Less than a month before the Chennai Photo Biennale opens on February 22, its artistic director Pushpamala N is both preoccupied and excited. “When photography went digital, people said photography is dead but it is proliferating in so many different ways,” says the Bengaluru-based artist. A reflection of her own oeuvre, she has chosen not to have a single overarching theme for the Biennale in its second edition. The title “Fauna of Mirrors” is an old Chinese myth that proposes an alternate universe and Pushpamala says she “will argue around the myth to see the practice of photography as a mirror reflection of modern life, creating a parallel world of images — familiar yet strange, perhaps friendly and intimate, sometimes mysterious and hostile — but always magical.”
It is, perhaps, this fantastical world that the artist had set out to discover when she began experimenting with photo performances in the late 1990s, when the genre was relatively undiscovered in India. The series ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’ (1996-98), inspired by actor Nadia’s role in the 1935 film Hunterwali, was shot in film-noir style, with Pushpamala masked and caped, rescuing an orphaned schoolgirl. “I was very interested in 19th and early 20th century history and photography, including the painted photographs, portrait photography. I wasn’t part of the world that was associated with photojournalism and documentary photography. I had not studied photography, but using it as a medium liberated me from a lot of conventions. My photography is conceptual — I use humour, emotion, narrative,” says Pushpamala, 63.
Though it took a while for the audience and the art community to warm up to her vision, gallery Nature Morte in Delhi mentions her as “the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art”. Known for questioning existing perspectives, her ongoing exhibition titled “The Body Politic” at the gallery also elicits socio-political inquiries. Through works that span her career, she offers a “critical investigation into the images of itself on which the nation-state becomes fixated”. In one photograph, Pushpamala is Bharat Mata, as envisioned by Abanindranath Tagore in his 1905 watercolour, wearing a saffron-coloured robe, and her four arms clutching the Vedas, sheaves of rice, a rosary, and a piece of white cloth. She is also Kali, with her red tongue sticking out and one foot on Shiva’s chest, whom she has just defeated. “The idea of the nation-state is quite modern. I feel a lot of things come with the idea — uniformity, single systems, power, control. We need to look at them critically. The personal is political, and I am seeing the body also as the political body and connecting it to the nation-state,” says the artist, whose works are in the collection of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Royal Ontario Museum, Canada.
Her radical thought process and willingness to go against the tide was shaped by the early influences. Those included the exposure she had had while pursuing her Bachelor’s in Arts from Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru. “The 1970s was a time of great creative and political ferment. We would discuss New Wave cinema and New theatre, read Germaine Greer and Kate Millett. Intellectual TG Vaidyanathan had a group that I was part of and we would have numerous discussions,” says Pushpamala. This is also when she joined artist and researcher Balan Nambiar’s evening classes in art. At his behest, she joined the prestigious MS University (MSU) in Baroda, where she came in contact with teachers such as Raghav Kaneria, Gulammohammed Sheikh and KG Subramanyan. A student of sculpture, she initially “found the department conservative” but soon began to find different materials to create new forms with. Early experiments with terracotta won her acclaim, including a National Award in 1984 and a gold medal at the VI Triennale. In the 1994 exhibition “Excavations” at Chemould Art Gallery, Mumbai, she experimented with burnt wooden sandals and cast paper.
Even when she decided to pursue photography, she chose to experiment with “materiality”, opting for photo romances, videos and performance photographs. “Everyone thought it was a joke and did not take me seriously for a long time. They thought I was being trendy but I created the trend,” says Pushpamala. Recognition came with the 2004 project “Native Women of South India”, where she collaborated with British photographer Claire Arni to design photographic tableaux and produce images that recaptured existing ethnographic and popular images of women, contesting prevalent stereotypes. Pushpamala was once again in the frames — as a mythical yogini from a 16th century Bijapur miniature painting, Raja Ravi Varma’s Lakshmi, and a Toda woman, among others. “By recreating these photographs, we were exploring the history of photography as a tool for ethnographic documentation,” says Pushpamala. In the series ‘Avega — The Passion’ (2012), she explored the characters of Sita, Kaikeyi and Surpanakha from Ramayana, and The Arrival of Vasco da Gama (2014) was based on an 1898 oil painting by Jose Veloso Salgado, that saw Pushpamala play her first male role as the navigator, with artist friends in the tableau.
In the ongoing exhibition, Pushpamala positions herself as an ethnographer. She shares photographs from a research trip to Bengal, where she and her batchmates from MSU interacted with folk artists. Eye patches are used to protect the identity of the people. “When I looked at these photographs after years, they came across as very disturbing — we were young art students standing next to these artists who were desperately poor,” says Pushpamala. On view at the gallery are also a set of sculptures titled “Transcripts” that see her turn to epigraphy, inspired by ancient copper plates at the archaeological museum in Bengaluru. “These are etching plates that I use as sculptures. Writing and drawing on each of them was time-consuming, but, in the process, I came across so many ancient forgotten scripts,” she says.
Back in her studio, several more plates are in wraps. It will be a while before she can write on them. Right now, she is shuttling between the various venues of the Biennale spread across Chennai. “It will not be a usual photo exhibition,” she says.