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By Soumitra Das
  • Published 20.03.10

It is difficult to ignore the sheer beauty of the colonial ambience when one organizes an exhibition in the Harrington Street Arts Centre. It is a presence that is captivating and perhaps even intimidating at the same time. Instead of taking it for granted, the six women artists who participated in Stains on my Chintz (February 7-March 20), curated by Paula Sengupta, had consciously created and displayed their works in a manner that would stimulate a dialogue between their art and the space.

Three of the artists — Joscelyn Gardner, Michele Elliot and Teresa Cole — were from abroad. Elliot, from Sydney, Australia, had taken into account the heritage aspect of the gallery in a straightforward way. Her work, titled The Vanishing, took off from an Englishwoman’s journal of the 19th century in which she recorded how a British officer could expect to shoot 1,000 Royal Bengal tigers during his posting in India. She had turned the room into a typical parlour of those times, complete with a fireplace and a fine specimen of this close-to-extinct species, seemingly straight from the taxidermist’s. Only this shikar victim is swathed in cotton cloth like a giant parcel. Next to it is a mound of glass bullets, and the carpet under the fireplace is a splash of blood in a manner that leaves no space for doubt. However obvious this may sound, the stark white walls of the room and the limited number of artefacts she brought together saved it from the banality of raj nostalgia.

Paula Sengupta has, in the past, spun off several exhibitions from the Westernized lifestyle of certain Bengali families in Calcutta during the raj. This time, her focus has shifted to what in Victorian times were known as unmentionables, and her work, which also covers the familiar story of migration during the late 1940s, gains added resonance in these surroundings. She has chosen the feminine craft of embroidery, painted motifs in the manner of nakshi katha, a quilting technique at which Bengali women were once adept, and alluded to chintz, the printed fabric produced in India and once a rage in the West, to create her narrative of placid domesticity. Only the deep, red gash suggests violence and perhaps full-blooded sexuality under the façade of gentility.

Lavanya Mani used the same devices and tools as Sengupta — embroidery and natural dye — to direct our gaze on this craft, learning which was once a must for all English-educated girls. In India, textiles have recently generated a lot of interest among ordinary people. Laypersons may find the stories they have to tell quite fascinating. Mani’s second piece is a map that explores the many histories concealed in the textiles that travelled far and wide across geographical and cultural boundaries.

Teresa A. Cole is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and once again she has used textiles to build up her works that are literally multi-layered. The ancient patterns she uses in her relief prints turn into palimpsests that subsume and include so many different influences. Funnels of fabric with creepies and crawlies printed on them hang from the ceiling in her second work. When curators bring together only women artists, the stress on the ‘feminine’ — be it crafts or sensibility — can backfire. Even the most serious issue then runs the risk of being taken lightly.

However, nobody can accuse Archana Hande of dealing with trivia. For her “Landscapes ‘within - without’”, she has turned an entire room into a darga-like place of worship with an altar circumscribed by a chain of lights, representing the barbed wire barriers that fence off India’s borders with China and Pakistan. This ‘shrine’ is hung with shower curtains, and on the walls are photographs of hinterlands where people lead a precarious existence, under threat from both the security forces who are supposed to protect them, as well as from terrorists. Hers is more like a work in progress. The artist herself admitted that the work did not make one feel claustrophobic enough.

Joscelyn Gardner is originally from Barbados but lives in Canada now, and her haunting video and macabre prints (picture) — beautiful and perfectly executed despite the violence that seethes under them — are based on accounts of the sexual exploitation of black slaves in the colonial Caribbean plantations of the 18th century. What Gardner achieves in her work is quite remarkable — each print is finely detailed like botanical studies of flowers, yet there is something very perverse about their flawlessness. They are as fetching as flowers of evil.