Right at the heart of Visual Arts Gallery at India Habitat Centre, Delhi, a large circular bed of rose petals on the floor was bordered by innumerable distorted wax female body parts. This was German artist Katharina Kakar commenting on the consequences of crossing moral boundaries in India, and represented women’s vulnerability in public space. Aptly, the piece has been titled Crossing the Lakshmana Rekha. It is based on a story from the Ramayana, where Lakshman draws a line around Sita’s house and asks her not to cross it. When she does, Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravan.
The exhibition catalogue elucidates the 48-year-old artist’s views. She writes, “It was no coincidence that the crossing of the Laskshman Rekha was quoted so often by politicians after the Nirbhaya case.” It is this stereotype that Goa-based Kakar has set to challenge and help “reclaim the public space denied to women, considered to be the domain of men”. Her exhibition “Crossing the Lakshmana Rekha: Shakti, Sensuality, Sexuality”, curated by Alka Pande, questions the role of tradition and women’s sexuality from the female perspective. Of the many examples proving this point out of the 58 drawings and wall installations on display, is Screw You, a set of reddish-purple female wax heads, representing women living life on their own terms. These are those independent voices that have disregarded the cultural expectations of a patriarchal society, and are looked upon with contempt and suspicion.
In Mirror Image, nine “pure” white heads rest above their distorted purple copies, which are covered by condoms, as the artist challenges the idea of the ideal Indian bride. Young women are expected not to “be seen in public with male friends, not to drink, smoke or party hard, and dress in a certain manner, to give the right image of themselves to their neighborhood and environment, and remain good marriage material”. “In my interactions with young women across India, I witnessed a lot of bottled-up anger for not being given the freedom that their brothers had and being forced to repress their sexual curiosity. The cultural idea of a good woman does not allow her any sexual desires without being shamed and disrespected,” she says, “Many of these girls choose not to disclose to their parents about their partners in this fear. Why can’t women be expressive of their desires?”
Kakar’s personal experiences have also served inspiration for her works. “Why is it that whenever I am reading a book in a park, I can’t do it in peace? I have to constantly be on a lookout if male eyes are gazing at me. Many women who visited my show said they were really touched that I talked about these problems that they have faced for so many years,” she adds. Memory of the Future houses 144 pink bronze sculptures of skulls and remembers the bodies of aborted female foetuses. The title of her installation December 16,2012, where a rod lies inserted into a wooden item, takes less time to decipher the case in focus — the Delhi gang rape. “Tremendous violence is committed against women by men who are not able to handle women like us,” she says.