Last year, Wonkie, a popular culture blog, rolled out an art-interpretation contest on an Anju Dodiya painting of Lord Shiva with a candle on his head. The responses swung from the high (“The artist is telling a story in adulthood while his alter ego is looking in upon his current struggle as an infant pining”) to the low (“Life is tough in India. Unfinished hairdo due to loadshedding”).
‘Necklace of Echoes,’ her new exhibition, however, is fairly straightforward. Around the heads of women, a constant motif with Dodiya, are necklaces that seem to function as both armour and noose.
What do the necklaces symbolise? “As a painter of faces, I have often used accessories like costume, hairstyle, hats and collars to function as extensions of the character,” says the Mumbai-based artist who is one of the leading names in contemporary Indian art. “They contribute to the emotional climate of the painting. In the ‘Necklace of Shadows’, for example, the necklace becomes like a huge enclosure, almost like a walled city. The face is almost taken in. This painting explores nocturnal, urban pain.”
The Paper Necklace, another striking painting of Dodiya. In the 2007 Venice Biennale, through her artwork, French artist Sophie Calle invited 107 women to respond to a rejection email which she got from her lover. “I painted this ‘Paper Necklace’ for Sophie thinking that tearing up a rejection love letter and wearing it around your neck was preserving the memory as well as ending the relationship, and moving on. It is an image of resolved emotions.”
Jayasri Burman’s women, on the other hand, are pictures of such serenity that they seem almost divine. ‘A Mythical Universe,’ a mid-career retrospective of the 49-year-old artist, features, for example, a Radha— no relation to Krishna — talking to birds. “I suppose it is in the way they are imbued with a vibrance which draws the parallels between them and divine figures. This is partly because I am a Bengali; the culture of Bengal is steeped in rich mythology… But I don’t try to import divinity. Here, Radha’s bird may be a messenger of love. This is not Radha who has to be put on a pedestal and worshipped.”
This weekend Delhi thus offers an opportunity to engage with two kinds of femininity. “Anju talks of pain and I respect that,” says Burman. “My paintings talks of the desire that gives birth to that pain. Just imagine a young girl sitting and rotting in a room out of boredom. She looks out of the window and wishes she could fly…”