Art as Encounter: Historicising Feminist Interventions within the Indian Avant-Garde
Social movements like the Indian National struggle for independence and cultural movements centralising Indian folk traditions have influenced the evolution of Indian Modern Art practice. The Early Modernist movement in India is categorised by the rise of the Bengal School of Paintings, led by Abanindranath Tagore and others. The New Art movement of the early 20th century from the Bengal school of art (Nandalal Bose and others, students of Abanindranath Tagore) tried to reject the western academic realist style that the Raja Ravi Varma school practised. Their need to define a new nationalist modern Indian aesthetic had them referring to traditional Indian motifs and aesthetic practices of ancient and medieval India – before the arrival of the British (Tomory 282). While the visual traditions of the folk genre and rural subjects influenced the art practise of early Modernist Indian painters like Jamini Roy and Jogen Chowdhury (Kapur, Stake in Modernity), there was also an interdependence across genres. Theatrical forms from folk tradition and music heavily influenced the evolving painting practices of modern painters including Jamini Roy, Amrita Sher-Gil and Gaganendranath Tagore. Further ahead, M F Husain, F N Souza, K H Ara, and S H Raza were influenced by the politics of post-independence socialism and led to the creation of the Progressive Artists Group, of which they were founding members (Tomory 286). Across these aesthetic traditions, there is evidence of a continuing dialogue of inspiration reflecting the politics and social movements of the times.
Although Amrita Sher-Gil was part of the Early Modernist style of Indian art, her work stands out as the most documented female artist of India. Other female artists of this time were Sunayani Devi – also born into the Tagore family, and B. Prabha – a self-taught artist famous for her depiction of the plight of rural women from the Koli fisherwoman community. It is with the rise of the Women’s movement in India (70s to 80s) that we see the first uniquely women-only artists show – Through the Looking Glass (1989) by Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh, Madhvi Parekh and Nalani Malani. The work exhibited within the show demonstrated feminist themes, using watercolours and canvas – material and methods hitherto considered low art. There is a direct connection between the rise of women’s movement in the 80’s and the shift in the kind of modernist art being produced. It is only here that the Indian woman artists first achieve a lexicon of their own (Achar, Invisible Chemistry). While Deeptha Achar approaches this relationship between the inception of the women’s movement of 80’s to the introduction of “Indian Woman Artist” in the art historical lexicon, through the interrogation of what kind of changes in art’s “language” of expression came about, with specific reference to Nilima Sheikh’s work (Achar 220, 223), this moment forms the inception of my study. It aims to understand the nature of feminist art, as intervention in the decolonised Indian avant-garde, and as a consequence leading to art historical implications. These historical implications form both during process of creation as well as reception against the artist’s intentionality. In the first section of this paper, I would briefly present the art historical theories and demonstrate that feminism as intervention has art historical implications. I would then borrow Geeta Kapur’s usage of “encounter” in her talk on “Recursive Narrative: Ways of Producing Art History” at the exhibition, Post war: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic at Haus der Kunst (Kapur, Recursive Narrative: Ways of Producing Art History). This would be used to demonstrate how historicising of feminist interventions is a series of encounters – at the level of creation and reception which lead to an understanding of art which is bodily mediated. Employing historical methods incites the query of epistemological (of producing knowledge) and phenomenological (consciousness of experience) methods of reading art.
- Feminism as Intervention and Art Historical Concern
In comparing the rise of Indian and Western feminist interventions we see that there are certainly parallels to these reactionary interventions – they are both challenging modernist schools of art practice and theory within the Eurocentric, postcolonial geo-politics respectively, regarding representation, production and market for feminist art (Pollock) (Sinha 64). They are also driven by a global and local women’s movement of 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that in its nascent sense has not yet developed intersectional departures. They were both also attempting to address a gap within the larger art historical movement that ignored the marginalisation of women and gendered subjects and develop criticality through feminist interventions.
However, there is a difference in the approach of theorising such interventions. This can be a consequence of the sources of these modernisms – from postcoloniality in the Indian scenario vs. imperialistic pasts in the western socio-cultural history. We see that Indian feminist interventions propose a critical restructuring using art historical discourse through practice – which is evident in Achar’s delineations of the new mode of using gender within the practice of Indian women artists. On the other hand, Griselda Pollock calls for a need for restructuring art history by writing women into it (Pollock 5) where it has been erased. The limitation in her proposal is that she conceptualises art history as a series of representational practices which must produce definitions of sexual difference (Pollock 15). While art history is a representational practice, it is not solely this. I would argue that it is a series of encounters that form this representational practice. Therefore, Pollock’s limitation is that while she indicates that art history is a practice, she does not explore the possibilities of reading this practice through the artistic process, but confines to reading art through ideological significations within the representations.
Another western feminist interventions proposal of critical socio-cultural intervention is redressal within art institutional spaces that Linda Nochlin demonstrates in her seminal work, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” She reveals how the question of why there aren’t great female artists is itself a misnomer because it arises from the idea that there can be a great artist – while ignoring the institutional politics of society and culture that enable an artist to be called “great” (Nochlin 153). She thus exposes the nature of institutionalist hierarchies within art histories and indicates that art historical discourses must employ the woman question to reveal “biases and inadequacies” within the discipline as a whole. I would argue that one method of doing so would be to explore critical questions of process and method while examining questions of gender or feminism within art histories in the making.
It is here that we return to Achar’s critique of calibrating the question of gender as a critical mode within the art practice of Indian Women Artists. Although the term came into being and there was an institutionalised foregrounding of women artists’ work, the critical discourse of these works still subsumed them under the larger Indian modernist movement. She rightly points out that perhaps it can be located within the absence of art historical discourse that deemed gender as a radical component of the avant-garde. She attests to Geeta Kapur’s theoretical approach as being the first to “restructure this framework to account for the criticality of feminist art practice” within the avant-garde (Achar, Feminist Intent, 218). In moving from the historical context of these theories and approaches of feminist art histories catalysed by women’s movements from the glocal to the local, three major aspects need to form the focus of our departing analysis – the relevance of “avant-garde” as art movement and within art theory; the phenomenological / existential approach by which Geeta Kapur reconstructs art historical framework of the avant-garde, and the nature of personal aesthetics derived from experience, inherent within feminist interventions of Indian women artists.
Addressing the question of how gender creates changes in art movements is also the question of critical concerns in art history. The close study of Indian feminist intervention can perhaps restructure ways of reading and theorising art historical movements of the contemporary. On the one hand, the art historical discourse lays recourse to a critical art practice which deconstructs ideas of nation and its culture, and modernity and its markets of production. If the feminist works of art are those conceived by an aesthetics of the personal, a quick analysis of works by artists such as Nilima Sheikh, Pushpamala N, Dayanita Singh, Sheela Gowda, Heena Pari and contemporary art projects like the Aravani Art Project contain elements which are disruptive in their reconstruction or revisioning of gender as identity, women occupying public spaces and the mental and physical labours of female/ queer bodies. Hereby, feminist interventions become an essential art historical concern.
1.2 Narrating Feminist Interventions through Encounters
Geeta Kapur’s essay, “Recursive Narrative” mentions how art can be historicised through a series of encounters. Although Kapur discusses the curatorial nature and subsequent experience of the exhibition, Post-War, this method can be employed with narrativising alternate histories. In this section the paper would look at the visual text through the encounters that led to its creation by the artist and its reading by the spectator. Through this process, the paper addresses the nature of feminist ‘intervention’ and examines how and why we narrate them through encounters.
In Pollock’s introduction to Vision and Difference, she explains that there is a need to rephrase “feminist art histories” as feminist interventions in art history, because art history as a study of the cultural production of art, keeps shifting from the object of cultural production towards a study of its practice as a discourse. She also explains that this redefinition is imperative precisely because feminist interventions are closely related to the social, economic and political nexus of the women’s movement and applied to visual art representations. In the following analysis, we see how feminist sensibilities “intervene” within this cultural nexus of production to question histories of artistic representation through a personal and political process of creating and receiving art.
Pushpamala N, a photographer and artist uses a language of performativity in the creation of most of her works. They range from sculpture, metalwork, photo series, and video clips. In the following section, I would analyse a select work, Kichaka Sairandhri – a photo-performative recreation of the Raja Ravi Varma painting which is derived from a section of the mythological epic, Mahabharata. The artist’s works employ the use of popular cultural citations in reiterating ideals of womanhood throughout Indian history – especially in her work, Native Women of South India. Her practice is often inspired by interactions with historical documents, writing, artefacts or even mythological narratives (Pushpamala, Pushpamala N: India’s Entertaining Iconoclast).
In her Mother India Project, she satirises the iconography of woman as mother, myths of nationhood imprinted upon the Bharat Mata figure and art historical representations of the same. While some are recreated photographs, others involve videos and theatre, however all use the mode of the performative in creating satire. In this particular work, Kichaka Sairandhri, the recreation retells an encounter with art history itself (Pushpamala, Kichaka-Sairandhri). This popular painting by the artist Raja Ravi Varma, completed in the western academic style was reprinted in the form of postcards during the British rule in India. The event of Draupadi’s assault by Kichaka was a metaphor for the colonial power over the motherland of India. Kichaka thus stood for the British colonial power and Draupadi embodied the maternal land of India.
In recreating the painting through the form of a photograph, she refers to the art historical past while raising questions of female bodies embodying nationhood. As the performer and artist herself, she retains a subjectivity even as art history has employed this representation to present the female figure without agency. Her work as a whole satirises the equating of nationhood ideals to the body of a female figure. As a receptor, we are reminded of this past, and the act of recollection makes one raise question – why this particular piece? Why does the artist herself embody Draupadi, in the act of defending her honour? What implications towards feminist representations is she presenting through this citation? Thus, interventions in representation are created through the artist’s encounter with art history and the evolution of a performative photographic process.
As a receptor, the encounter is beholding a photographic recreation, a work of satire – as part of Mother India series, a bookmark to art history; and evolution of intended meaning of representation – Pushpamala’s recreation rewrites earlier connotations (Pushpamala, Mother India). Thus, we encounter feminist interventions and, in narrativising them, also understand art history differently. This latter framework is evoking questions on the philosophy of narrating histories, which shall be addressed in the later stages of this paper through Louis Mink’s theory of historical understanding.
As seen, encounters can be within the works of art themselves and outside – through interactions with the artist, and as a spectator of art. In an interview with Heena Pari, at her show Cocooning, we encounter multiple readings of the abstract and metaphorical works, through the interaction. Cocooning is primarily born of the artist’s encounter with a pandemic as an artist and mother/homemaker. Her abstract work, Two Waves juxtaposed several curvilinear lines in concave and convex fashion, creating a textured pattern on large pieces of organza fabric hung like curtains.
Initially, it appears to be a representation of a Woolfian stream of consciousness. In conversation with the artist, she elucidates on the work as being a visual indicator of the differences between the pandemic waves – the first one being a sort of unitarian experience from an upper middle-class perspective, and the second being lonely and disruptive in the deaths and death and divisions caused (Pari). The piece titled – My Favourite Things reflected the authorial interactions with the Siddi community – a tribal collective of women who engage in the art of Kavandi quilting. This work brings intertextual readings and points of interventions through recreation. Here, encounters become events of learning and citation.
In Sheela Gowda’s Remains, each piece indicates her evolving process of collating material. In each, the title and visual scale creates a method of reference to patriarchal subcultures (Gowda, Remains). For instance, Stopover is a large-scale work which uses over 30 grindstones spread across the flat surface. An early encounter with the artist’s work pointed to the uncovering of female family histories and their role in the kitchen. Likewise, And Tell Him of My Pain, which uses threads dipped in kumkum, ending with nails attached to the ends.
Her intervention is in the form of provoking questions – of masculinities, patriarchal violence and the labouring body. Gowda mentions how everyday observations/ encounters with objects lead to sourcing materials. Here, encounters are the nature of research as well as the founding grounds in creating a practice that juxtaposes “form, material and context” (Gowda, Art is About How You Look at Things).
Nilima Sheikh’s Each Night Put Kashmir in your Dreams, and Salaam Chechi, both reflect the artist’s encounter with memories, social issues, histories and literary material.
In her documentary, The Garden of Forgotten Snow, the artist mentions how a feminist way of doing is one that tries to undo how something was seen and done before (Kishore, The Garden of Forgotten Snow). Her inclusions of references to poetry, cartographies, and excerpts from essays, reveal how encounters are events of redoing, and become historical interventions in the way Sheikh situates her subjects and narratives along experiences of “losing home” and deliberately cites literary and critical material which invoke these performative navigations even through her work – which are heavily influenced by the styles of miniature painting of Indian history. The analysis of these select works reveal that feminist interventions involve new ways of doing – whether through the use of materials or shifts in representational significations. They also involve a method which pays attention to the histories of art. This suggests that narrating encounters with art lead to historicising the interventions. However, any kind of art uses materials and plays with representational significations. The marker of “feminist” implies certain ways of seeing and doing (Jones). Accordingly, the next section examines how the process of historicization comes about through narrativizing feminist encounters, and how they address questions of phenomenon and episteme.
1.3 Phenomenon, Episteme and Historicising in Narrativising Feminist Interventions
The feminist framework of bodily mediations as seen in the art narrativised in the aforementioned section is applied to the art historical discourse of encounters, that Geeta Kapur presents in her paper, “Recursive Narrative: Ways of Producing Art History”. Although Kapur uses the term “a series of encounters” to describe the curation of a similar, postmodern, avant-garde art practice (Kapur, Recursive Narrative: Ways of Producing Art History), we have seen through various instances of analysis that bodily encounters – of artists with art historical or personal histories of experience and of spectators with artistic intent – influence the creation and reception of work by the select women and queer artists. While the body of work itself imbues epistemes of feminist histories, political histories and emotional affect, there is a phenomenon of experience that catalyses the creation as well as reception through encounters.
Kapur’s methodology increasingly emphasises the phenomenological – the consciousness of perceiving a work of art but does not dismiss the epistemological roots that led to the formation and intents of the work, which forms implications of reading that centre both knowledge and experience in the process and method of creation and encounters/ events of the reception. This presents a dialectic – is the aesthetic a pure experience of sensory delight or are there epistemes that are ubiquitous within the process (and if so, how does historicisation address them)? Louis O Mink philosophises that narrating history is an act that implies a difference-based phenomenological event leading to “understanding” histories (Mink, Phenomenology and Historical Understanding, 113). This “understanding” implies epistemes – or centres of knowledge.
I would like to examine the interventional nature of a select feminist artwork to demonstrate the presence of intermediate intentions of knowledge and experiences. However, I would reframe a static, closed terminology of “knowledge” with a dynamic, open-ended terminology of “understanding”, borrowed from Louis Mink, moving forward (Mink, History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension). This would give us input on methods of reading feminist interventions within an art historical framework.
In Remains by Sheela Gowda, her materials are sourced every day: cow dung, vermillion, iron nails, hair, cloth, mortar, etc. In the Tate Shots video documenting Sheela Gowda’s Studio Visit, as part of her piece, Behold (2009), she describes how everyday observations and found objects and encounters lead to her sourcing material and building installations around their form and context (Gowda, Art is About How You Look at Things). In some of her pieces, the amalgamation of each unit tells stories of patriarchal, violent pasts of women/ the othered in society, they also bend lines of caste and class. A feminist archive of knowledge and understanding is evident in the making process, while encounters with everyday lives and experiences in a patriarchal society are indicative of a phenomenological feedback loop in the choice of material and process. Thus, we see that encounters which are epistemological (or rather, come from historical understanding), as well as phenomenological, come together in the creation of bodily mediations in creating art through a feminist framework. Bodily mediations are again, implicit in material and method (Gowda, Remains).
While Pushpamala’s art practice employed performative photography to satirise iconographical representations of ideal Indian womanhood / nationhood, Dayanita Singh’s practice involves a fictional tale of truth telling. They are both artists who use the inherent falsifiable nature of photography to change or assert visual imagination. In her photo book, Myself Mona Ahmed, the visual text contains a photographic art process and epistolary conversations of the subject.
It encapsulates art which is created through encounters of artist and subject. Dayanita Singh’s knowledge of photography captures the subject through an ethnographic lens, while Mona’s experiences and their friendship shape it (Singh and Ahmed, Myself Mona Ahmed). If Pushpamala’s practice dealt with art historical material through recreation, Singh’s work in itself creates a visual history – through narration and photographic images. While the former is performative in nature and satirises previous idealistic representations of ‘cultural memory’, the later uses performativity of subject to assert hitherto unrepresented femininities or identities such as Mona’s, namely of trans women and the Hijra culture that Mona was part of, through ‘personal histories.’ Here, we see that the collaboration itself represents the critique of erased gender and lived experiences. Later, we see further encounters in Vikramaditya Sahai’s interview with Dayanita Singh on her experiences with Mona, shedding light on the history of trans lives in India. Sahai refers to Mona as Amma, a term denoting the community-oriented respect for a trans mother of a previous generation (Singh, Interview with Dayanita Singh). Personal encounters go on to narrate historical experiences which are reiterated through coming generations. These encounters, mediated through collaborations have ricocheting effects.
Likewise, a public interventional project like the Aravani Art Project led by women and queer artists led to the production of Nava, the play, in which lived experience shapes the art of theatre, also supported by art knowledge background. Within the mural art as well, the trans artists transform experience into knowledge. Thus, interventions are epistemological through phenomenological enquiry. Nava is one method by which interactions with the community, take these interventions forward through encounters.
We have already seen how Nilima Sheikh’s paintings contain textual elements – that are part of a visual aesthetic. For instance, in Each Night… Sheikh includes extracts from poems by Lal Ded and Aga Shahid Ali, even historical narratives of Kashmir. These are epistemes inscribed into the visual substrate which even as they inform the larger historical narrative, also form the experience of seeing a painting. They form performative interludes within her stencils and cartographies, even craft-based figures and visual narratives within the scroll paintings. Her creations, formed by repeated acts of stencilling and created through extensive research of older painting techniques, form citations even as they narrate alternate histories (Sheikh, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams). Encounters with her art, form extradiegetic encounters with the lesser-known histories and literatures of place and culture. In this way, conscious experiences of art, are turned into historical understanding through bodily mediated visual narrative. I would argue that it is the method of creation through emotively influenced bodily mediations that make a work of art, feminist in nature – not limited to gender identity, but providing an open assemblage of expression. Historicising these feminist interventions may be done so through the narration of encounters which have phenomenological as well as epistemological implications.
Conclusions: Art as Encounter through historicising feminist interventions
Through the close analysis of the select texts, I have attempted to argue that it is conscious, emotional experiences of bodies (queer, female, othered by gender, caste/class) which are “moved” into recollections or rewritings through material and method, forming a historical understanding that create the “disruptions” or “dismantled norms” (Kapur, Dismantled Norms, 373) (of what collectively form feminist interventions) that are used to categorise the avant-garde by Indian art historians. As seen, encounters, within this framework of interventional nature of feminist art, become a way of historicising this. The recognition of encounters is substantiated by a framework of bodily mediations – of both artist towards her art and spectator towards the work of art – which in creation contains historical understanding, cumulated with conscious experience in reception. It is also important to note the resolution of the dialectic between the phenomenological experience of “making” with body, which has narratives from bodily memory and personal experiences which create the epistemes of knowledge / archive within the art works.
The importance or relevance of such historicising lies in the fact that the visual art texts are – a) interventional, dismantling norms and fairly contemporary; b) because it invites a retelling narrative to understand history anew and form ways of seeing through difference (Jones). Historicising becomes inevitable in this nexus between culture, society and lived experiences that inform and inspire the creation of such art.
Comparison between western (interventions are within the market, not so much of nation or personal) and Indian feminist interventions (art history is foregrounded here because in itself it is theorised differently), demonstrate the need for presenting a novel method of formulating a framework to capture the rise of feminist visualities of the avant-garde. Historicising through encounters, helps to bring the object / painting / photograph to come to be and open further channels for engagement, thus continuing this process of interventions. This piece has therefore, been an attempt at theorising these acts of learning, and finding a reading framework, inherent in perceiving queer feminist art, and its alternate histories.
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Achar, Deeptha. “’Invisible Chemistry’: The Women’s Movement and the Indian Woman Artist.” Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism. Ed. Deeptha, and Shivaji K. Panikkar Achar. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2012. 219-234.
Gowda, Sheela. Art is About How You Look at Things. Bengaluru: Tate Shots , 24 June 2016. Video Clip.
Gowda, Sheela. Remains. Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Installation.
Jones, Amelia. Seeing Differently. New York : Routledge, 2012.
Kapur, Geeta. “A Stake in Modernity: A Brief History of Modern Indian Art.” Art and Social Change: Contemporary Art in Asia and the Pacific. Ed. Caroline Turner. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2003. 146-153.
Kapur, Geeta. “Dismantled Norms: Apropos an Indian/ Asian Avantgarde.” Kapur, Geeta. When was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000. 365-413.
—. Recursive Narrative: Ways of Producing Art History. Curation Review . Munich: Haus der Kunst, 2016. Speech.
Mink, Louis O. “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension.” New Literary History (1970): 541-558.
Mink, Louis O. “Phenomenology and Historical Understanding.” Mink, Louis O. Historical Understanding. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. 106-117.
Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” Women, Art and Power and Other Essays. Linda Nochlin. New York: Routledge, 1971. 145-177.
Pari, Heena. Cocooning. 1ShantiRoad, Bangalore. Mixed Media.
Pollock, Griselda. “Feminist Interventions in the Histories of Art: An Introduction.” Pollock, Griselda. Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-24.
Pushpamala, N. Kichaka-Sairandhri. Mother India. Bangalore , 2013.
Pushpamala, N. Mother India. Mother India Project. Bangalore, 2005-.
Pushpamala, N. “Pushpamala N: India’s Entertaining Iconoclast.” Talking Pictures: Interviews with Photographers Around the World . Alasdair Foster. 2 May 2020. <https://talking-pictures.net.au/2020/05/02/pushpamala-n-indias-entertaining-iconoclast/>.
Sheikh, Nilima. Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams. Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. <https://www.gallerychemould.com/artists/28-nilima-sheikh/works/3819-nilima-sheikh-each-night-put-kashmir-in-your-dreams-2003/>.
Singh, Dayanita and Mona Ahmed. Myself Mona Ahmed. Berlin: Scalo, 2001.
Singh, Dayanita. Interview with Dayanita Singh Vikramaditya Sahai. The White Review, 31 July 2021. Print.
The Garden of Forgotten Snow. Dir. Avijit Mukul Kishore. Perf. Nilima Sheikh. 2017. Documentary.
Tomory, Edith. A History of Fine Arts in India and the West. Noida: Orient Blackswan Private Limited, 2010.
*Feature image consists of artworks used in the article by Nilima Sheikh (Salaam Chechi), Pushpamala N (Kichaka-Sairandhri) and Heena Pari (Two Waves)
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Anna Lynn Tom is a research scholar of comparative literature at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Prior to this, she was an Assistant Professor of English at St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, Bangalore. As a researcher, she is interested in the entanglements of gender within postmodern Indian art practices. She has published critical writing on visual art in ASAP Connect, Catharsis Magazine, The Chakkar and Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) Blog. Hobbies include reading fiction and consuming art and cinema. She practices experimental forms of writing and occasionally, photography.