Book Extract: From The Thirteenth Place: Positionality as Critique in the Art of Navjot Altaf
March 10, 2016
Nancy Adajania deconstructs the feminist themes that find representation in artist Navjot Altaf’s work.
More Hope to Lose: Overhauling the Patriarchal Order
In Navjot’s first exhibition of sculpture-installations, ‘Images Redrawn’ (1996), we entered a transit zone that invoked many different sites: it was part street, part archive and part museum. The floor plan of the exhibition alluded to streets and intersections. Dominating these rudimentary streets or sitting at imagined crossroads were archetypal mother goddesses that recalled the sacred power and beauty of Mayan and Olmec sculptures from Mexico. These chthonic blue and red figures, displaying conspicuous vaginas, full breasts, flared nostrils and deep-set eyes, appeared to have stepped out of a museum. They drew attention to their hands, which were bereft of fate lines (‘I have no fate lines, thank god’), and tried to read an undecipherable script on a mortar long used to grind Indian spices or masalas (‘Yes I want to read’). It was a magical experience in visual and morphological translation to see form and meaning slip between goddess and everywoman, between monumentality and feminist rhetoric. The work that best demonstrates this slippage is ‘Palani’s Daughters’, in which an earth- and blood-soiled body writhes in pain among vaginal pods. Made in response to the accelerating statistics of female infanticide, the reference for this sculpture was a Mayan mother goddess giving birth. In Navjot’s handling, Palani’s archetypal power gains contemporary relevance. The French feminist Luce Irigaray’s celebration of ‘sexual difference’ had a talismanic effect on her. ‘Palani’s Daughters’ speaks to Irigaray’s discontent with a society that reduces women to machines of reproduction and further discriminates on the basis of a child’s gender: “Women, who have given life and growth to the other within themselves, are excluded from the order of the same which men alone set up. The girl child, although conceived by a man and a woman does not enter society as the father’s child with the same status as that accorded the son. She remains outside culture, kept as a natural body good only for procreation.”
The sculptures in ‘Palani’s Daughters’ were accompanied by panels displaying arrays of rolled paper; each roll had a pull-string attached. Was this an archive of annotations, clues by means of which to decode and understand this strange ensemble? A tug at the string would do the trick. Unravelled, the rolls revealed a lining of photocopied women’s literature from India. This included a wide spectrum of texts, ranging from the Therigatha, the ancient songs of the early Buddhist nuns, to poems, short stories and novels written by contemporary writers, sourced from Susie Tharu and K Lalita’s path breaking two-volume feminist anthology, Women Writing In India, 600 BC to the Twentieth Century.
Women’s struggles from all over the world found a place in this temporary archive. The lined rolls were meant to transmit what the artist calls “the warmth and strength of women’s struggles”. The hidden feminist archive needs to be read in parallel with Navjot’s sculptural approach, which privileges neither a male nor a female gaze. The eyes of her figures, most of the time, do not have eyeballs, as though they were turned inwards upon a stillness that is a strength. It is the gaze of self-sufficiency, born from a classical sculptural stance. Navjot works mostly in a hybrid register, even using apparently contradictory languages: in this case, she complemented the feminist impulse towards emancipation with the appurtenances of a spiritual quest.
Liminal Spaces: The Archetype in the Contemporary
I would like to address the archetypal/contemporary debate from another vantage point, besides the feminist perspective. It is important to remember that, in the Indic tradition, the archetypal is not seen as something distinct from the contemporary; the one exists within the other. One of the most eloquent advocates of this paradigm was the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, in whose powerful film Subarnarekha, 1965 (which chronicles the life of a pair of siblings in the years immediately following the Partition), the archetypal and the contemporary, the sacred and the profane, morph into each other with a poignancy that is at once auratic and historical. In Subarnarekha, the little girl Sita, named after the heroine of the epic Ramayana, is walking on an abandoned airstrip in scalding heat when she is suddenly confronted by a bahrupiya or shape-shifter masked as the ugra (angry or fearsome) avatar of the Great Mother, Kali. While she stands stupefied by his presence, an elderly man, who happens to be passing by, scolds the bahrupiya for scaring the child. As he removes his fake tongue to calm the child, the bahrupiya dwindles from a Kali apparition to an ordinary, vulnerable man trying to make a living from his art of masquerade. The moment of transformation when the bahrupiya crosses the threshold of liminality back into quotidian life has haunted the present author forever. It strips him of the last shred of magic that had clothed his emaciated body.
Like Ghatak, Navjot aims to use traditional sources, materials and ideas to achieve non-traditional objectives in the making of her iconic sculptures, thereby “shifting and placing the archetype within a contemporary context with changed meanings, open to multiple interpretations”. But might such an archetypal-contemporary figuration not essentialise the female body in her sculptures, reducing it to associations of earth, nature and reproduction? While the artist has maintained that she is critical of reducing the woman’s body to its reproductive functions (‘Palani’s Daughters’ being the case in point), there may be some truth to this charge. The full-bodied generatrix sculptural figures signal an identification between nature and nurture that cannot be completely dismantled through the inscriptions of contemporary reality. While not wishing away this contradiction, I would cite the feminist critic Lucy Lippard’s writing on this issue, which emerged from her direct involvement in the American women’s movement. She clears some of the misunderstandings around the ‘essentialist’ position: “…[T]o reject all aspects of woman’s experience as dangerous stereotypes often meant simultaneous rejection of some of the more valuable aspects of our female identities. Though easily used against us now, the disappearance of female identification with the earth, with nurturance, with peace (and more problematically with motherhood) would serve the dominant culture all too well. One of the many reasons why women artists have engaged so effectively in social change and/or outreach art is our political identification with oppressed and disenfranchised people [emphasis mine]. We don’t have to approve the historical reasons for that identification, but we do need to wonder why we are so often discouraged from thinking about them.”
In India, women artists have not produced feminist manifestos; nor have they (barring a few exceptions, like Sheba Chhachhi and Tejal Shah) worked closely with the women’s movement. Navjot is not a feminist activist either, but the textures of her choices and practice act out Lippard’s contention: she has extended her practice from an archetypalist-contemporary symbolism to her collaborative work and community art projects in Bastar with disenfranchised women.
It would be pertinent to recall the caveat that the feminist artist Suzanne Lacy held out to western art critics, that they should not see feminism as a transition from essentialist to non-essentialist positions from the 1970s to the 1980s, “because what it does in fact is to frame and codify divisions that simply aren’t accurate. The contribution of feminism to politics is, at the very least, to look at change and ideas as additive, cumulative – to connect with historical ideas of women rather than to constantly disassociate ourselves in order to gain attention”. Lacy’s activist position concerning gender politics and public art has been of importance to Navjot; they met in Pittsburgh in 2005 and have since remained in touch.
In similar vein, when we look at a spectrum of Indian women’s art practices from the 1970s to the present, I would propose a diachronic argument: women artists of earlier generations, including Navjot, Anita Dube and Sheba Chhachhi, required an ideology that would allow them to escape the prevailing dogmas of art. On the other hand, the new generation of women artists such as Shilpa Gupta, Mithu Sen and Tejal Shah face an opposite task: that of framing a position to escape the newly sanctified feminist dogmas concerning women’s art. Meanwhile, it is not as if earlier generations have remained frozen in their feminist ideologies: indeed, Navjot, Dube and Chhachhi problematise their feminist identities to arrive at critical feminist positions; while Gupta, Sen and Shah could not have begun with an anxiety-free position had it not been for the struggles of earlier generations. Here, we may register a phrasing of various positionalities by the artists in question, and their confident recalibration of these in relation to changing historical circumstances.
A Region-Specific History of Indian Women’s Artistic Practices
We could plot the transitions that Navjot has made in terms of media, genre and sociality, as a passage from the struggle to achieve a selfhood to another condition: that of expressing the freedom to lose that selfhood and release oneself into the world of the other. In the process, Navjot has attempted to redraft the economies of art practice and create new solidarities. But this is easier said than done in an Indian context. The Indian feminist cannot privilege the university-educated bourgeois suffragette as her unit of measurement. In this complex and multilayered society, the female self is from the beginning coded with the markers of caste, class, religion, ethnicity, region and language. To arrive at her own individual agency, a politically conscious Indian woman must negotiate her way through all these pre-ordained markers of identity, which are patriarchally over-determined.
In India, I would contend that the personal is always the political, but the political is not always the personal. The question that plagued women artists in the 1970s and 1980s was: How do you make the crises of subjectivities remote from your social position your own, without sounding condescending or being guilty of capitalising on the tragedies of the social other? This could only happen when artists could translate privilege into empathy, by pursuing parallel expressive practices based on a mutuality of commitment across class and regional lines (as Navjot has done in her Bastar project). It is only by sharing spaces of criticality, protest and resistance, that women artists can cope with the post-colonial phenomena of violent identity politics and an endangered public sphere, as well as the pressures of globalisation. Thus we encounter a range of works by Indian women artists: those in which the feminist principle is inchoate; those where it is dramatically amplified; and yet others in which it melds with other idioms of resistance to the point of becoming post-feminist.
I regard it as crucial to produce a regional history and theoretical account for Indian women artists, because this is absent in much of the available writing, which relies heavily on the clichés of a pre-formatted and ill-digested Western feminist discourse, without deeming it necessary to offer an account of how the women’s movement in India from the late 1970s affected, shaped or contoured the work, whether directly or indirectly, of several generations of Indian women artists. My production of such a regional history and theoretical account does not proceed from the redundant East/ West binary. Rather, it calls for parallel readings that would be nourished both by feminist theoretical perspectives developed in Western contexts as well as the scholarship produced by Indian feminist scholars.
The late 1970s witnessed a revitalisation of the feminist movement in India, and its collegial engagement with the rapidly growing environmentalist move- ment. Public rallies were held to protest against dowry, rape, alcoholism and sexual abuse. Peasants and tribal populations challenged the timber mafia responsible for deforestation and asserted their traditional forest rights. The artist Nilima Sheikh’s delicate yet menacing tempera series, ‘When Champa Grew Up’ (1984), was made in response to the dowry death of a girl who lived in her neighbourhood, and took as its macrocosmic context the protests and legal negotiations that the Indian women’s movement had launched against such horrors in the 1980s.
A primary motif that linked the feminist and environmentalist movements was the leading role played by women in them, which affirmed and valorised the role of female agency. A new generation of feminist scholars began to publish their studies in the 1980s. They were supported by dynamic imprints such as Kali for Women (the first feminist publishing house in India, its list focused on social protest, law, economy, and ecology) and Oxford University Press, with its Subaltern Studies volumes and major historical re-readings in the humanities. Thus a large readership learned about the various people’s movements that had emerged in India since independence. The invitation to read the invisible stories of women’s cultural expressions and resistance in Navjot’s ‘Images Redrawn’ is an outcome of the knowledge produced by Indian women scholars, activists, and revolutionaries.
The Neglect of Gender in Leftist Politics
During the 1980s, the role of gender in the Leftist movement was being re-evaluated rigorously. For instance, the feminist scholars Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid were perturbed by certain Marxist positions that relegated the “patriarchy to the superstructure”. As they elaborated: “In other words, class struggle will enable a fight only against those features of patriarchy which are directly related to the public productive sphere and to exploitation by the oppressor class – unequal wages, bonded labour, coerced sexual service, rape etc. It will not enable a struggle against those formations and ideologies which are carried within the [Leftist] movement itself both by middle class activists and by the people engaged in struggle. Recent Marxist and non-Marxist studies of the Communist-led movements of the 1940s – Telangana, Tebhaga, Warli – have in different ways pointed to this crucial fact. As these studies show, contradictions arising out of patriarchal power relations within the movement did surface, but they were either dealt with tangentially or suppressed.”
The diaries of the Telangana women who had participated in the Communist-led peasant struggle, which had put up an armed resistance against feudal landlordism in the princely state of Hyderabad, were published by the Stree Shakti Sanghatana as We were making history: Life-stories of women in the Telangana people’s struggle in 1989. But already, in the late 1970s, Navjot recalls that her activist friend Dev Nathan was sharing some of these women’s accounts in their Marxist study circle. While the Telangana women deployed in the struggle had gained various social and political freedoms – the end of sexual slavery, the right to widow remarriage and divorce as well as land rights, better wages, reasonable interest on loans – they had paradoxically been put under a new kind of surveillance, that of the overwhelmingly male Party leadership. While women could enter into a sexual relationship within the Party, the right to keep the child was often not in their hands, since it was said to come in the way of their Party work. As Vasantha Kannabiran and K Lalita, who analysed the women’s accounts, explain: “What the women found was that while entry into the movement had released them into the public domain for political action, the code of the private domain.”
Extract from The Thirteenth Place: Positionality as Critique in the Art of Navjot Altaf (Bombay: The Guild Art Gallery, 2016). Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator, who has written extensively on the works of four generations of Indian women artists over the last two decades.
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