The politics of women’s art: Woman is as Woman does | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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The politics of women’s art: Woman is as Woman does

ByDhamini Ratnam
Oct 16, 2022 11:01 AM IST

Using the 1980s as the starting point – a decade when a burgeoning women’s movement coalesced around dowry deaths and other forms of violence against women to seek social and legal reforms – Adajania’s ‘Woman is as Woman Does’ showcases 27 contributors, including artists, activists and filmmakers.

Mumbai: When Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the director general of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), invited Nancy Adajania to mark two anniversaries -- 100 years of the museum and 75 years of Indian independence – with an exhibition on women artists, the curator decided that rather than focus on enlisting seminal artworks, she would present through art and archival documents, the socio-political contexts in which women artists worked.

Nancy Adajania is a cultural theorist, art critic and independent curator based in India during the exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation Gallery in Mumbai on October 12, 2022. (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)
Nancy Adajania is a cultural theorist, art critic and independent curator based in India during the exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation Gallery in Mumbai on October 12, 2022. (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)

Using the 1980s as the starting point – a decade when a burgeoning women’s movement coalesced around dowry deaths and other forms of violence against women to seek social and legal reforms – Adajania’s ‘Woman is as Woman Does’ showcases 27 contributors, including artists, activists and filmmakers.

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The 1980s and the present moment

The 1980s was a time of large-scale protests led by women, many of whose daughters had been burned to death by their in-laws for dowry. The protests denounced patriarchy and its attending social realities, such as the lack of importance given to girls’ education and early marriage. Sheba Chhachhi, photographer and activist, chronicled many of these protests. Adajania blew up 18 black and white photographs of hers and installed them in pairs on nine steel stands. These include images of Satyarani Chadha and Shahjehan Begum Apa, both holding up photographs of their daughters, Kanchanbala and Noorjehan, who died due to burns by their in-laws. The two mothers started Shakti Shalini, a shelter home in New Delhi, for other victims of domestic violence, and became prominent voices of the anti-dowry movement that sought a host of legal reforms.

Another photograph shows Moloyashree Roy (later Hashmi) performing in the street play Aurat, staged by Safdar Hashmi’s group, Jan Natya Manch (Janam). The play, and street theatre as a cultural form, served a vital function in feminist consciousness-raising during the 1970s and ’80s. Aurat, first performed by the slain theatre director’s group in 1979, started off with a rendition of a poem, ‘I am a Woman,’ by an Iranian schoolteacher named Marzieh Ahmadi Oskoui.

Earlier this week, when Adajania led an exhibition walk-through for a group of school students, she stopped by this photograph, whipped out her phone and played a video featuring the Iranian sisters Samin and Behin Bolouri singing a song set to the tune of the revolutionary song ‘Bella Ciao’ in support of the anti-hijab protestors from Iran, which went viral a few weeks ago. The women’s protests raging through the Middle Eastern nation — and Adajania’s allusion to it — bring out the continuity between women’s struggles across countries and decades.

“This show begins in an archival impulse, flagging the 1980s phase of the Indian women’s movement, but is not limited to it,” Adajania said. “It is not just about the 1980s or 1990s or 2000s. It’s about constantly evaluating what has happened, and changing ourselves, self-fashioning.” She referred to Radha Kumar’s seminal 1993 work on feminism in India, ‘The History of Doing’, which she read when she was in her 20s. Like the book, the exhibition also points to the “little incremental acts” as well as “radical gestures” by women artists through the decades, Adajania said.

Multiple regions, many women’s movements

“Throughout the show, what you see is not a single women’s movement but many women’s movements. You’ll see women from different classes, castes, ethnicities and different levels of privilege. For instance, Durgabai Vyam, an artist from an adivasi background, has expressed her solidarity with the Dalit community in her illustrations,” Adajania said.

Besides Vyam, whose 2011 illustrative book, ‘Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability,’ is shown at the exhibition, there’s also a video called Gaali Geet (Teasing Songs) which shows a tight-knit group of women belonging to a Dalit community in Bihar sing ribald songs of desire and pleasure, a common pre-wedding celebratory ritual. The performance, shot by Patna-based artist Ranjeeta Kumari, is accompanied by a set of mixed media paintings by the artist, which depict the “disquiets of domesticity,” Adjania said.

Ranjeeta, who also belongs to the Dalit community, was brought up on Marxist and Ambedkarite ideologies (her father was affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)). She was also exposed to her mother’s world -- of domesticity, oral story-telling and artistic practices like sujani (hand-embroidered using old saris). Both works on display point to different aspects of the life of the migrant worker’s wife, who stays behind to manage the domestic as her husband lives in the big city to earn. The ritual of Gaali Geet also points to another liminal world these wives occupy, where solidarity flourishes and humour tinges the songs that speak of their sexuality, longing and pleasure — themes that are seldom explored in academic discussions about migration.

Many Champas

One of the most searing depictions of women’s lives was made by artist Nilima Sheikh in 1984. It was a series of 12 paintings titled When Champa Grew Up, and followed the subject, Champa, from her childhood to her young adulthood and death by burning at the hands of her in-laws. Quite apart from its political and topical import, Adajania said, “the series left behind an aesthetic surplus which hasn’t depleted even today.”

Nearly four decades later, Sheikh revisited this series (now in possession of the Leicester museum and Art Gallery in the UK) and created new works for this exhibition at Adajania’s behest. The new pieces, based on reproductions of the original drawings, are inflected with textual annotations and new colours like rust that allude to blood. The last drawing recites the names of other victims of violence from Kathua to Hathras to Jammu.

Significantly, Adajania has also shown one of the anti-dowry songs, composed and sung by women’s groups in Gujarat that Sheikh had showcased alongside the original series. The curator had seen the Champa series as part of a slide show presentation in the early 1990s. “Intriguingly, at that time, nobody had mentioned the songs that accompanied the paintings to generate a larger sense of solidarity with the women’s struggle,” Adajania said.

These songs too were part of the milieu that saw several political and cultural expressions borne out of the women’s movements – expressions that also found voice through independent feminist publishing houses like Kali for Women and later, Zubaan. By placing works that allude to the various kinds of solidarities that scaffolded the women, Adajania not only shows us what an archive looks like, she also allows the viewer to immerse themselves and physically experience it by walking through shared, lived contemporary history.

'Woman is as Woman Does’, an exhibition in collaboration with the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) is being shown at the JNAF Gallery, CSMVS, till October 16.

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