One of my friends from university could distinguish poems written by women from those by men just by paying attention to the choice of words. His ability was put repeatedly to test by a disbelieving audience but he emerged unscathed from each trial. Although he never revealed the secret of his discerning powers, and perhaps owed not a wee bit of his success to lady luck, one can guess what guided his deductions. As a woman, I am bound to sound biased, but I can still venture to say that women’s art is characterized by a heightened sensitivity to the real that makes all the difference. This is not to imply that men are insensitive but to say that women’s art embodies an alternative way of looking at reality. Like all alternatives, it exists because of the other, but is also valuable in its difference.
The ongoing exhibition at CIMA, An Alternative Perspective (till April 28), features works by five women: Anju Chaudhuri, Jayasri Burman, Rashmi Bagchi Sarkar, Rini Dhumal and Shakila. As modern artists, they play with the myths of the feminine, break a few, and create some of their own. Most of their concerns are gender-neutral but their treatment of the themes can be said to be inflected by the experience of womanhood. So certain symbols and colours recur like motifs in the otherwise disparate works. It is these motifs that define the “alternative” and underline its uniqueness.
Not all of that uniqueness is a fruit of the hard-won labours of the intellect. Some of it is simply biological, but celebrated nonetheless. The fish is a potent symbol of fertility in old myths, and it is used as such by Dhumal in her works, often in combination with the serpent. These motifs transform her dark, thick-lipped women into ancient tribal goddesses, their skin the colour of rocks, their foreheads daubed with vermilion. If Dhumal’s goddesses look baleful and morose, Burman’s are full of sweet benevolence, like the domesticated Lakshmi painted on the pat. They are mermaid-like, only their fish tails fork off in an array of elegant swans’ heads. Painted in bright, jewel-like colours, Burman’s canvases have the texture of a happy dream. Her sculptures, such as Horo Parboti or Gonesh Jononi, also give off a sense of benign, unthreatening stillness.
If exhibitions can be said to have colours, then this one is red — with its subtle variants, such as crimson, scarlet or carmine. The throbbing pulse of this tint makes it the colour of passion, anger, violence, and of life. So the dark hole in place of a woman’s face in Bagchi Sarkar’s I see a landscape looks all the more abysmal in contrast to the deep red background of the painting. The “landscape” that the woman sees has been reduced to a single lethal-looking thorn with serrated edges that is lodged in the face. The thorn has a hint of red at its base, perhaps a sign of nature shorn of all projected munificence to reveal its tooth and claw. Bagchi Sarkar’s fin-de-siècle imagination keeps transporting the viewer to an angry red desert standing for an earth that has suffered the aftermath of an ecological disaster. Interestingly, the figure of Shristi — creation — in Burman’s work of the same name is also flame-coloured.
The contrast among varying nuances of the same hue is apparent too in Chaudhuri’s twin paintings, Maize in Yellow and Maize in Red. The cheery blue sky of the former suddenly turns ominously scarlet in the latter, as if a fierce storm is looming over the horizon, all set to despoil the crops. In Chaudhuri’s other kaleidoscopic canvases, red is like a wish scattered in the white wind along with parti-coloured hopes — wavering, swirling, changing shape as the fancy seizes them.
All the symbols and colours reach their apotheosis in the works of Shakila. They live, breathe, die and are born again in her paper collages. The heaving crimson background of one shifts at places to reveal sinister black vipers, one of them with the dangling legs of a half-eaten frog in its mouth (picture). Here is life dancing with death, as if in a snake-and-ladder game where the ladders are conspicuous by their absence. In another, a shadowy woman reaches out to a ghostly infant at the centre, while all around them men point rifles, and some buckle, spurting blood. The iridescent-blue kingfisher of luck at the top left of the canvas sits like a shock, almost too good to be true. Shakila’s Durga wears a scarlet blouse and a beautiful, mischievous smile. If she too kills, she kills softly, more with her smile than with her spear.