, the works here are about women in action; whether it is Sheba Chhachhi’s protest photographs from the 1980s or Nilima Sheikh’s works Revisiting Champa or Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai’s Pages from Blood Book (Kabul). In Chhachhi’s photo placards one can imagine different avatars of Revanti and Bhasin—women in a protest singing slogans; a woman with a mike in hand; another woman holding a flag. When Champa Grows Up by Sheikh was a series of 12 paintings made in the mid ’80s. Each painting tells of different episodes from Champa’s life, which concludes with her dowry death. We see Champa on a cycle with her mother before her marriage; growing conflict in the marital home between Champa and her in-laws, and finally her funeral pyre. For WIAWD, Sheikh annotates photographs of the original works to approximate the past and present thus highlighting the persistence of domestic violence.
Born in Najibabad (Uttar Pradesh), Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai is an artist who has previously lived between Kabul and New Delhi, and is currently based in Germany. Her practice examines the role of women by juxtaposing image and text. Her painting Mashkola aur Zameen ka ek tukda (Hot Water Bag and a Piece of Earth) is made from ink, flower dye, papier-mâché and gold leaf on fabric. It shows a woman, without facial features, lying on a mat holding a square to her stomach. It echoes Ahmadzai’s decade-long struggle to convey the pain and discomfort of menstruations, which is still seen as impure by so many families. Growing up in a Muslim household, she questioned why a natural human process was considered a taboo topic. Speaking from Weimar, she says, “My art is inspired from the surroundings, from architecture, especially Mughal architecture, Persian gardens and miniatures, and especially the life of South Asian women—like you, me, everyone. For me it is about expressing my pain through the artwork. When I work, I sit on my prayer mat, when I menstruate, I sit on my prayer mat and draw and paint.”
WIAMD is essentially about the work and experience of women, across class, caste and language barriers, from Bhojpuri to Magahi, Gujarati to Urdu, Nepali to English. As Adajania writes in her curatorial note the emphasis is on “female artistic labour—‘doing’ as achieving the impossible, whether incrementally or through radical gestures.”
“Viewing Woman Is as Woman Does is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope where the iridescent bits of red, green and blue glass come together and fall apart, forming patterns that disrupt and reinvent themselves again and again,” says Nancy Adajania, curator of Woman Is as Woman Does
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WIAWD is not a show which gratuitously pins women artists on a wall. Unlike in much of the Western art world, women today play a key role in Indian art, whether it is as gallerists or curators or artists. As Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General, CSMVS, says the idea of the show was to “actively showcase contemporary art alongside its historic collections to break stereotypical approaches to museum displays.” He says the innovative approach has worked as the show has proved popular among young visitors, especially school and college students.
This show brings about hidden resonances between artists across generations, and also shows the various ways in which acts of feminism, are acts of resistance and resilience. The artists at WIAWD examine gender through questions of caste, ethnicity and our surroundings. Take for example Forest Song by graphic novelist Ita Mehrotra whose work straddles art and ecology. She tells of the Chipko Movement (with a comic, a booklet and a video) through an account of one of its early leaders, Sudesha Behen, who is now in her 70s, but “so full of life and living Chipko still”. Mehrotra’s immersive art brings alive the movement through Sudesha’s trials (with their husbands’ alcoholism, for example) and triumphs (safeguarding her own money, opening a bank account etc). Delhi-based Mehrotra says, “I felt that there was an understanding of Chipko that is quite linear, it is this one dimension of women going and hugging trees to save the forest, but here are the lives of these people and I wanted to communicate a little bit of that.”
In black-and-white illustrations we see Mehrotra, notebook in hand, listening to Sudesha’s stories as she tills the land and tends her cows. The comic highlights how the movement for the first time brought women out of their homes and made them stand up to contractors in order to save their land, their trees and their seeds. As Sudesha says in the comic, “We understood best all what could be lost if they were not stopped.”
While Forest Song is a celebration of what women achieved in a remote village, many works at WIAWD also remind viewers of loss—whether it is personal or social. Sosa Joseph’s Pieta is a very different work from Mehrotra’s. In jewel tones we see a mother with her son’s fallen body across her lap. The mother is unmoored by grief as a young girl stands by her side, her hands covering her ears. The pastel shades both betray and highlight the tragedy before us. The Kochi-based figurative artist says of the work, “It was an image inspired by news about a political killing in Kerala, in which, a student leader named Abhimanyu was murdered. News articles carried an image of his mother Bhupathi crying over his body. I was rather moved by it, and I painted it, imagining it the way you see it on the canvas.” A different work but one that similarly originates from the loss of a loved one is Al-Qawi Nanavati’s Her White Blouse. The work is dedicated to her mother who died suddenly. It is made of her mother’s clothes, which are torn and then knotted together again, creating a tight rug of white weaves.
At WIAWD, one can see the works in isolation or in conversation with one another. As Adajania says, “Viewing WIAWD is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope where the iridescent bits of red, green and blue glass come together and fall apart, forming patterns that disrupt and reinvent themselves again and again.”
(Woman Is as Woman Does runs at CSMVS, Mumbai, till October 16)