The Last Laugh
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