by Rahul KumarJan 20, 2021
A few weeks ago, after playing phone-tag with each other for two days, the Bengaluru-based artist, Siri Devi Khandavilli and I finally found each other on the same timeline over the space of a phone call. She wanted to share some thoughts with me, and to reserve my time and interest for a moment in the future, when she might need my help in consolidating them, after she had fleshed them out more elaborately. I was excited to hear from her because our thoughts had clearly been in some kind of sync. We had both been concerned with the subject of domesticity. We exchanged notes about our amusement towards how this otherwise neglected discursive space was now finding validation as a legitimate conceptual site, since it was, in COVID-19 times, being indelibly linked to our notion of a safe space. Those of us who were privileged enough to be in our homes were inhabiting it differently, while thousands who were stranded in makeshift shelters longed to be within its interiors. The domestic had become a coveted site.
She was recounting to me how, in the past, she had been scoffed at for creating work that was too embedded within the mundane. She told me about a video she had made, that I had never seen, which has her rolling out rotis, while in the background there was the voice of discourse. I looked through her website later to see if there might be any indication of this video, but there wasn’t even a mention of it. I was struck by how the concept of who constitutes an audience remains one of the biggest delusions in every art world, governed as it is not so much by personal idiosyncrasies, but notions of what has market-value and what doesn’t, what is considered serious enough to merit being written about, and what is seen as too frivolous as to be instituted into the Canon. Art history must be haunted by the ghosts of all the artworks it considered too domestic to be treated with any form of criticality. For the most part, the casualties in this regard are subjectivities that were always marginalised. Women, tribal and folk artists, indigenous craftspeople, and in countries like India, those on the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
So much of this work finds its way to the mainstream belatedly, when a curator or a gallery director, or a critic who has cultivated a sensibility towards alterity is able to contextualise them. For the most part, ‘illustrious’ scholars and intellectuals continue to couch their research within actively masculinist discourse, unabashedly discounting the labour of women and others. An excellent case in point is the recent biography of Jangarh Singh Shyam by Jyotindra Jain, titled The Conjuror’s Archive, published by Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, which, while being a well-published book that offers a meticulous account of the Pardhan artist’s life and tragic death, with excellently produced illustrations, still falls into many discursive traps. Jain makes a crucial point about art world hierarchies when he speaks about the notion of how artists are ‘discovered’, how Jangarh was ‘discovered’ by the Bharat Bhavan museum team, around 1980-1981. Considering that within his village and community, he was already well-recognised for his painterly talent, the term is spurious, and is clearly linked to the vocabularies of colonial voyages and their geographical findings. But in appraising Jangarh’s artistic genius, Jain himself negates the validity of the art and craft traditions from which he drew inspiration. Jain espouses that the artist rose in status because he reinterpreted and appropriated existing folkloric traditions, which does little justice to the mostly women folk who were traditionally engaged in maintaining the continuity of these visual tribal vocabularies.
When I was reviewing the book, I made a mention of an essay published in 1977-78, by Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer, titled Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled. It was something I just happened to stumble upon once in the course of my own research, and it so succinctly contextualised for me why, for instance, I was so drawn to saving every pillow cover my mother had ever embroidered for me, from the time I moved out of home. Schapiro and Meyer spoke about how art historians do not pay attention to the discoveries of non-Western artists, women artists or anonymous folk artists, all of the people who are traditionally considered as ‘others’. “It is exasperating to realise that the rigidities of modern critical language and thought prevent a direct response to the eloquence of art when it is made by others...” they write. They proposed the term ‘femmage’ to include activities practiced by women using traditional women’s techniques to achieve their art, such as sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliqueing, cooking, etc., activities also engaged in by men, but historically assigned to women. The most profound part of the essay, for me, was when they spoke about the ‘audience of intimates’ that women’s work customarily catered to. “A woman artist-maker always had the assurance that her work was destined to be appreciated and admired. She worked for her relatives and friends, and unless she exhibited in church bazaars and county fairs, her viewers were almost always people she knew.”
This notion about who constitutes an audience, which audiences are validated as legitimate, and which are seen as too commonplace as to be credited with having any kind of scholarly or intellectual value plays a defining role in who is considered a successful artist and who is perceived as having failed, and who gets to bask in the discursive light of art history and who is denied its aura. For many artists working without access to viable, sustainable infrastructures, this issue is doubly confounding, because, by now, so many artists in the still developing world have internalised Western notions of success premised upon clear indicators, like gallery representation; visibility at art fairs, market value, participation at biennales. Success is quite clearly predicated upon the immediacy one’s art has to a wide audience. In a COVID-19 world, this rule has been replicated within the virtual world.
Certain basic questions continue to hold sway and it is our duty to keep asking them. Does an artist need an audience? Does this most primal form of validation shape the intuition an artist feels towards creating, or can that drive be allowed to exist independently? Should an artist defer the creation of something until they are commissioned, or does great art happen in spite of the absence of an audience of the present, and especially in the case of women and marginalised ‘others’, is our work our way of engaging with audiences of the future?
Many of these thoughts had been fuelled mid-February, when I happened to be in Kolkata , on research, and, upon the suggestion of the artist Mithu Sen, went to visit the studio of Arunima Choudhury, who had been an art teacher to her and many others all her life. Before I could come over, Choudhury requested me to visit the Kolkata Center for Creativity (KCC) to see some of her work that was with them. I did, and was absolutely astonished by every unframed piece I saw. When I went over to meet her and her husband, Gautam, an equally brilliant artist, the next day, I was totally swayed by the earnestness of their practices, and the integrity with which they had, for decades, maintained their household. When she took me to her studio and I saw piles of finished work that had rarely been exhibited, she laughed and told me how she saw herself as a labourer, that she doesn’t agonise about what makes her art ‘art’, nor does she intellectualise. She just makes. And her process of making is exquisitely organic, she creates her own pigments using flowers from her garden and works on paper she sources from a fellow artist, Anupam Chakraborty, who runs Nirupama Academy of Handmade Paper, a wonderful small-scale paper factory in Kolkata. When she told me that she might have a solo later this year at the KCC, I was thrilled, not just because it would mean the KCC would finally dedicate a retrospective to a non-male artist, but also because I loved the idea of her work being available to a wider audience. But then I wondered, what if her work was so quintessentially her own, and uniquely so, because it had not been tainted by the idiosyncrasies of the market, or by the subjective fallacies of critics. What if it had played an unaccounted role in nurturing contemporary Indian art simply through the number of artists whose talents she had nurtured as an art teacher?
What is it that drives artists to create? In contemporary times, what is it that compels them to ‘make’? Do they do it for themselves, to feed their own imagination? What is the boundary between the need for solitude in order to create and their eagerness for an audience and their desire to encounter solidarity? And are these questions, all multiple-choice, really as divorced as they might seem from histories of femmage? For the feminist critic there is immense, indecipherable joy to be experienced when artist ‘discovers’ in you an eager audience. It is an incredible feeling to be, through the act of being allowed to view, be made complicit in encountering and witnessing their life’s work.