|The body as site - 2|
Red is not only the auspicious colour for marriage; it signifies sexuality. In the context of Indian poetry and painting, it connotes passion. It becomes a metaphor for love. A celebrated mystical verse from Bhakti poetry expresses the sentiment and saturation of love — when both the lover and the beloved are described as encompassed within one word, one feeling. "Laali mere laal ki, Jit dekh tit laal/ Laali dekhne main gaye, aur main bhih ho gai laal. (The passion/redness of my beloved (permeates all)/ Wherever I look, there is my beloved/red/ I went to find my beloved/ And I too became impassioned/red.)"
In vernacular language (as much as in poetics) laal can mean the lover and the beloved, passion and to be impassioned, red and to be reddened/impassioned. Sher-Gil may not have been familiar with the semiotics of Indian aesthetics, but she was enchanted with miniature paintings. Towards the end of her life, she was beginning to source her inspiration from them. In a letter to Karl Khandalavala, she mentions that his phrase "hot colour" had begun to haunt her, and indeed they invaded and saturated her pictures with passion — in The Swing, Young Girls, The Bride, Woman at Bath and Woman Resting on a Charpoy. These were all painted in the last three or four years of her brief life, and it may be noticed these were all pictures about women!
In feminist studies, the body has become a trophe. Can anything more be said about it? And Sher-Gil has become an icon: she has received more attention than most Indian artists. The corpus of writings on this artist is formidable. You may wonder, what use could it be to embark on yet another study — what relation will this have to your body? I would have agreed — were it not for her dramatic rediscovery of Indian sensibility… and my own excitement in tracking her ingenious resolution to the problem. In recent years, women artists have taken up Sher-Gil’s unfinished project on the woman’s body. Let me give three instances from the recent decade of work.
Firstly, on desire… As a woman, you are the object of desire; and yet of course, you too have your desires. Thus you are both the object and the subject in the painting. There is certainly a dichotomy here, based on gender perception. In 1989, Gogi Saroj Pal embarked on a new series of paintings, of mythic fantasies about women. Her first image is of Kamadhenu, the legendary wish-fulfilling cow invoked to fulfil all dreams and desires. That role of being gifted and giving happens to be assigned to women, and Kamadhenu becomes a symbol most apt. Saroj Pal, being an artist and a woman, observes with wry humour: "People say of Kamadhenu, she is so good — she can fulfil all your desires! It is interesting that no one has ever asked about what Kamadhenu herself may desire — if she desired… How can her own wishes be fulfilled?"
Half woman and half cow, this delicious combination of a milky creature is shorn of all clothing — accentuating her sexuality. Yet because her hands and feet are painted red with the cosmetic of alta, she acquires the allure of a woman ready to seduce the viewer. This image and others such as Saroj Pal’s series on Kinnari, the mythical bird-woman, form part of a new vocabulary of eroticism. These brazen creatures are both women and beasts, in a constant state of metamorphosis between being civilised and savage, demure and defiant — subverting the original intent of he who desires and she who is desirable.
Next, let us focus on the body… Primacy has been given to the female body as the object of desire. Now your body can become the sole ‘object of vision’, as it appears in the Torso by Kanchan Chander. Initiated at a workshop in 1994, her first work was a powerful form sculpted from paper, jute, cowdung and pigment. The absence of the head, arms and feet divest it of any physical movement or emotional expression — and add to its potent strength as an image of fertility. Chander’s series on the Torso are a logical extension of her explorations of the woman’s biological condition. The body itself becomes her statement.
Lastly, a comment on the significance of red, as rediscovered by Sher-Gil. The predominant colours in Rajput painting of red, blue-black and yellow ochre are used by her in Woman Resting on a Chorpoy — to infuse feeling into the body of the woman who lies passive. Likewise, the music of colour invades Arpita Singh’s paintings. She has explored, invented and subverted meanings through colour. Now the body becomes the physical manifestation of that inner state of being — of felt emotions, which cannot be expressed except through colour. Her Woman in Red (1985) and Woman Sitting on a Tin Trunk (1987) are enveloped in red stripes that shroud and trap them — drenching them with the heat of passion. Ten years later, she revisits the theme, and her Woman in Red (1994) has cast off these clothes altogether! Vibrant strength emanates as this woman squats in a provocative gesture, signalling her new-found freedom. This is the naked truth of womanhood — the body bared as revelation!
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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)