What is your view on feminism that informs this exhibition?
When Sabyasachi Mukherjee invited me to curate an exhibition on women artists, I mulled over the various ways in which this mandate could be met. I did not want the exhibition to be devoted to a few star artists, which is the default position of the Indian art world.
Since I had the opportunity to curate in what Mukherjee has famously described as a “people’s museum”, I proposed an exhibition format which contextualises the work of five generations of Indian women artists by taking the 1980s, which marked the first phase of the Indian women’s movement, as the starting point. The women’s movement was galvanised in the 1970s with the Mathura rape case and gathered further momentum through successful protests for legal reform in the 1980s.
I refer here to a book that I read in my early 20s and which has been very important to me: Radha Kumar’s The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800–1990 (1993), which historicised the Indian women’s movement across the 19th and 20th centuries.
How did you make your selection?
The exhibition takes the form of an intergenerational mapping. The oldest artist represented is Zarina Hashmi (1937-2020) and the youngest is Al-Qawi Nanavati (born 1995). Woman is as Woman Does does not treat gender as a static identity.These artists belong to different classes, ethnicities, and caste groups. Those born to privilege are shown alongside those of Dalit or Adivasi origin. Artists who have concentrated on studio practice appear here, along with those who produce zines and graphic novels, collaborate with subaltern artists, local communities, farmers, activists, and grandmothers.
The trigger for Woman is as Woman Does is the women’s movement in India, as it happened in the 1980s. I was in school then and remember this brutally recurrent front-page headline: “Woman burnt alive by in-laws”.Woman was being constructed as a juridical subject in those years.The war over women’s freedoms—their very right to exist—was being fought in the courtrooms and streets, in the newspapers and classrooms.
Nilima Sheikh’s revisiting of her own iconic 1984 series against dowry killings, When Champa Grew Up, bears witness to how crimes against women continue unabated today, at an increased pitch of violence. Alongside, I flag the impulse towards articulating and building solidarities, which has been a key theme in the women’s movement, as evidenced here in Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs, which foreground the empathy shared by women protesters across the class divide.
Could you expand on the theme of intersectional and cross-generational mapping?
These themes are transmuted in the work of younger-generation artists navigating new political landscapes. For Nilima Sheikh and Sheba Chhachhi’s generation, I would argue, gender was a category of resistance that required special affirmation because it was not considered a legitimate issue, even by the Left. But for Gen X and the millennials, gender is interwoven with questions of caste (Ranjeeta Kumari), regional aspiration (Aqui Thami), livelihood and ecology (Gram Art Collective and Ita Mehrotra), ethnicity, linguistic diversity, and freedom of speech (Arshi Ahmadzai and Baaraan Ijlal). And an artist of Adivasi heritage demonstrates solidarity with a Dalit cause (Durgabai Vyam).
While most of the participating artists identify as “she/her”, Sharmistha Ray no longer identifies as a “woman” and defines herself as non-binary. In the 1980s, the Indian women’s movement, challenged by the immensity of crimes against women, focussed on legal redress while deferring questions of sexuality.
Alternating between moments of consensus and dissensus, the movement has never been a monolithic entity. The Marathi and Hindi words for a movement or agitation— chalval, khalbali, or andolan—are infinitely more active and sensorially rich than their anodyne English counterpart. It is these kinetic impulses that guide the works assembled here.
Viewers will have different takeaways from the show. If you had to think of one thing, what would you like your audience to see?
Viewers have spent up to three hours on this show. There has been an incredible response, not only from women, but also from men and boys. As the late Kamla Bhasin used to say: “Men of quality are not afraid of equality.”
The one thing I would want viewers to take away from this show is the importance of adjacencies, of forging solidarities across differences. This show pays homage to the pioneer of intersectional feminist politics, Kamla Bhasin, who urged us to see the gender issue alongside the struggles of Dalits, Adivasis, and workers. As her azaadi slogans remind us, we shall wrest our freedom from all forms of oppression, not by playing victims but by “talking freely,singing loudly and dancing madly”.