Posted by: Rajesh Shukla | August 6, 2010

Stepping unto an unknown

Gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also a discursive means by “sexed nature” or ” a natural sex” is produced and established as pre-discursive, a politically natural surface on which culture acts –Judith Butler

In Indian Contemporary art when we talk about feminist artists Rekha Rodwittiya’s name also comes among the long list of feminist contemporary artists, though, on feminism critics like Gita Kapoor did not mention her name anywhere in her major writings. Artists like Rekha Rodwittiya, Arpana Caur, Gogi Saroj Pal etc do not exist for her, perhaps, because of their quasi archaic images and their traditional and conservative way of rendering mythic subjects and narratives. Like Manjit Bawa and Arpana Caur, Rekha’s art too evolves from the Indian art tradition especially miniature and some contrasting similarities can be traced  among these three painters from the construction of the canvas to their sensibility. The flat background and simplicity of image composition, their styles of application of colors and overall construction of canvas is almost similar. where they differ is in their specialized and distinguished Iconography and their respective rendering of subjects. In Rekha’s works various elements, faces of female figures and depiction of the enlightened body of the feminine directly comes from Indian art tradition that you can search  and recognize in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist iconography very easily. Despite this that their forms of female and male figures, trees, and animals directly come from the Indian artistic tradition, they are different and possess unique identity. On the level of stylized image creation they have succeeded in distinguishing themselves from many others who were just maneuvering with western styles. On this point they have certainly an edge over many modernists. All the three painters have their distinguished iconography that form their artistic identity. Even in sensitivity and Indianans they join each other; all are strictly spiritualists in some way or other. In Manjit Bawa’s art the case is somewhat different though that we can talk sometime later.

But what kind of feminist discourse has been rendered in Rekha Rodwittiya’s art, is a question here? Her exhibition catalog “once upon a time” says, “The artist draws on a heritage of elemental imagery, tempered by psychological insights, portraying women through the prism of personal experience and day-to-day realities. As she has noted: “Caught within the intricacies of adult angst where the undercurrent of pain was recognized though not fully understood by me, the drawn or constructed image became very early a means of deciphering all that I accumulated from observing….My sense of empathy with the drawn image was that it offered a physicality, and established a concretizing of the otherwise intangible. It became a method, as I perceive it in retrospect, of creating a dialogue that gave meaning to a psychological realm.” All these angst and psychology does not exist on her canvases and if  a little bit of it appears  it speaks not ; what speak is its decoration. Her Canvases are flat, iconographic and largely decorative in appearance, barely one sees any discourse as such; say any feminist angst as we see and feel in Nalini Malani. Neither, in her art as a whole, what she would say “stepping beyond or stepping unto an unknown” is found.

What I see is altogether different thing, if we talk about “stepping unto unknown” in art, it should no doubt be “stepping unto the known” artistically speaking; for art is not about invisible but about the visible. When you do not cross the boundary of illustrative limit of the image, you can not “step beyond” in the known even. For example let us see what the image of her untitled painting (that has some similarity with Jain statue of  Sri Gomatheswar)  attached with this article says  . Figure is divided perpendicularly to depict the ardhanarishwara , she holds a book in one hand and in other abhaya mudra (hand gesture of no fear or Fearlessness) while with two hands she is creating or emitting something from it (that could be read like weaving, creating or endowing something like Laxmi). In background she has painted a vibrant tree in red perhaps symbolic of passion while below a green colored shrub something like money plant. We can say that this looks like a contemporary image of the feminine ( which is often called contemporary depiction) with old concept of ardhanarishwar (androgynous).  She is not the only painter though who has painted this in this way but many other Indian feminists artists too have painted feminine figures in the same fashion and meaning. They all know the art of contemporizing mythic images. Though its pictorial meaning does not go beyond the religious meaning of ardhanarishwar. What aesthetic meaning we can extract from this kinds of works other than a conservative and traditional one? Artist does not create any aesthetic meaning and as far as visual is concerned, it is illustrative-beautiful through and through. In her flatness and static opaque colors force is always missing, colors come as a canvas filling stuff in a decorative manner. There are very few painters who use colors as a dynamic force, often, it is possible only when one is on a horizon and creating something or one is transcending something ; some times it may be a fight to break with the existing-one’s own idioms, style and patterns.

In Indian contemporary art what is called contemporary is this level of illustration. In it we can see and feel only a conservative feminist discourse nothing else, it is not modernist even. As a work of art it does not give us expected aesthetic pleasure, there is nothing in the picture to perceive; neither sensory nor nonsensory. A pure visual in its immensity without any ideological content itself brings shocks to our eyes–even a mere representation true-to life. A creation of pure feminine body (as in Da Vinci’s Mona) itself is sufficient and speaks to us a lot but these artists do not understand . What is the meaning of this religious androgynous female figure in contemporary feminist discourse? What her feminist discourses produces on the surface? Is it not a religious portrayal of feminine body? in which one does not create anything but rely on an already conceived religious idea of totality and fulfillment. And what is its ontological status concerning our contemporary world? All these question Feminists would ask, even pertaining to gender issues there is no space for contemporary discourse. No doubt, if one escapes into an androgynous identity than the question of feminism does not arise at all. By becoming androgynous you can no doubt go beyond gender and sex issues raised by feminists–up above everything. If one wants to, one can escape in to this metaphysical zone but it has no relation to the contemporary discourses. The traditional cultural knowledge has been interiorized so much so in these feminists that it does not agree to leave its place a little bit, they remain traditional both in thinking and painting. This is not only her case but many other iconographist feminists who are producing such feminist works for decades.

—Wanted to write at length and critical on it but could not do, perhaps, because of scarcity of material on it and blogging mentality.



  1. This is what is petty bourgeois feminism. progressiveness with all kinds of shit. but one thing that you wrote is great that is her Indianized style. One can support this in these artists and go forward with it. what you think sir:-)

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