Indian artist Nalini Malani talks myth, metaphor and women – interview

The Indian artist tells Art Radar about her search for a language that transcends boundaries, and being a woman in a man’s world.

Nalini Malani, one of India’s leading contemporary artists, draws upon literature, mythology and history to create art and characters that have relevance across cultures. In 2013, she became the first woman artist from Asia to receive the Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize in the field of contemporary art.

Nalini Malani, portrait. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

Nalini Malani, portrait. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

Born in 1946 in Karachi, Pakistan, Nalini Malani is one of India’s foremost contemporary feminist artists. An organiser of the first Indian female artists’ show in 1985, Malani uses diverse contemporary media in order to address issues of identity, gender and racial inequality. She draws meaning and inspiration from literature, mythology and her own personal history. By investigating these sources, Malani finds and incorporates characters that become the voice through which she expresses concerns that plague contemporary society.

Although she is a visual artist, the characters she breathes life into are as vivid as the literary tradition that she draws upon. Her recent solo show at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, entitled “Cassandra’s Gift” (19 January – 22 February 2014) was based on Christa Wolf’s re-interpretation of the Cassandra myth and has met with critical acclaim.

Art Radar talked to Nalini Malani about her sources of inspiration, her recent participation in the India Art Fair and how it felt to win the Fukuoka Arts Prize 2013.

A multimedia practice

You have embraced a plethora of media, from drawing and painting to projected animation, shadow play, video and film. What is it about the multiplicity of these media that attracts you?

The medium may change, but the same thought process or idea runs through several types of my artworks. The exigency of the situation often directs me to a certain medium. For example, if I start out with an idea, as I did with Cassandra some years ago: I started out by doing drawings in an artist’s book and then I proceeded to make larger pages for the book, which became the book Listening to the Shades, in collaboration with Robert Storr. And still later, they became paintings and watercolours; from then on into shadow plays, and then finally into the large work that I did for Documenta 13, In Search of Vanished Blood. So it’s the exigency of how the thought has developed. This is actually what brings forth the material. The idea, the concept and the medium dovetail into each other.

Nalini Malani, 'In Search of Vanished Blood', site-specific, single channel video play, sound, duration: 11 min. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

Nalini Malani, ‘In Search of Vanished Blood’, 2012, site-specific, single channel video play, sound, duration: 11 min. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

You started using new media within your practice at a time when other artists were still fiercely faithful to a more traditional aesthetic approach. What prompted you to venture into such an uncharted domain?

In 1969, I had made short films in Bombay. There was the Vision Exchange Workshop started by Akbar Padamsee that provided artists with film equipment for making 16mm films. One of the films I made has been discovered and cleaned up and is showing in the first chapter of my retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi. In this first chapter, I have camera-less photographs and the films from 1969-1970 that I made and that have now been digitised. So since then, I have been interested in film and in thinking through film.

One of the reasons I was making these [films] was because of what was taking place in India. What was developing faster than literacy of the written word was literacy of the moving image. Indians became very sophisticated at reading montage, different types of editing techniques and advertising. In order to attract a larger public into the art domain, I chose to use new media.

The big show that I had was at the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, in 1999 when I made Remembering Toba Tek Singh. I had three large screens surrounding the people completely with large images, and I also had mirroring on the floor – so when you walked in, you were reflected on the floor. It was like exploding cinema. The link language I used was the story of Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto, which children in India and Pakistan know very well. That was the verbal link to the public. But the work was about the effect of the nuclear testing in Pokhran, Rajasthan. I had a lot of archival footage from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki episodes, so that brought home the message regarding the impact of nuclear disaster. That was why I chose this medium and chose to show it in such a public space.

What is it about the reverse painting method that makes it such a recurring technique in your art practice?

In 1988, there were three of us – Bhupen Khakhar, Vivan Sundaram and me – who had the chance to make a mural together. It was Bhupen who came up with the idea of using the reverse glass painting method, since he had just returned from a workshop in Hungary where he had learnt this technique. It was very close to a technique that was brought to South India by the Chinese traders in the 18th century, where they sold postcard size erotic images. The Tanjore painters were very enamoured with the medium and [until today] still practise it. They changed the erotic nature of the imagery into the sacred, which for me was a very interesting change. I wanted to bring back the profanity into the medium. So it was a bit of serendipity when Bhupen told me that he could teach me this technique, I was only more than willing to have him as my tutor.

I liked the medium because I realised I was dyslexic, so working in the reverse works very well. I also, as I said, like to change this idea of the sacred into the profane. In fact, my very first shadow play was called The Sacred and the Profane.

Contemporary myths

Your work incorporates myths in a way that they become an allegory for reality and contemporary social issues. How do you contemporise long-standing myths and characters such as Cassandra to address urban social concerns?

Myths have been brought to us through the wisdom of civilisation, not by one single author. It’s almost as if the flotsam that comes in through the waves picks up things that are like jewels. Then they continue to come in every now and again and then you notice them and say, “well, this has some degree of truth even till today.”

I’m always looking for link languages. For me, communication is of vital importance. If I say to somebody in India the word “Sita”, the person immediately knows what character I may be talking about. So that conduit is important to continue the story.

As any artist would say, they have the prerogative to move the myth into contemporary times, because it was they who first painted the faces of Sita, Radha, Krishna and Rama. So I continue with that idea even until today, when I bring the myth into contemporary times and I make it into a contemporary issue by using the myth as a metaphor.

Nalini Malani, 'Penelope', 2011, video sketch, video installation, duration: 1 min 6 sec. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

Nalini Malani, ‘Penelope’, 2011, video sketch, video installation, duration: 1 min 6 sec. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

What are the commonalities between Indian and Greek mythology, which inspired you to incorporate characters as diverse as Medea, Sita and Cassandra in your work?

Just to go into the history, the army of Alexander stayed behind [in India]. Alexander left and went to Persia, where he apparently married and then later died. In fact, the Bamiyan Buddhas are in the Indo-Hellenic style of sculpture. You can see very good examples of that school in the Mathura Museum.

So Greece wasn’t very far from us, as one would imagine. There is an amalgam of cultures there. And I come from Sindh, which has some of the flow from the Greek army that stayed behind. There are commonalities and a lot has been written about them, especially by the American art critic and philologist Thomas McEvilley who wrote The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. He makes comparisons that are very valid in this area. There have been other scholars as well who have worked on this and have done comparative studies on Greek and Indian myths.

For example, the character of Sahadev from the Mahabharata is similar to Cassandra. He had the gift of prophecy, but he also had a curse. He couldn’t tell it, unless he was asked the right question. So he knew what was going to happen, when was going to be the end of that Great War, but he could not give any instructions of how his own people should progress. He had to be the silent witness and suffer it. The same with Cassandra, she had the gift of prophecy, but she was cursed by Apollo that she would have the gift but nobody would believe her.

To make it into a contemporary issue, what I felt very strongly was that both the Cassandra and Apollo elements exist in us and we do have the gift of prophecy. We all have premonitions and common sense. We know it’s wrong to start nuclear projects since they’re doomed to disaster, and yet we continue. We have the gift of common sense and intuitive knowledge that alerts us, but then Apollo appears to thwart this knowledge. Also, it is important to compare similarities between Medea and Sita – both suffered as their husbands betrayed them.

Female voices

All the female characters you use – Medea, Cassandra, Sita – are characters who are representative of the “suppression of the inner instinctive voice”. Do you hope that the personal stories of these characters could pervade the Indian audience and make an impact?

I’m only an artist, what can I say? This is a quest, my way of researching and trying to find a language. The idea of art is how to extend a person’s thought into other directions, start up a creative process. So as I always say, an artwork locked up in a room is dead. It is only you and I, with the art in front of us, who can awaken the art. While awakening the art, we also awaken something in ourselves.

You were a witness to the India-Pakistan partition in 1947, and this influence has a very deep and rather personal bearing on your art practice. How has this event influenced your work as an artist?

I was less than one when my mother and I came away. My maternal grandfather was keen that we move away quickly before the riots start. He had an idea that things would turn bad, especially for people who were of the landed gentry, because they were being attacked by their own workers. When I think about this, to my mind this was more to do with a spontaneous revolt by the dispossessed rather than communalism.

I have no direct experience of Partition. It’s more the atmosphere that my mother and my grandparents lived with, the sense of loss – loss of culture and community, loss of language, loss of food. So all this was very much the ambience I was brought up in, because they did not feel that they were a part of this section of the country. My parents moved to Calcutta, so Bengali should have been a language that they would have picked up. But again, it was quite an alien culture for them.

When I wanted to do art later, my father thought I was totally crazy. At this time, drawing and painting was not part of the university curriculum. It was under the Directorate of Technical Education, just like being an electrician or plumber. His very practical advice was, “get yourself a good university degree and it will take you everywhere.” He said what helped him get back on his feet was what he brought between his ears – a good degree in Law.

Nalini Malani, 'Connections: Memory Record/Erase', 2013, reverse painted acrylic, ink and enamel on acrylic sheet on specially printed Hahnemuhle bamboo paper, 60 x 30 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

Nalini Malani, ‘Connections: Memory Record/Erase’, 2013, reverse painted acrylic, ink and enamel on acrylic sheet on specially printed Hahnemuhle bamboo paper, 60 x 30 in. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

A universal contribution

In In Search of Vanished Blood – a single channel projection showing at the Vadehra Art Gallery – the theme of violence against women has acquired a standing, which surpasses nationalised boundaries of geography and becomes universal. How do you feel the universalisation of this theme affects the female voice?

Well, there are several questions here. The map upon which the video is projected was found in Kochi, when I was invited to show at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. I found this small conference room, which was intact, unlike the rest that was in ruins. I was very happy, because it provided me with this map upon which I projected. The map had the United States at its centre. Now, this is unusual, because normally it is Greenwich. The crisis that we face today and the economic situation from 2007 to 2008 which was the crash of liberal capitalism, stemmed from the United States and spread through Europe and now Asia.

In harsh economic times, women have to bear the brunt. In certain countries, Thatcherism comes in and day care is stopped for women, so that they can be out of jobs and stay at home. This has a huge negative effect. There is discrimination against women and it’s been there for hundreds of years. We live in the age of masculinity. It’s about time that female thoughts and instincts should be taken into account; otherwise we will run into a real mess.

So in that sense, you are right. It is a desire, it is a wish; I hope people get more alerted to it – not only women, but also men. The day these concerns about childcare are the concerns of men, I would say we have achieved something.

Considering how your work operates on a transnational level, is there a difference in the way your work is received across different countries?

It depends on who the public is. In India, the art going public is most clued in to the subject, because they are Indian subjects or subjects that start from the subcontinent and then they take on larger meanings in the world. So in some sense, the cultural specificity is easier to clue into by a South Asian. Whereas in parts of the West, especially in parts of America, sometimes the specificity is not very clear, but the atmosphere is communicated very clearly. In fact, I have had people come out of my space in Documenta in tears.

Your contribution to the field of arts, which highlights multi-layered issues of the contemporary world while adopting a uniquely Indian point of view, earned you the Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize in 2013. Do you feel this is a fair assessment of your work and how did it feel to be recognised in this way?

Well, what is very heartening is that it’s an Asian prize and I am also the first woman artist from Asia to have received this prize in the contemporary arts field. As the first Asian woman artist [recipient], I am very happy. It’s like receiving the prize on behalf of my co-genders, the other women artists from Asia. There is a lot happening in Asia, a huge amount of fantastic work taking place here, which doesn’t get showcased. Somehow or the other, women artists don’t talk too much about what they are doing.

Nalini Malani, 'The Tables have Turned', 2008, shadow play with 32 metal turntables, 32 Mylar reverse paintings and four lamps, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

Nalini Malani, ‘The Tables have Turned’, 2008, shadow play with 32 metal turntables, 32 Mylar reverse paintings and four lamps, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Vadehra Art Gallery.

A ‘female’ future

Your recent appearances at the India Art Fair and your two major exhibitions in Delhi have been received very well. You are recognised as one of the most acclaimed feminist artists who incorporate social activism within her art practice. How do you envisage the future of women artists within the Indian subcontinent in bringing about social change?

Well, I think this change has already taken place in the last decade and a half. If you look to the younger artists like Shilpa Gupta, Reena Saini Kallat, Dayanita Singh, Ketaki Sheth, there’s a lot they have done. The kind of work that is going on is quite amazing.

But you know, the artists are doing great work and they are getting good recognition from the audience overseas. Sadly, the state doesn’t recognise it in India. Some of my younger colleagues should be having mid-career retrospectives and we should have the chance to look at a fair body of their work.

I have had two major museum retrospectives overseas, and because of the KNMA and its dynamism it has been possible to finally show a large body of my work in India.

The public should be given a chance, I mean, how many people walk into an art gallery? It is a daunting space for the woman or man on the street. Whereas the Museum is a much more accessible space.

Could you tell us a bit about the future projects that you have lined up?

Last year in September, I opened two museum shows and one gallery show in three different countries – Belgium, Fukuoka in Japan and the Galerie Lelong in New York. After that I was flat out. Then I was plunged into Delhi, where I had three big presentations: a museum show, a solo at Vadehra Art Gallery and the full booth at Galerie Lelong at the Art Fair.

So now I’m going into a bit of hibernation. I want to take my books and my drawing materials and start working on a pet subject that I have been wanting to do for a long time. It’s really quite an adventure, because I am not a scholar. I have to take the help of other scholars who have worked in this particular field that I want to venture into.

Today, we have this wonderful music tradition in India which is made by women. In North India there is thumri, dadra and kajri. All these forms of women’s music have come to us because of a courtesan culture that has existed. This had a status that was very important prior to the British coming to India. The British turned these people into prostitutes and their homes into brothels. But before this, the courtesan was the only woman who had the liberty and freedom to indulge in culture and create culture. The householder was behind a curtain in purdah. So it was not thought to be correct in their upper or upper middle class milieu to do any of these things. We have this wonderful tradition of music and dance. We need to be eternally grateful for the culture of the courtesan. I’m trying to make a fictional character who will come through those ages and speak to us. It’s quite an ambitious project and it needs a lot of study.

Will she be as central to your work as Cassandra is?

Oh, yes. Absolutely central.

When can we expect to see this work up and running?

When I make art, I don’t give myself deadlines. I don’t enjoy it if I do, because I don’t learn from what I have made. I have to look at it again and again to see what it is that I finally made and what I learnt from it. So I’m going to give myself two years before it comes out as a full-fledged, fully immersive work.

Ambika Rajgopal


Related Topics: Indian artists, interviews, feminist art, mythical figures in art

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