By Dr.Seema Bawa, Art Historian

Video Art
June 4, 2014
By Dr. Alka Pandey, Independent Curator/writer
August 12, 2015

By Dr.Seema Bawa, Art Historian

Images,Presences and Silences: A Dialogue

In view of the fact that you have been using the torso, female, male and androgyny over nearly two decades, I feel compelled to ask the obvious question as to what does the body signify in your works?

The body is important for the woman, it is a symbol of her identity, nay her identity itself. Therefore she constructs a language that enhances this identity through the use of ornamental accessories, be it a piece of lace or zari or buttons. For the ordinary woman, the decorative is not just for the eye of the other but to make them attractive in their own eyes and also a means of self expression and self validation.

One has noticed that the form of the torso has been a constant in your work. In the current series some of the works have a silhouetted head and the others are torsos per se.

As far as the use of the torso is concerned, it has been a recurrent feature of my work. I have been working with torsos for past 13 years now; but it also goes back to my first torso sculpture which was displayed in Shataduru the show that was curated by Alka Raghuvanshi and yourself. I started with torsos as I didn’t want to a give any specific identity to the woman hence; so no hands, feet, or face. For me the issues that impact women transcend both time and space they are common and universal and do not relate to any one woman.

Your work continues with the celebration of femininity and woman’s spaces. There is still the use of the decorative through sequins and laces but there is appears to be sense of tranquility in the latest works; in the broad zardozi borders and the like?

I always like to decorate the body; I personally always have been very fond of dressing up.

The process of layering in your paintings is also arresting. The torso/form comes first and then it is adorned and ornamented. And then it is revealed in its viewing/reading through the peeling of meanings.

The actual physical process is very laborious which seems to be getting tougher with age, placing these minute beads and nets and sequins on the painted surface. Through its practice I undergo a process of understanding the intensity of physical labour that goes in adorning apparel and its concomitant significance for the wearer. I must admit that in many ways this arduous and sometimes wearisome procedure is also therapeutic as I give myself up to another world of colour, texture and sensation.

Actually one does notice a new absorption with pure design in your work.

I think design is indeed quite a significant element in my work. Nowadays I carry my camera and if I see an interesting lattice in Old Delhi, I capture that image and whenever the work demands it I rummage in my memory and image bank and place it on the painting. Textile and woven tapestry patterns with their repetitiveness on one hand and colorful and deliberate beauty on the other also enter into my paintings.

What I find really interesting is the use of the decorative; inspired from the architectural, be it stained glass work derived from Gothic cathedrals or the jali from Indian buildings as in the work Gold Motif and other works.

As I said I am attracted by design per se. The sources of inspiration for me are varied. Heritage is important for me be it Classical, Gothic, Greek, Indian. If something is pleasing to my eye it finds its way into my artistic vision and consequently my work.

There is a similar dialoguing with the past not only in the Classical figure series but also in the Winged Torso and especially the Winged Victory? Is this deliberate or is it something that derives from a common artistic matrix?

Yes, memories of images do work themselves into my works, and in the current artistic project I have been excavating my own memories. Specifically I was inspired by the famous sculpture The Winged Victory, perhaps because of its form more than its particular art historical context.

There are other sources of body form and postures such as the Surasundaris and Alasa Kanyas from Khajuraho which are not new given your experimentation with the female torso, but here you retain the iconography but give it a new playfulness. This makes the work familiar and yet original.

The tribhanga, one of the classical poses with its triple flexions has especially inspired me. It endows such sensualness to the body while retaining its fluid and flexible form that it lends itself well to the disembodied torso. Indeed, the sculptures of ancient and early medieval period have left a strong impact on my mind. Years ago in 1978-79 when I traveled with college trips, I had sketched these figures ones I saw in Khajuraho, Belur, Hasan and other places and this imagery therefore comes back again & again in my paintings in one way or the other.

There is also a dialoguing, interface, with art and religion from another time and space in Vagdevi and Gangadevi. Why did you pick these specific images from the plethora of the divine feminine to choose from?

The use of goddesses is not new in my work. If you recall Durga, Kali have been part of my imagery since 1994. I find the concept of the goddess both as the Ultimate Reality and as a specific deity very strong and vigorous. The visual language of these images appeals me and I can and do relate to them at various levels: artistic, social and philosophical.

In the painting of Vagdevi , given the folk goddess form and its monumental frontality, one sees you returning in terms of treatment of the figure to your treatment Kali and even before that the tribal series.

I think you are right there. One can see the combination of stable and subtle elements in the Vagadevi. The use of white and red, of outer calm and inner fire in the work is also evocative of the goddess of speech.

There is a dialogic with another time and space at a creative level in the Frida and Me series. In Frida and Me 2 one notices an element of spectator/ voyeur. Where does Frida end and Kanchan begin?

Amrita Shergil and Frida have been role models for me. They both lived life to the full, they both liked “life” including `living it up’,, were bold in their approach to life. They made a powerful impact and statements through their art in the male dominated art world. This rebellion with their ‘devil may care’ attitude against traditional society and against popular conceptions of art inspires me. I dream of being with Frida, as if drinking from the cup of life in her vein.

Are you interacting with the idea of Frida as an artist, a woman or a woman-artist, given her celebration of own self, her identity and her ideology?

I interact with all these aspects of Frida. In my consciousness these cannot be separated or segregated from the persona of Frida. Frida as a woman, a strong woman, as an artist and as someone who celebrated art, life and womanhood.

In the Me and Frida series do we see empathy between the artist and you and a privileging of identities?

Empathy certainly, I feel in zone of my consciousness I can both understand her psyche partake and participate with it. She underwent physical pain and many ups and downs in her life that are reflected in her art. My works have also been autobiographical and the self imagery not only interfaces with other artists but also with my own persona.

The juxtaposition of the popular film star and legendary beauty Madhubala and other figures in the Classical Figure series and elsewhere is evocative of new iconographies.

Bollywood’s influence emerges intermittently in my work. Cinema of all kinds fascinates me; even more now with my son Pallav getting into theatre, I have been watching many movies. The aesthetics of old Indian cinema especially its music fascinates me and I dialogue with this. I use the specific imagery of the actors more for their sculptural forms that seem frozen in these movies.

You also include popular imagery in your paintings. What attracts you to this other element that contrasts with the classical and the painterly in the works?

What is called Kitsch is such an integral part of the day to day world. And it is a medium through which I sometimes express myself towards topical events. Sometimes I use it whimsically, like a shield of a single woman to deflect the verbal confrontations.

The well muscled torsos of classical and popular male figures are new to your oeuvre.

Well, the male is entering the feminine domain, and is paying so much attention to his physicality with gyms, beauty treatments and plastic surgery. One admires the effort that men are making to ‘look good’.

You allude to other treatments through foils of tablets and pills.

‘The pill’ pervades the feminine world far in excess of the masculine. Also after a certain age women (more than men) need to take in pills such as for their health and it becomes part of a woman’s physical world.

There are new directions and themes that play in your work and a self reflexive note.

I don’t know whether it is self-reflexive. But I love to have fun, chill-out. Life has been a roller-coaster ride for me. In a sense I am tired, the fatigue is physical, mental & emotional. Whatever time is left for me I want to make the most by traveling, meeting and interacting with likeminded people. I can’t take seriousness in life anymore perhaps that is why you see a certain playfulness in my work.

Dr.Seema Bawa
Art Historian