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CIMA Gallary

Her World, Her Art

Five women artists, all from Bengal, each with a voice of her own make their mark at CIMA Gallery, says Soumitra Das

While it is a commonplace that the special perspective of women is never more apparent than in the arts, it is also true that their points of view can be widely divergent. This is the first thing that may strike viewers at the exhibition, An Alternative Perspective, that opened at CIMA Gallery on Friday evening. The exhibition brings together the works of five women artists from Bengal, although all of them do not necessarily live and work here any longer. And besides their gender there is little else that they have in common.

Four of them, despite the wide difference in their ages, are more or less from the same social background, and all of them were trained at some art college of repute or the other.

The only notable exception is Shakila from the village Nar close to Baruipur in South 24-Parganas. She has little more than basic education and has never been anywhere close to an art school. Collage is her medium and this is what she excels in. In her infancy she used to frequent a market in Calcutta where her parents sold vegetables for a living, and the feel of paper with various textures between her fingers fired her imagination.

In her childhood she had been famously introduced to the medium of collage by her mentor B.R. Panesar, but Shakila’s power of imagination is so strong and vivid that every new work of hers has a surprise in store for the viewer. Without that gift how could one as untutored as she have visualised the snakepit full of writhing red serpents, with one of them holding a deadly yellow frog in its mouth? Or even the smiling Durga with her clothes in disarray as she tackles Mahishasura with the same zest as a Bengali housewife would tackle a minor domestic upheaval? If one looks carefully at this image, the picture of an ear has turned into the profile of Mahishasura. About her work, the slight woman in a sari says with a shy and wan smile: “I never know beforehand what I am going to create but ideas keep coming to my head as I keep tearing and pasting paper.” Earlier, her pictures used to be small but with time they have increased in dimension.

Having experienced poverty first hand, her vision can be grim and unrelenting. Her current work is blood-splattered, violence having left its mark at every level of our existence both domestic and political. But even when her picture is about presumably Nandigram, the bold manner in which she breaks all the rules of composition is quite remarkable. In spite of her success as an artist in recent years, her vision remains unspoilt.

Jayasri Burman evokes an aqueous world where deities familiar in Bengal are transformed into fish and waterfowl and mythical creatures. It is a soft and pellucid world where the process of change is quite visible as limbs and crowns mutate into a multitude of swaying swan necks and even a feminine visage without any angles sprouts a full beard. She is not making gender statements but myths and reality become one in her universe which she creates painstakingly and often with a lot of fun, it seems, with watercolours and pen and ink.

Burman has also produced for the first time a few bronze sculptures based on the figures she paints. She herself produces the figures with clay and she finds the process very satisfying. Here again the human or divine figures turn into symbols of fecundity as they transmogrify into various forms of aquatic life, a throwback to a time when lakes and ponds and rivers had turned Bengal into a green and fertile land.

Rini Dhumal is Delhi-based and she was trained both in Baroda and Santiniketan by artists who essentially belonged to the Bengal School. She paints primitive-looking women with dark skin and broad noses and mouths that resemble the stone deities which are worshipped in village shrines. Vermilion marks on these figures and floral offerings make the resemblance even more striking. One gets the impression that women themselves are being deified. Mythical creatures like the Sphinx appear in her ceramics and smaller paintings, many of which are circular in shape like the Dashabatar cards of Bishnupur.

Nature has always been the inspiration for Anju Chaudhuri, who lives in Paris. Trained at Baroda and later at St Martin School of Art in London, she mainly painted realistic landscapes. This is what brought her closer to vegetation, mostly foliage and flowers. Earlier, she used to make her own paper with flowers, particularly hibiscus, with leaves embedded in them. Now she paints fragmented images that are more like gestural and rhythmic impressions of foliage on her canvases which have a white background. It is as if they have become part of her inner world — a kaleidoscope in which shapes and colours keep shifting all the time. “It is as if I’m not painting leaves anymore but the light and the wind that passes through them. I somehow feel that it’s age which is guiding me,” she wrote in an email.

Rashmi Bagchi Sarkar, who was trained in Santiniketan and Japan as well, expresses her ecological concerns through her large canvases which have striking and bold images. She employs a complex technique she learnt in Japan known as iwa-enogu and uses animal hide, glue and other materials, even metal, to create the paintings. As a result, the colours glow like jewels. Addressing environmental issues as she does, the face of a woman becomes a black hole with the relic of a serrated leaf sprawled across it. Taj Mahal becomes warped as it floats over barren land resembling moonscape. In the most striking image of them all, an architectural drawing or structure gets sucked into a seemingly endless black space.

All these five women look at life from an alternative perspective and their art is defined thereby.