A female Shangri La

Expressions and Evocations
August 15, 1997

To deride the fondness of Marg, the Bombay-based art journal, for eye-catching publications would be misplaced in the case of Expressions and Evocations. Certainly it is a glossy book, but it is also the first comprehensive volume on contemporary Indian women artists, presenting a valuable discussion of the issues surrounding womanhood and creative expression in India.

The 15 contributors form a diverse list with some authoritative names, the majority of whom are women. Editor Gayatri Sinha's introduction raises issues of "indigenous modernism" and "female space" in the male-dominated milieu of postcolonial Indian art. She succeeds in her primary aim of providing an intellectual forum for the exposition and discussion of women's art, and the multifaceted predicaments faced by Indian women. Her additional chapter outlines Arpana Caur's creative reactions to the dualities of urban society, evolving a feminist rhetoric within Caur's personal allegories.

Although the volume includes artists whose professional tenets overpass gendered boundaries, such as Meera Mukherjee and Devayani Krishna, it does not address other key factors relating to the making of India's contemporary art. It is a disappointment that Tapati Guha-Thakurta's assessment of Mukherjee's Shangri La vision (of a rural craft-based aesthetic) avoids any critique of its class, caste, regional or linguistic aspects. The orientalist stereotype of a timeless village India was also accepted by the pioneering Amrita Sher-Gil, lauded here by Nilima Sheikh as the "godmother" of India's urban women artists.

The more successful chapters are spared this nostalgic atavism and are sensitive to the individual artists' specific creative motivations. Geeta Kapur's lyrical piece on Nasreen Mohamedi reveals a honed prose that is absent in her earlier inflated postmodernist writing.

Keshav Malik's poetic sensitivity is well suited to a commentary on Devayani Krishna, whose religious imagery, he suggests, transcends any sociopolitical interpretation to penetrate the sentient heart. Krishna's "racial memory" incorporates both Hindu and Islamic themes, which is symptomatic of the diverse theosophical quests that have influenced many of these artists' modes of representation and expression.

The potential symbiosis of "the feminine", a depoliticised "village India" and the divine "earthmother", is integral to both an understanding of current urban perspectives on indigenous Indian aesthetics, and to the preservation of a female essence in these artists' contemporary ideologies.

Pranabranjan Ray's wordy discussion of Madvi Parekh's oeuvre reverses the documented perception of this artist as an untutored magicienne de la terre, so as to present her creative intentions as conscious reworkings of "the child's world". The playfulness within her "folk" imagery, Ray suggests, goes beyond the purely decorative to evoke a festive ancestry, pregnant with fantasy. Kamala Kapoor's coherent chapter examines the complexity of Nalini Malini's social outlook. Malini's site-specific murals and conceptual installations align cultural conservation with international theatre, to explore a gallery-based idea of nationhood.

Daniel J. Rycroft is curatorial assistant for the forthcoming British Museum exhibition in India.

Expressions and Evocations: Contemporary Women Artists of India

Editor - Gayatri Sinha
ISBN - 81 85026 34 3
Publisher - Marg Publications
Price - £37.00
Pages - 176

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