Artist Pushpamala N on her diverse body of work, feminism, curating the upcoming Chennai Photo Biennale

Photography has been read many an elegy in the past decade or so. The birth of the smartphone, the emergence of the selfie and the near ubiquity of pictures on the web ask of the traditional photographers many a different question today. There is, of course, the zeitgeist to respond to, and for that, each photographer needs a subject. For Bengaluru-based artist Pushpamala N, she is her own subject, and has been for a couple of decades now. At 63 and amongst the veterans of the art world, Pushpamala started out as an artist during India’s first feminist movement. “My work has always been feminist, my art was born out of that first movement around the world. We read feminist texts and discussed art and film back then,” she says. Her latest project, The Body Politic, is an example of her nuanced satirical criticism of prevalent hierarchies, be it in gender or a cult.

Bharat Bhiksha. All images courtesy of

Bharat Bhiksha. Photography: Clay Kelton. Cast: Shreelata Rao Seshadri, Ranna Nandesha and Pushpamala N. All images courtesy of Nature Morte.

Pushpamala began performance photography in the mid-90s after having pursued sculpture as her first practice until then. “It was by chance that I did a piece and then I became really interested in this form. I wanted to reinvent myself from time to time which is why this seemed perfect,” she says. Her attention towards women in her work, she says, continues to reappear even if unintended. “I have heard this time and again where people say certain motifs reappear in my work. For example, in one of my shows, someone came up and told me that in four of my images there was a woman each standing against the wall, cornered. So there is that continuity, not always intended but it is perhaps, there and will remain,” she says. Unlike, perhaps, most photographers who experiment with performance, Pushpamala herself plays her characters. “I do have stage fear, you know,” she says.

Land: Playfighting #1 (Right) and Land: Playfighting #2 (Left)

Land: Playfighting #1 (Right) and Land: Playfighting #2 (Left). Photography: Clay Kelton

Pushpamala made her first series of what she calls ‘Photo Romances’ back in 1996 titled Phantom Lady or Kismet. Satirical, witty, she has over the years created situations and recreated some iconic images popularised by Indian culture. “I call them photo romances because they can be absurd, illogical. But they are all stories. I do work with video as well, but I love composing still photographs because of the elements that contribute to a frame, the way they gather the narrative, the idea I’m looking for,” she says. There is an element of theatre and studio photography in her work. She has posed as Raja Ravi Varma’s Laxmi, Sita and Kaikeyi and many other iconic women. In her latest, she appears as Durga and Bharat Mata, a response, perhaps to the climate of hyper-nationalism. In a post-MeToo world, the irony and wit of her work feel all the more relevant and piercing.

Transcripts. A set of 100 copper plate sculptures based on ancient grants. Lost scripts handwritten and etched by the artist with patination, 2018. Each one a unique piece.

Transcripts. A set of 100 copper plate sculptures based on ancient grants. Lost scripts handwritten and etched by the artist with patination, 2018. Each one a unique piece.

As a consciously feminist artist, Pushpamala believes the recent movement was an eventuality of the Delhi gang-rape of 2012. “These brutal crimes have grown on us. The rape in 2012 was a key moment. I think it awakened all us. The country responded, everyone responded in whatever way they could. It is atrocious, the condition of women in this country. How can the art then be about anything else,” she says. The normalisation of this rape culture the artist believes is just the tip of the iceberg. Below it, the predatory behaviour of Indian men has played a key role in shaping the mindsets of women. “I remember when I was in college in the 70s. There was a group of boys who would gather at the end of the lane and every day they would pass lewd comments, call me a bitch. My whole body would burn with anger, and I had to pass through that area every day, it was unavoidable,” she says.

Kichaka - Sairandhri. Photography: Clay Kelton. Cast: Cop Shiva and Pushpamala N

Kichaka - Sairandhri. Photography: Clay Kelton. Cast: Cop Shiva and Pushpamala N

Harassment, Pushpamala says, is in every sphere of life. “I love to ride the scooter. I live close to the highway and it used to be fun. But I had to get a car because as a woman you automatically become the target of men riding their bikes on the road. They come close and stare at you. I have had so many accidents, hit by a bus, by a truck, by a rickshaw. I would lie in the middle of the road with torn clothes and not one of the fifty men who stood around me then would come forward to help. They assumed it is the woman’s fault. It is just another form of racism,” she says.

Pushpamala is also the Artistic Director and curator of this year’s edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale which opens on 22 February. “My curation,” she says “is an extension of my work. I want to extend the idea of photography. I know the juxtapositions of artists and forms matters a lot and that is where I have paid close attention. The Biennale will not only address photography as a medium, but it will address the things happening around the world, it will definitely talk to our time.”

The Body Politic is on display at Nature Morte, New Delhi.
The Chennai Photo Biennale opens on 22 February.

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Updated Date: Feb 09, 2019 09:44:04 IST

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