An artist’s response to Sabarimala

Piyali Sadhukhan extends on her past work – on gender and the violence directed at it

Firstpost print Edition

A large embroidered pattern of an intense red spills over into the carpet, which is an obvious reference to menstrual blood. On the wall, three conical structures or panels, suggestive of an orthodox religious edifice, rise upwards with a theatrical representation of a powerful (male) god, surrounded by the instruments of his patriarchy – the male priests. The god cannot see or hear, and his cloaked priests are also depicted in a state of ‘not seeing’. It is this self-cultivated masculine hubris that a Kolkata-based artist is interrogating in her work, as she seems to drown her ‘subjects’ in a deluge of bleeding motifs.

Drawing upon her experience as an art director for Durga Puja pandals and theatre productions, Piyali Sadhukhan’s latest piece of work on the Sabarimala controversy is an extension of themes she has explored in her practice, such as gender and the violence directed at it.

Decorative and macabre at the same time, Piyali’s monumental installation – titled Flaming Altar – is a subversive take on the opposition to allowing menstruating women in the Sabarimala temple, despite the Supreme Court lifting the prohibition. Using Nepali handmade paper, cotton, fabric and bangles, the exhibit’s overpowering emphasis on the red colour triggers memories of violence and death. Bold and sometimes bleached out, the red stands for sore wounds that have not healed. The hollow forms created by deliberate ruptures in the installation further invoke abstract imageries of anatomical violence.

Speaking about the installation, the 1979-born artist said, “As an independent woman living in a democracy, I strongly disagree with the idea of restricting menstruating women to visit the temple just because the god is a brahmachari. This work is to show my disagreement towards some archaic notions and to offer respect to the mother of all ‘male gods’.”

Her work on the Sabarimala crisis, along with a set of derivative mixed-media works, is part of a solo exhibition at New Delhi’s Akar Prakar Contemporary, until May 31. Titled Seeing is (not) Believing, the presentation reimagines aesthetics of carpets, wall hangings and rugs to explore the theme of conflict as one of the characteristics of the world we are living in. There is a conspicuous tactile feel to the objects, with elements of beauty and gore fashioned into a visually arresting exhibition. The imagery seems to emerge from the formidable designs of her pandals and theatre sets.
In the exhibition, intricate artworks referencing the vagina, uterus, pelvis and spine are shown alongside equally ornate wall hangings and rug-like creations, transforming a domestic living space into a site of conflict. One of the most striking artworks is a bulbous wall-work made with acrylic yarn, which looks like a pregnant woman’s belly with a broken umbilical cord. It is ironically titled Blooming Amnesia.

Piyali’s interest in the arts predates her training as an artist, which began at Rabindra Bharati University, followed by postgraduate studies at Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan. As a young girl, she recollects helping her grandmothers in embellishing the local puja pandals, in the form of crocheted shawls or carpets.

She began exhibiting her work in 2001, with a group show at New Delhi’s Lalit Kala Academy. She has since participated in domestic and international shows, including exhibiting a set of feminist installations at Espace Louis Vuitton, Tokyo. In 2014, she made an installation for Kolkata’s Indian Museum, in which she represented environmental pollution in the form of a multi-headed serpent king as a mythical killer.

Over the years, Piyali’s pursuit of a unique artistic expression has grown into a more complex art practice, informed by scepticism and pointed imagery as a response to a ubiquitous disruption of harmony. “In many ways, we suffer from a basic absence of belief in our system. Growing violence and hatred in our society give me a sense of insecurity. Turmoil grows out of that,” said the artist.
In the end, Piyali’s first solo is a reflection of “the interesting times” we are living in, which forms a connection with the ongoing Venice Biennale, whose curatorial theme, “May you live in interesting times”, dwells on the global ethos of overly simplistic attitudes, caused by fear and conformism.

(Ankush Arora is a Delhi-based journalist)

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