Mumbai’s iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) is celebrating its centenary this year. To celebrate the event along with the 75th year of Independence, an exhibition titled Woman is as Woman Does, featuring 27 Indian women artists, opened at the museum on August 13 (August 13-October 16). Curated by art critic Nancy Adajania and showing at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation and Premchand Roychand Gallery of the museum, the exhibition is an immersive experience where the images reveal as much about India’s feminist movement as the texts accompanying them.
The artworks, created using several types of media, narrate the story of the feminist movement, marking its milestones. Featuring artists across five generations, the exhibition can be said to be a definitive documentation of the postcolonial women’s movement. During a walkthrough, Adajania says: “I wanted to show feminism in India from an Indian perspective. I kept the selection simple and direct, not ornate. While describing milestones, I felt it needed something direct and declamatory; senior artists in the same neighbourhood as Gen X or Gen Z. It is important to have a diverse conversation.”
Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director, CSMVS, said at the inauguration: “The exhibition is our tribute to women’s power, which highlights transformative changes in varied sociocultural, political, and economic spheres.” The power is expressed through not just mounted paintings but also black-and-white photographs, placed in such a way as to throw a shadow over a particular painting; a television screen that projects a film; installations, objects, magazines, mixed media and music.
The works are in distinctly different styles, with contemporary art mixed with traditional tribal designs. By highlighting subjects such as dowry, atrocities on Dalits, marginalisation of tribal people, the show asks the viewer to go back in time and see the present through the lens of the past and also look ahead to the future of the feminist movement in India.
Nilima Sheikh’s acclaimed series, When Champa Grew Up (1984), serves as an introduction. This anti-dowry art was accompanied by protest songs in Gujarati when it was first exhibited: one of the songs is displayed here, stressing the continuing afterlife of the still-relevant work. Sheba Chhachhi’s photo placards capture the moments in the 1980s when women activists protested rape, dowry deaths, and female infanticide. Chhachhi was a founder-member of the women’s group Jagori, along with pioneering activists Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya. Her work on feminist theatre activism is placed in close proximity to Nilima Sheikh’s anti-dowry song, with each lending resonance to the other.
One of Baaraan Ijlal and Moonis Ijlal’s carved wooden sculptures shows a march of people, whom Adajania interprets as a “servile army” or “a group of refugees.” She says of the work: “Keep walking, they seem to say. Keep defying the order of the tyrants.” Young artist Ita Mehrotra uses a dark scroll to etch the account of Sudesha, a leader of the Chipko movement. For too long, says Adajania, Chipko was associated with men. “We hear Sudesha’s voice honest and wise—channelled through the imagination of a younger-generation feminist.”
Excerpts from the documentaries The Books We Made (2016) by Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku and Unlimited Girls (2002) by Paromita Vohra are screened on a panel in the hall. The first records the establishment of Kali, India’s first feminist press, and the latter is an experimental documentary using the device of a feminist chatroom to produce a multilogue between women of differing ideologies. For Adajania, both films underline the importance of friendships that sustained the feminist movement.
Freed from strictures
Although every art piece is a draw, Aqui Thami’s installation of tiny baskets with dried plants pouring out of them has a magnetic pull. Aqui Thami, who comes from the northeastern region, pays homage to the bojus (grandmothers) with the plants they had gifted her. Thami says that she draws energy from the bojus, who are the keepers of holistic knowledge. Thami’s zines from the Sister Library she established in Mumbai are also displayed. Established in 2019, it is one of South Asia’s first community-owned and run feminist libraries.
Then there are women engaged in traditional storytelling: Durgabai Vyam, from the Jangarh style of art, describes Adivasi heritage through her work. Ranjeeta Kumari’s video, Gaali Geet, shows a group of women from Bihar singing playful songs on love and relationships. Adajania says: “The gaali geet embodies female gaze, female agency and licence emancipated from patriarchal social structures.” Speech bubbles pop up on the walls. “So much of our traditional knowledge is oral. To bring the intimacy of the oral account, I used speech bubbles,” she says.
A striking black-and-white photograph of Sharmistha Ray taken by Bikramjit Bose hangs from the ceiling, greeting viewers as they enter the second part of the exhibition housed in the Premchand Roychand Gallery. Sharmistha Ray, an artist and activist who rejects gender binaries, posed for this photograph in 2015 for a feature #Ungender, meant to break stereotypes and stigmas associated with the non-binary and queer community.
Sosa Joseph’s Pieta is a painting in the signature style of the Kochi-based artist. Also used in the exhibition’s poster, the painting is inspired by a newspaper article on an Adivasi woman whose son was killed by extremist forces. Sosa Joseph’s Mary is maniacal in her grief but she does not ask for pity. She is “Everywoman demanding justice for her martyred son,” says Adajania.
The works of Zarina Hashmi, Purvai Rai and Gargi Raina are placed side by side. All of them describe the turbulent times the artists went through when they lost their home or went into exile. “How do you use the language of abstraction to talk about politics?” asks Adajania. Nilima Sheikh’s scroll, My Hometown (2009), draws on the traumas of Kashmir. A rare early work of Anju Dodiya, Portrait of a Girl, is selected to show how the “artist portrays freedom and its lack, strength and its opposite, melancholia and the darker notes of life through the mirror that is the self.” Shantibai from Bastar creates a fascinating series of caricatures using dots in the traditional style that connect people, places, and things. Asked what art does to her, Shantibai says: “I feel joy.”
- The exhibition titled Woman is as Woman Does, curated by art critic Nancy Adajania, features 27 Indian women artists.
- The artworks, created using several types of media, narrate the story of the feminist movement, marking its milestones.
- The works are in distinctly different styles, with contemporary art mixed with traditional tribal designs.
- They celebrate female gaze and female agency.
- Some of the featured artists are Sosa Joseph, Nilima Sheikh, Sheba Chhachhi, Aqui Thami and others.