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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 13, Dated April 5, 2008

The Lady and the Vamp

Pushpamala N is among the most compelling artists in India today. LAKSHMI INDRASIMHAN speaks to her on the eve of her new exhibition

PUSHPAMALA N. has been known to give fake interviews. They appear in the catalogues that accompany her exhibitions. Sometimes they’re taken seriously by hapless reporters. “It’s something I started doing so I could address certain gaps,” she says laughing. “So I created Rajyalakshmi, Chief Reporter of Ideal Times, this nerdy journalist who asks me stupid questions aggressively. I wanted to answer certain questions my own way — with humour. I like that irritable tone. You can’t have it in an essay.”

A performance artist who started out as a sculptor, Pushpamala, won a National Award for her student work at MS University, Baroda. Her lifesize figurative sculptures, usually in terracotta or papier mache, came at a time when sculpture had been mostly abstract. She (along with Atul Dodiya and NN Rimzon) participated in the seminal ‘Seven Young Sculptors’ show curated by Vivan Sundaram in 1985. Much of that work is now at the NGMA and at the Lalit Kala Akademi.

Despite her accomplishments as a sculptor, these are not the works that have made Pushpamala one of the most recognisable names in contemporary Indian art. Her photographic work, in the form of what she calls “photo-romances” references images from popular art, cinema and high art, and uses her own masquerading image to tell a variety of stories. She has appeared in the guise of a swashbuckling vamp, a 60s heroine in a bouffant, a Toda woman being studied by a colonial anthropologist, and the goddess Lakshmi. She is both lead actress and director in a series of wildly elaborate tableaux. Her current show, at Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi, is centred around Paris Autumn, her 35 minute film made of still photographs — shot during a residency in Paris in 2005 — and which uses no dialogue, only text and sound.

Pushpamala says the painter Bhupen Khakkar, a good friend from her Baroda days, inspired her towards this kind of photographic performance. A series of exaggerated self-portraits were part of a catalogue he made years ago. “I really liked them and no one really followed up. But he thought all my photographic stuff was rubbish. He liked my sculpture better.” Another legacy was that of her mother N. Vanamala, an actress, who regularly dressed up in various costumes. “Though photography lends itself to authenticity production — it’s supposed to be realistic and objective — this is simply not Pushpa’s interest,” says cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha. “She totally debunks authenticity.”

She is also one of the few artists to adopt the language of classical, rather than experimental photography for her work. There is a highly staged quality to Pushpamala’s work, locked as she is within a fixed frame. “My sculptures were also very theatrical, very posed,” she says. Her photographs in turn have a sculptural quality — the three dimensionality and the intense shaping with light and shadow. Her work, with its keen attention to detail and material, and their beautiful formal qualities, find inspiration in popular visual imagery, but also in literature, politics, history and cultural studies.

Paris Autumn is no different. The proposal was to make a work that engaged with French history and culture and to feature herself in it. While in Paris, Pushapamala discovered that the flat she lived in had once been the home of Gabrielle d’Estree, the murdered mistress of King Henry IV. The ghost haunting her in her film is fiction but a lot of the film is real, full of cell phones, computers, bar scenes. “I like it that people get confused with my work. What is real, what is fiction. What is past, what is present.”

Included in the show is a beautiful recreation of a 16th century painting by Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller. Reflected in a mirror, alone in a room, it brings to mind the various facets of the alter-ego, the double, the original and the fake, that Pushpamala consistently examines in her work. A friend had once challenged Pushpamala to play herself in her next project, and here she takes up that challenge. The film is also about investigating the past. It turned out that Gabrielle was an important figure in the bloody Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants. “It reminded me of things in India. Then the riots in the Paris suburbs happened. I couldn’t really use it as part of the story, so the film bebecame more like a diary of my time in Paris.” Paris, with its gas-lit streets and imposing stone facades is not just the backdrop, but shapes the very mood of the film. Cities have long been a continuing theme in Pushpamala’s work.

Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar was the site of her 2002 series Darde- dil, and three projects were set in Mumbai (including Phantom Lady, her first work). A sculpture show called Excavations was based on the Mumbai riots. The riots, in fact, proved a watershed event for a whole generation of artists like Rumana Hussain, Navjot Altaf and Pushpamala. “Women especially felt attacked and there was a lot of consciously feminist work being done,” Pushpamala says. Many also began moving towards more multidisciplinary work. “Things started falling apart, and we needed a more fragmented way of looking at things, not just through painting or sculpture,” she says.

Since then Pushpamala hasn’t really worked in sculpture, but her work has always been inspired by images of women, women’s narratives, women’s materials. Her last film, Rashtriy Kheer and Desiy Salad, was about using material from her mother’s and mother-inlaw’s recipe books. Her work connects to most feminist performance work, whether it’s live or on video. “My works always have people in it, it’s very social and political. I’m dealing with the nation, social
narrators — it’s not so psychological.” Her photoromances are very intimate, while a series like Native Women of South India is mechanised and theoretical. Unlike
the American artist Cindy Sherman who sees herself disappearing in her thousands of “self portraits”, Pushpamala, despite the mimetic quality of her work, sees her personality emerge in each photo, almost despite the makeup and artifice.

Though she works primarily in the medium of photography, Pushpamala is not a photographer. “I had just lost my camera when I started these photo projects. Somehow I never bought a new one”. Instead she works with a range of collaborators: friends, admirers, commercial photographers — “everyone who creates popular visual culture in Bangalore”. From hoarding painters, to autorickshaw decorators, to lighting guys and tentwallahs. Clare Arni, who collaborated with her on Native Women says, “It’s always great fun working on these projects. While I was photographing Pushpa as Goddess Lakshmi, I said, I want to be Lakshmi too! Luckily Pushpa had two sets of crowns and saris.” Despite the effortless panache of her images, the process of creating them takes months, even years, with attention paid to the smallest detail. Pushpamala is always very hands-on.

In part of Native Women (2000-4), she dresses as a Toda woman. “I didn’t have a Toda shawl, so I just embroidered a crude version of the original on a plain shawl,” said Pushpamala. Shooting can be just as difficult, as she found with Phantom Lady, which she worked on with actor Vinay Pathak, among others. “I was scared about going on the streets in that crazy get-up. All my so-called outdoor shots, were done in people’s driveways at four o’clock in the night!” Many people assume that Fearless Nadia was her inspiration for Phantom Lady. “But it’s nothing like Nadia’s films which are action, B-grade. Phantom Lady is sophisticated, noir — a different language.”

Pushpamala’s work suggests a memory as false as her interviews. People feel like they know the image, but they don’t. “It’s not nostalgic, it’s memory which is not your memory. Perhaps a collective memory. That’s why people respond to my work so strongly.” “I remember a very old woman came to the Phantom Lady show. She stared for hours, and afterwards she wanted the strapless vamp’s dress I had on display. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She wanted the shoes, everything. She wanted to be the vamp!”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 13, Dated April 5, 2008

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