The Last Laugh

India Today - - LEISURE - —Chinki Sinha

Peo­ple laughed at me when I first started photo per­for­mances,” says artist Push­pa­mala N., whose early work riffed on proto-fem­i­nist leg­ends like Fear­less Na­dia.

How­ever, with her solo show, The Body Politic, hit­ting New Delhi’s Na­ture Morte art gallery this month, it’s Push­pa­mala who is hav­ing the last laugh. “You have to keep fight­ing,” she says. “As a woman artist, I am not taken as se­ri­ously as I should be.”

In the early pho­tos, Push­pa­mala cast her­self as the Phantom Lady, a wraith-like masked su­per­hero who uses her psy­choki­netic pow­ers to fight in­jus­tice in Bom­bay. ‘Phantom

Lady or Kis­met’—first pre­sented at Gallery Che­mould in 1998—is based on Bol­ly­wood’s Fear­less Na­dia (aka Mary Ann Evans), a su­per­heroine, seen in a set­ting rem­i­nis­cent of film noir. In The Body Politic—a ref­er­ence to her use of the body as well as a play on the phrase used to de­scribe the cit­i­zenry of a state—she il­lus­trates how in­di­vid­ual bod­ies suf­fer po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence and wield po­lit­i­cal author­ity. “It is a pun,” she says. “I like the ti­tle.”

Her elab­o­rate tableaux fea­ture many nu­anced metaphors. ‘Kichaka-Sairandhri’, for in­stance, is in­spired by the 1890 oil paint­ing by Raja Ravi Varma. In the video piece ‘Model Cit­i­zen’, she ap­pears as Bharat Mata, dis­sem­bling the med­i­cal model of a ‘bi­sex­ual’ torso in a satir­i­cal take on the idea of the ‘ideal’ cit­i­zen. Sim­i­larly, in the three videos of ‘Good Habits’, the artist per­forms ‘op­er­a­tions’ on models of the hu­man body, again dressed up as Bharat Mata to com­ment on gov­ern­ment pro­grammes in health and ed­u­ca­tion.

In the ‘Tran­scripts’ sculp­tures, Push­pa­mala ex­plores her ex­pe­ri­ence with a vit­rine con­tain­ing an­cient cop­per plates on a visit to the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mu­seum in Ben­galuru. These were records of land grants given by the kings cen­turies ago and for the artist, these con­nect to the idea of body politic. “There is an at­tempt to make pseudo-his­tory now,” she says, ex­plain­ing that the tran­scripts of­fer a counter-viewpoint to that no­tion.

To un­der­stand Push­pa­mala, you have to ask her “silly ques­tions”, like when did you start dress­ing up. She lights a cig­a­rette and talks about how her mother, an ama­teur theatre artist, would play pranks dressed up as a sadhu, etc. “My work al­ways has a the­atri­cal note to it­self,” she says.

The­atri­cal note Artist Push­pa­mala N. has used se­lec­tive works from her photo per­for­mance se­ries along with her in­stal­la­tions for the show Body Politic

Artist PUSH­PA­MALA N. uses her body as a medium to take on the na­tion state

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