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Voice of the New Millennium

Through contemporary Indian art, the different layers of a woman's individuality and different facets of her personality have been revealed. With the passage of time, perception and so the portrayal of women has undergone a definite change, and women painters have played a major role in the process.

The earlier history
Early Indian Sanskrit texts speak of the art of painting being one of the many skills that an accomplished woman was expected to possess. In mythical tales as well, one encounters figures like Chitralekha who drew for her princess, memory-portraits of all eligible princes, thus enabling her to identify the one that she had dreamt of and fallen in love with.

The cave artists of Ajanta captured the essence of womanhood meticulously and sensually; its mystical, symbolic, sensual and idealistic aspects. Women in Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari miniature paintings are more decorative. Raja Ravi Varma is famous for his paintings of aristocratic bejeweled women. The perfect woman in the parameters of Indian society is a loving mother, dutiful wife and obedient daughter. The legendary artist perfectly blended tradition with modernity. He sought his inspiration from religious epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana that ponder over the virtues of an ideal woman. Simultaneously, traces of French neo-classical paintings with sensuously rounded women draped in traditional finery are also visible in his work. His "Malabar Lady" or the portrait of Shakuntala, Sita and other legendary heroines of Indian epics are immortalized.

Amrita Sher Gill is the foremost and the most prominent painter, known for her realistic depiction of women of her times, which set the tone for contemporary Indian artists to bring out the feminine power. She was well aware of the plight of Indian women and came up with her own interpretations. Her "A Group of Three Girls" with their deeply thoughtful sad faces seemed to carry fear of the unknown future. In another painting "Women on Charpoy" is the common woman, not the heroine of Mughal or Rajasthani miniatures. She is in rustic surroundings, not waiting for anybody, but deeply in her own thoughts.

Born in 1923 in Budapest, Hungary, Amrita Sher Gill was the first important woman artist to emerge from India in the 1930s. In her brief life span of 29 years, she led the modern Indian art movement, which was then taken ahead by the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. She developed her own style that was a mix of the western and oriental art styles, with the themes being predominantly women oriented and feminist.

Sher Gill's women, often drawn in their own private spaces, were not necessarily beautiful ladies from affluent families. Rather, they came from rural communities and villages, from the middle, and lower middle class families. She is considered the single biggest role model for post-independence women artists, in search of their own roots and identity.

The male perspective
In the absence of their female counterparts in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the onus was on modern painters such as Nandalal Bose and N.S. Bendre to take up women's issues through their works. During their time Raja Ram Mohan Roy's crusade against social evils, especially the practice of sati (burning of a widow on the funeral pyre) made an impression on 19th century artists. Nandalal Bose's famous painting `Sati' is the product of that movement. The artist shows the plight of an Indian widow forced towards self-immolation. Some modern artists have sketched women being exploited.

For M.F. Husain a woman is "... primarily principle of her life... most powerful and can change the world". His portraits of women celebrities are well known and in that series, in his portrait of Mother Teresa, he has captured the inner strength of the nun. His paintings of various Indian goddesses are in the form of Shakti -- strong and powerful.

The post-independence era
During the post-independence phase, the scenario changed with introduction of sensitive artists like Gogi Saroj Pal, Arpana Caur and Anjolie Ela Menon who expressed their sentiments on canvas. Apart from Menon, the decade of 1970's also saw many more women artists come forward on the artistic scene, the majority of them delineating a point of view that combined the feminist and the subjective. As may be expected, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh, Ira Roy, Veena Bhargava, Suruchi Chand, Navjot and others address the central issues of subjectivity and victim hood, but the introspective and the apparently apolitical also find a voice in their work. The obsessions of their male counterparts (modernism, indigenism etc) seem relatively peripheral concerns.

Anjolie Ela Menon's paintings portray women "trapped in their own world". B. Prabha, the painter who depicted the trials, travails and strengths of Indian women, first through her evocative watercolors and then through her oil paintings has been depicting, over and over again, what she called the "tragedy and trauma that is the life of an Indian woman." In one of her untitled watercolors, for instance, done in 1985, she had painted a dark cloud above a young girl's head. In an interview she revealed, "This black cloud is symbolic of the struggle the girl child goes through. Her struggle for survival starts from birth --- she has to fight to be born too. Often, a woman is women's worst enemy. So often, the female foetus is aborted. So the girl child is under this black cloud all her life, from birth, probably from even before that, right from when she is conceived." Strength mixed with certain fragility characterized all B Prabha's women.

The underdog, as Navjot Altaf calls the female, fascinates her. Her work has re-tracked the familiar terrain of questioning various frameworks of social injustice and violence, transmuting her concerns to the intimate, often hidden private lives of women. They are sculptures that address the burning questions of the inequalities that exist in society, especially with relation to the female of the species.

The voice of the new millennium
There are many more women painters of promise in the new millennium that have taken up the feminist cause vigorously. Monali Meher whose engagement with the theme of temporality reveals the usage of feminine sensibilities. Her performances are always constructed around the immediate environments such as architectural spaces, lighting and material available within the surroundings.

Shilpa Gupta on the other hand engages the viewer through the provocative and interrogative dimensions of conceptual art. While asking the audience to participate in her work Shilpa often questions the whole theoretical framework of an art object. Working within the irony of the feminist critique, she engages with the idea of womanhood as seen through consumerism and fetishism of an object, making it a site of pleasure and desire in an urban environment.

Hema Upadhyay and Nehal Shah are also among the fresh wave of talent. One of Upadhyay's canvases shows big frying pans with minuscule figures of a woman between them. The latter were actually photographic cutouts of the artist herself, making a feminist statement. The contemporary woman would immediately empathize with this image which portrayed how she was caught in the domesticity while being ambitious to step out.

Prema Murthy's work is more graphic, not just in terms of content, but the means she uses to her advantage. Calling upon her background in art history and women studies, she created Bindi Girl. "When she is naked, men must kneel and worship her as the Goddess." Alongside the caption stands a nude woman stroking herself, genitalia obscured under bright red bindis. Even to a casual observer of her work, the subversive element is unmistakable.

Disguised as a porn site (because the artist's research revealed that those sites had the best technology) Bindi Girl uses pornographic images to challenge notions of tradition, which have long defined gender roles in society. When Bindi, therefore, says, "'At first I thought technology would save me, arm me with my weapons. Then I turned to religion. But both have let me down'" she draws strong parallels between technology and Indian religion, where our ostensible achievement of a greater cultural understanding is constantly questioned.

The message "women are heaven and women are the highest penance..." set beside a woman caressing her vagina is powerful, and consciously incongruous. "I'm meditating upon the questions of life. What is the reason for my existence? Why am I confined to this space?" asks Bindi Girl, whom Murthy describes as someone born out of the "exotic" and "erotic". She is Murthy's avatar, the incarnation of a Hindu deity, as well as an embodiment of the 'goddess/whore' archetype.

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