Once upon a time a girl lived with her uncle in northern India. He was a famous wrier. The girl was in awe of her uncle’s creativity and position. She looked up to him. One day her uncle was asked “Why is it that after Rabindranath Tagore, no other author of that stature has appeared in Bengal?” the writer answered, “Under a banyan tree, no other tree can grow.”
Years passed. One day the girl told her uncle, “I am leaving the house and going ot Delhi.” The uncle was very disturbed. He asked, “How can a young woman leave the house and face the world all alone? Why are you doing this? Why?” He could not conceive of her going. The girl answered the uncle, whom she had no long been in awe of, “Under a banyan tree, no other tree can grow.”
“But this is not applicable to one’s children! This is not what I meant!” The uncle wished to retract his words, but the girl left and went to Delhi. And she has been there ever since.
The girl in the story is Gogi Saroj Pal. She moved to Delhi in 1968 at the age of 22, determined to find work as a freelance artist. She asked help from no one, certainly not her celebrated uncle, author and freedom fighter Yashpal.
She struggled with poverty and loneliness for many long years, while focusing intently on her painting. In 1975, the International Year of the Woman, her work was finally picked up for exhibition. That show was the turning point in her life, and she hasn’t looked back since. Today, Gogi Saroj Pal is one of India’s best known contemporary artists, and one of 15 women whose art was recently showcased as part of Women Artists of India: A Celebration of Independence, at Mills College in Oakland, CA.
Pal’s story, like that of many women who overcome great odds to follow their dreams reads like a parable- growing up in a small town, setting out to Delhi on her own, convinced that she could support herself doing freelance work, unaware of how male-dominated the art world was and how little a woman’s struggle for independent recognition would be valued.
In the decades after Independence, Indian artists were in thrall to the West. Several male painters had migrated to Europe, first to study, and then to settle, achieving some modicum of fame (F.N. Souza, Raza). Ved Mayar, painter, curator and Pal’s husband spoke of how the art movement in India developed in phases. “The period starting in 1947 was a reaction to the Bengal school. At that moment, artists felt that we should work like Western artists and surpass their excellence. But you cannot excel while telling someone else’s story, in someone else’s way of telling. Realizing this, Indian artists started retrospecting. They started searching their own cultural roots, searching miniatures, tantra… either they adopted something from the past, or they enlarged it. For instance, miniatures were created in a smaller format painting, so they began painting in bigger formats, but following the same forms.”
Graduating after eight years of art schooling, Pal felt strongly that though well prepared in technique, “there was no intellectual dialogue which helped evolve your own language.” This conviction, that an artist had to evolve her own visual language, made her an oddity in the Delhi art circle. In three shows in 1968, 1969, and 1972, she sold no art, and yet she painted non-stop.
Nayar commented wryly that the evolution of art practice eventually led to the point where “after Western derivation, after retrospection, a day was to come when each and every artist had to search out of his own creative visual imagery and his way of expressing it.” But Gogi Saroj Pal was ahead of her time, and for that she struggled. “I think in any profession, if you want to be an individual, there is a price to pay. It is always easier to relate to past events. You are not making any decisions- the past is already there, whether good or bad.”
Pal’s certainty about her individual style, and her refusal to be judged by Western standards, paradoxically emerges from seeds sown under colonial rule. Until the end of the 19th century, art in India was produced anonymously, by members of artisan groups who worked collectively and depended on patronage from the wealthy. The British introduced new methods of teaching artistic traditions. Art schools were established in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay along the lines of the European and British art academies, and for the first time the creativity of the individual was encouraged.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that a visionary individual based in a community- oriented culture like India should get her recognition from outside the country. With Pal’s first international exhibition in 1980, there was immediate foreign interest from museums, a validation of the highest order for a visual artist. Additionally, there was a financial bonus. “In Delhi there had been an argument about [my work] being too costly. But the Poles offered me 15 times more than my price on each work.”
Interestingly, in this most recent phase of individually-driven art styles, it was women artists who were at an advantage. As Nayar explained, “male artists were able to go out, live in that environment of Western art. But in the case of women of women artists, they didn’t get that many chances at exposure, changes to go out. In a way that became a profit in disguise. They remained attached to the cultural identity [of India] and they remained near themselves and that is why they were in a profitable position, to search out their creative visual identity and form of expression which tallied with the cultural identity of that region. Their contribution became quite substantial and valid. Maybe that is the reason in this 50th year of Independence, you see so many projections of contemporary women artists.”
The Mills College exhibition was the first U.S. attempt at a comprehensive look at Indian women’s art. The work represented covered different artistic styles-oil painting on canvas by Arpana Caur, Jayashree Chakravarty, Kanchan Chander, Nalini Malani, Rekha Rodwittiya, and Arpita Singh; gouache on paper by Suruchi Chand, Nalini Malini, Gogi Saroj Pal, and ARpita Singh; etching sby Naina Dalal, Lalitha Lajmi, and Anupam Sud; aquatints by Naina Dalal and Lalitha Lajmi; acrylic paintin by Vasundhara Tweari; tempera painting by Nilima Sheikh; mixed media installation by Rummana Hussain; and a zeroz photograph and poster collage by Navjot. This exhibition had been more than three years in the making, and involved painstaking research on the part of the curator, Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker.
I was personally one of the first direct beneficiaries of Milford-Lutzker’s research when, in 1994, I began a seach for art by an Indian woman for the cover of my collection of short stories. At the time, there were no books available on the subject of contemporary Indian art, and no gallery or museum shows. A chance referral to Milford-Lutzker led to the viewing of her personal collection of photographs and slides. I was mesmerized by the work, and appalled that no one in this country knew anything about it. What struck me repeatedly was the women artists powerful engagement with social issues, and the brilliance of their expression.
As Milford-Lutzker writers in her catalog, this is “urban, sophisticated art that reflects global tensions and issues that are relevant to us all.” Included among the artists’ concerns are “responses to the vicissitudes of Indian politics, the communal problems between Hindus and Muslims- a legacy of colonial times, population pressures, urban distress, and the specter of AIDS.”
The women artists I spoke to displayed a rigorous self-awareness and in-depth knowledge of the complex worlds they inhabit. This group of individuals, ranging in age from 40s to 60s, hold forth eloquently on the cultural beliefs and practices that they are committed to challenging through complex visual expression. Naina Dalad stated simply, “The exhibition shows that these women are of the thinking type.”
From Navjot’s ironic collage using posters of Bollywood to Suruchi Chand’s works on Draupadi, from Gogi Saroj Pal’s reinterpretation of hatha yoga through her delightfully contorted yoginis to Rekha Rodwittiya’s strong red women claiming the tools of power, there is a range of vitality not easily accessed elsewhere. Immediately on entering the Mills exhibition I sensed that this language of color and form, it’s particular figurative content and evocative narratives, could only come from the hands and minds of Indian women.
Women of the “thinking type” however, till appear suspect to many in India. As Dalal explains, “my neighbor comes to my house, sees that I’m working, but she’s never asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ She doesn’t want to know. Even if I tell her, she will think, why am I wasting my time?” Dalal’s work in the exhibition includes the powerful etching, “Girl Child is Born.” with a tiny baby clasped in an adult hand. The child is being held aloft by the mother In a world of everyday destruction, human beings feel that soon there will be an end to the universe, but the mother feels that humankind, and the universe, will go on.
Navjot brought up the topic of Indian iconography, of how people still prefer that women are archetypes like a Goddess- Durga, Kali- placed in a new context. But Navjot works with women as they are, “living their lives with so many inhibitions,” with female bodies that are “not those of pin up girls,” and in doing so has found that “many women have been able to relate to those bodies.” However, “male friends of mine or men visiting the gallery say, ‘You are creating another kind of stereotype.’”
Navjot related the story of when her sculpture Palani’s Daughters was exhibited at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. A “massive, very realistic sculpture of a woman giving birth based on a real life story from Tamil Nadu about a woman who gave birth to her seventh daughter, then with the help of the elder daughter, killed the infant.” The manager of the art gallery complained that people were saying, “What is this? You call this art?” Similarly Kanchan Chander finds that when Indians realize that her work includes phallic symbols they “just take their children and go away because they’re embarrassed by it- when they realize what I’ve intentionally used, they go red and don’t want to talk to me.”
Gogi Saroj Pal related the story of one couple who got “attracted to my work. So they came and said, ‘We very much like you work, but you know, we have a problem. We have three girls in the house.’ Their problem was that I’m painting nude women.”
All the artists verified that in many ways their art conveys what they could not express otherwise. Chander said, “My protest, my statement, is all through my art. And I do it very strongly, I don’t care a damn what people say. I just paint.” Vasundhara Tewari added, “As a woman in India, being from a genteel family, I was more protected. And the more protected I was, the more repressed, the more limited my experiences were. So for me, art was a way of growing, a way of coming in contact with my inner being, which didn’t find contact in the world outside. Therefore it was one area where I would allow no censorship, where I would insist on being free.” Tewari’ work includes “Shakti,” a thangka-style work with a dark woman seated resolutely at the center of the world surrounded by pink male figures positioned on clouds of bliss.
The fact that social issues link the works in this exhibition, however, also has its downside. As Navjot stated bluntly, “If you as an artist are socially conscious making a statement, then your art is considered inferior. Inferior in the sense that it is not considered pure art.” For an artist like Navjot, heavily influenced by Marxist thought, and working since her student days with women’s issues, child labor, class, case and gender inequalities, the judgment that her work is not art but propaganda does not faze her. “I don’t care towards the end of my life if my art only remains propaganda art. I believed in it, I did it.”
Rummana Hussain is another artist with an explicit social message. In her powerful installation “Home/Nation” we see a grave of rice dotted with eight spent oil lamps, six photographic strips depicting a woman’s hands making chapatis, chopping vegetables and scrubbing pots, and a page of text telling the story of Kamala, an employee who died prematurely of suspected AIDS. “She was very thin, hollow cheeks, chiseled features, long sinewy fingers. Bu the hair on her head-short curls which she tied back together- would not grow. She was very generous but very secretive. Suddenly one day they seemed to have a big secret… Kamala’s cheeks became more hollow, but she chopped and cooked and smiled. Soon she could not chop. She brethed heavily and she grew thinner. But she walked around, cleaned the room and said she felt well… But their secret was well-hidden. The next morning she did not wake up… Their secret was well kept.” Even now, in a country predicted to have an astronomic number of AIDS cases by turn of the century, the topic of AIDS remains a “well-hidden secret.”
Each woman I spoke to displayed the courage of her convictions. In all cases, the desire to become an artist appeared at a very young age. Many were encouraged by their fathers, in the heady post-Independence years when Indians were filled with hope for the future. Naina Dalal’s father wanted to be a painter, as did Navjot’s father, but bother were thwarted by family expectations to pursue paying careers that would support families. Dalal was shown the catalog from the Louvre in Paris at the age of six.
But even with such encouragement as children, parents often lost their nerve as their girls grew older. Vasundhara Tewari reminisced about her father’s concern with her painting. He said, “Why don’t you paint horses like [M.F.] Hussain? It was his gentle way of telling me, ‘Why the hell do you paint nude bodies?’” Later, complications arose when Tewari considered her career options. “I was determined to make a career for myself because I wasn’t going to fall into a slot and marry for convenience. So I decided to become a lawyer. At the same time, I was painting, and I had started exhibiting in group shows. My paintings were being noticed. One day I thought to myself, either I become a lawyer or a painter, I can’t do justice to both. So I decided to become a painter. I was still living with my parents at that time. My father was horrified and said, ‘All right, Vasundhara, you can become a painter, but that means you’re no longer going to have a serious career.’ He drew up a contract and I signed it. It said that I would do painting, but I would also take cooking classes and sewing classes because ultimately, when I found the right match, I was to make a good home, be a good wife. Of course, I enrolled for the classes but never went to any! But by that time, I had done law, so when my father started protesting, I just said the contract was invalid because you’re the stronger party. In law, all parties have to be equal. Here there is no equality! I just carried on doing my art, but deep inside me I had the security that I would be looked after.”
Each of these women managed to bridge the divide between art as hobby and art as career. But is the world ready for them? An artist is not an artist unless her work is displayed, unless it reaches a wide audience and generates critical comment. Gogi Saroj Pal spoke of how in the late 60s, when she was starting out, “there were only two galleries in Delhi. most of the people running galleries were male. They had their own limitations about how to judge art.”
Today, even with the proliferation of galleries in India, they are often still invisible. “When you are in Europe or Singapore, you come across many art galleries while roaming around and exploring a city. In India, the situation is not the same.” Pal tells the story of Masanori Fukuoka, a Japanese collector of contemporary Indian art.
“[Fukuoka] was collecting art from everywhere, except India. He came to India 17 times. One day he realized that he had not seen Indian contemporary art anywhere. In Bombay he asked a taxi driver to take him to an art gallery. On making inquiries there, he found out about other galleries. When he came to Delhi, he saw Indian art, and started buying like crazy.”
Vishakha Desai, Vice President for Cultural Programs at the Asia Society in New York, spoke about how there has been a lack of context in which to view contemporary Indian art, “Art museums in the West have looked at Asian art only for its traditional values. Even when it comes to India, where contemporary art is well respected, usually it’s in isolation. Traditional art historians in India also typically have not looked at contemporary Indian art. It’s kind of a no-man’s land.” Partly the problem has to do with the dichotomy of traditional versus modern and the need for “contrast, the notion of thesis-antithesis, which is very Western.” Whether within or outside India, these “binaries have something to do with the colonial perspective, where it suits us to look at Asia only through the prism of the past. The hybridity of Asia that we see today is something harder for us to deal with.”
Vishakha Desai believes that positioning Indian or other Asian art correctly in the West is essential to “disrupt that prism, to bring in another level of understanding by creating access points and creating education programs; public programs that get the discussion to another level.”
Interestingly, it is the emerging affluence of Asian urban centers and heir greater participation in the global economy that has brought Asian art into the limelight. John Weber, Curator of Education and Public Programs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art explained, “The international art market is more is more international than it used to be. There is a smaller degree of parochialism, and of the feeling that if it’s not showing in New York how can it be any good.”
The vigorous activity of art markets in Asian centers like Hong Kong, Singapore, Bombay and Seoul have impacted the markets in the West, most clearly indicated by the arrival of contemporary Indian art tat the prestigious auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Additionally, a new set of galleries have sprung up on both coasts, dedicated to showing contemporary Indian art. But the Mills exhibition is the first of its kind, in an institutional setting that has some of the powers of a museum.
In the United States, museums are instrumental in providing validation for artistic work. Curators typically are allowed significant control over what they show, and part of their job is to fly around and talk to people. John Weber spoke of the changing trends in world art. “When the museum was founded, the famous artists for the most part were from Europe and Mexico. In more recent years the museum has shown a lot of German artists. Now there’s a feeling that a lot of interesting artists are coming out of Latin America.”
A lot hinges on how these curators go about researching art in other countries. Kanchan Chander addressed some of the issues: “What I like about the Mills show is that the curator, Mar-Ann Milford-Lutzker was very strong and made her own decisions, which is very important. hat happens is that when curators come to India they get carried away by the so-called mafia art politicians, and we people are never given a chance… people like me who don’t’ belong to any group, who are totally individual. IT’s very tough for the curators because they generally go to either the big art historians or big cities. But I think Mary-Ann made an effort to meet as many people as possible and followed up on the word of mouth. The curators have to do their own homework and not just rely on one person or it becomes very biased.”
Showing work in the United States is still a major event for non-Western artists. For Kanchan Chander, Naina Dalal, Gogi Saroj Pal, Anupam Sud and Vasundhara Tewari this was their first U.S. exposure. As Chander said, “the contemporary Indian scene is picking up very fast; it’s very strong and there’s wonderful work being done… it’s the first time I’m coming out of [India] for a curated show like this. I feel good that I finally got a chance.”
The introduction of their exuberant work to American audiences is bound to have an impact, and one can only hope that these women will take root as firmly and widely as any banyan tree.