On a leisurely Sunday evening, Mohammad Daniyal roams about aimlessly in artist Pakhi Sen’s flat, tucked within the lush Garden Estate, Gurgaon. With his shoulder-length hair, black t-shirt and a pair of loose fitting blue denims, the 22-year-old English honours graduate from Ramjas College wears a rockstar look. Thirty minutes later, his shirt has come off. There is now maroon lipstick on his lips, foundation smeared across his face, golden earrings dangling from his ears. A maang tika and a green dupatta on his head complete the look. Posing against a pink dupatta, he is ready to be photographed as one of history’s well-known Mughal queens, Mumtaz Mahal. He poses like Mumtaz did, in one of her rare portrayals in a Mughal miniature painting — barechested and wearing a long necklace. Part of their latest series of recreating Mughal miniatures and Rajput paintings through photography, this image is one of the many projects started by artist Pakhi Sen along with her childhood friend Samira Bose, a student of Arts and Aesthetics student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
“This entire look does not make me feel like a different person. In fact I felt comfortable, although initially I had thought it would be awkward because anyone who found out about the idea, laughed endlessly at it. I am used to this kind of humour because many people think I am gay, despite being straight as a highway,” says Daniyal with a laugh. He and Sen are friends and this photo-performance project follows their first series in August last year titled ‘Re-printing Amrita Sher-Gil’. It featured photographs of Sen, Bose and their friends, dressed up as the renowned Indo-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil in her self portraits. Friends were invited to dress or pose as Sher-Gil, backdrops were created with the help of bed sheets, dupattas and Banarasi saris, and costumes were handpicked from their grandmothers’, mothers’ and their own wardrobes, and included a 100-year-old wedding dress. Soon enough, the photographs went viral on social media.
Bose can be seen posing as Sher-Gil in one of her self portraits, smiling at the camera while wrapped in a bedsheet, creating the effect of the artist’s off-shoulder dress, complete with bangles and a heavy necklace. Talking about their first protagonist, Sher-Gil, the daughter of a Sikh aristocrat and a Hungarian opera singer born in Budapest, 23-year-old Sen, a graduate in Sociology, says, “We were talking about Frida Kahlo,who is such an important figure in pop culture, and what was it about her that made her so consumable. We then thought about the Indian version of Frida and thought of Amrita Sher-Gil. She was a global mixture and that could be seen in her artistic style too as she was deeply influenced by Pahari and Mughal schools of painting. She was so cosmopolitan even in those days in her sexuality and in her letters and was super rebellious while coming from a privileged family. She had once told her parents that she didn’t like the way they lived and that she was coming back to India.” The series became an instant hit on Instagram. By roping in their friends, the duo hope to make their project depict different skin tones and the different shapes and sizes of women in India. “We don’t want our project be one where people are called to one place and there are hierarchies,” says Bose.
Their second series, ‘If Klimt Could Pop With Photoshop, Would He?’ featured artwork by European symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. They created this in collaboration with jewellery designer Manreet Deol. His famous painting The Kiss, where a couple appears to be embracing each other under a sheet of gold leaf, was duplicated by replacing the male character with a female figure. “We are replacing ideas of gender through our project. Due to patriarchy, artists and photographers who were mostly male, depicted women. We wanted women to photograph each other and just not present it from the vantage point of the male gaze. The reason we chose Danyal to represent Mumtaz was because we want to go beyond the ideas of gender and masculinity, especially for men who don’t look masculine and have to prove their masculinity. It is very toxic. One can be a straight man and dress up like a princess. Even Mughal men dressed up with jewellery and men in Rajasthan continue to have their ears pierced,” says 23-year-old Bose.
Elaborating on their latest series on Mughal and Rajput miniatures, Sen says, “We are going to be more representative and it is an acknowledgement of diversity. We chose Rajput and Mughal paintings because the current climate is communal. We are posing questions about what qualifies as indigenous? Are those Rajput miniatures with Mughal miniature influences?” questions Sen, who considers Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi’s performance photography project as one of her inspirations. Sen and Bose’s upcoming project will have their mothers and other older women don the shoes of pioneering female actors in Bollywood, including Waheeda Rehman, Madhubala and Nargis.