|The body as site|
One part of your identity is defined by your own body — your biological birthright which engenders your being. This body has been described as "the site of violence, exclusion and abuse" but it also has aspects of celebration. Do gender differences operate in the way that your body is perceived? Social values have dictated conventions in art. Remarkably, both in India and the West, the woman has been represented according to male definitions of the qualities desirable in a woman. Your thoughts, aspirations and actions are of little consequence. It is the physicality of your presence which is communicated — as you preen yourself and look out at the viewer. Your clothes, your ornaments, your look contribute to this self-conscious presence. As put incisively by the critic John Berger: "One might simplify this by saying, men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly, an object of vision, a sight."
Over the last two decades of the 20th century, these perceptions have changed drastically. Feminists, writers, filmmakers and artists the world over have been engaged in rewriting a history of your identity — in reclaiming your body, which has for centuries been a contested site. Women artists in India are engaged in the celebration of this body. By bold intent, they have transformed the personal into the political, subverting social codes and modes of representation.
In India, this transformation begins with Amrita Sher-Gil, who evolved in the short span of her life to new ways of ‘looking’ at the Indian woman. Her painting of a Woman Resting on a Charpoy (1940) hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art — to engender a vision influencing paintings begun fifty years later. In the last year of Sher-Gil’s life, this picture brings your attention immediately to the theme which had fascinated artists for centuries. Now she brings to this her own interpretation — a unique resolution from a woman’s viewpoint!
And who could deny that Amrita was every inch a woman? A perceptive woman, gifted with a modern vision, a frank subjectivity and a libidinous persona which invited attention from her contemporaries. A woman, as Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, with "an enormous joy in the sensuality of the world, in things growing, in animals, in colours — which was what gave her painting its tremendous vitality." Hence the fascination and the cult that grew around her. Only in recent years has she begun to be reclaimed as an artist who was essentially a woman, and who saw things differently.
The paradox of Sher-Gil fascinates us. As a woman she exuded her libidinous persona, revelled in it, and was only too well aware of her sexual appeal. Several Self Portraits exist from her years in Paris (1930-34) where she projects herself in different roles — in one instance she enchants us, appearing like a gypsy with her open black hair and red lips, laughing out loud as though conniving with her viewers. Yet, it must be said, as an artist she looked differently at her women, suggesting their vulnerability in her nude studies. Woman in Green sits passively in a chair, and her version of the Reclining Nude lies naked against cream silks and a pink stole — palpable human flesh, but rendered inert like an object still life. Or, if you like, life stilled into death…
The woman as an object of vision, a sight. Images of the reclining woman are so numerous that they constitute in themselves a genre of painting. In Europe, every great artist had been preoccupied with this theme — from Titian’s celebrated Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Gallery to Rembrandt’s study of his wife Saskia and Goya’s infamous Naked Maja in the Prado, to Manet’s insolent stare of Olympia which created a sensation in the 19th century. Mythology and life studies became a pretext to focus on the erotic body of the model, lying naked on a couch, her warm flesh against pale silk sheets, looking out to engage the viewer.
In India, this theme was equally popular in Rajput court painting: projecting the nayika on a bed awaiting her lover, or locked in embrace with him. From the 19th century, there is a sudden change in emphasis. The heroine is no longer part of narrative from the Gita Govinda or the Rasamanjari. Instead she becomes the sole subject for our attention: as a courtesan reclining and playing with her cat, or a woman stretched out naked against yellow bolsters — like a delicious dish served up for consumption.
Sher-Gil was certainly aware of these precedents in the West and in India, to which she returned in 1935 to begin a new phase in her life — and also, a different sensibility in painting. As a student in Paris, she must have been acquainted with Manet’s infamous Olympia as one of the most daring expositions in 19th century painting. In her travels south to Trivandrum, she encountered and wrote critically about paintings by Raja Ravi Varma. So when she takes up this theme with her Woman Resting on a Charpoy, it would seem that she is deliberately returning to these two pictures as her point of reference. My suggestion is strengthened by the fact that she introduces an identical composition — in the contrast between the younger woman stretched out on the charpoy and taking her siesta and the darker, older woman fanning her mistress. Manet used this contrast first by using an elder black woman holding a basket of fruits — to show the younger white woman to advantage. This was assiduously emulated by Ravi Varma, who excelled in merging Indian tradition with Western technique in oil painting.
There the affinities end in subject and composition — because Sher-Gil’s treatment is radically different from her male predecessors’. Both Manet and Ravi Varma had used sensuous live models who exude their persona, who seem alive and real in the flesh. While Sher-Gil had always used models, she now treats the woman as an abstraction, an archetype: a torso stretched out, clothed in red from head to foot, glowing like hot embers against the pungent yellow of the cot.
Both Manet and Ravi Varma introduce the European single point perspective of viewing the woman propped up high on cushions, looking down to confront the viewer. Sher-Gil resorts to the outdated "bird’s eye view" used in medieval Indian miniatures. This causes the spectator to look down at the woman — who thus appears more exposed and vulnerable to the gaze. In the claustrophobia of this enclosed interior where nothing else is happening, the reclining young woman becomes "an object of vision".
And yet at the same time, her body is not merely the object of desire. Here lies the ambivalence of this painting! The hot red-orange of this body accentuates both her status as a young married woman and of course, the fact that she herself desires. This colour is accentuated in markings upon her person of the sindur and the tiny bindu on her forehead; it is repeated again in the four bedposts and in a masterly stroke, even the handle of the fan is tipped a hot orange. The young woman is devoid of facial expression. Instead, her body becomes the physical manifestation of her psyche. It is a manifestation of ardent desire of longing.
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Geeti Sen is an art historian and editor of the India International Centre Quarterly. Her most recent book is 'Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema' (Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2002)