by Sanjana Srinivasan
January 18, 2019
In a series of sixteen paintings from 2018, the Baroda-based artist and influential feminist Rekha Rodwittiya depicts sixteen women with identical, stoic expressions on their faces. Centrally posed against white backgrounds, they seem unusually rigid, as if braced to bear a heavy weight. Rendered in watercolor on digital tracings, they appear with semi-circular baskets placed atop their heads. The baskets are filled with lush, colorful textiles cushioning everyday items: a pair of scissors, two pairs of shoes, loose keys, a pomegranate, a small cat, a small dog, children’s toys, a set of paints with brushes, seashells, a picture frame. Drawn from elements of folk art and traditional miniature painting, Rodwittiya’s works on paper are fertile ground for interpretation. Her figuration demands narrative. Are her women carrying burdens, thoughts, or fetishes?
Organized on occasion of the artist’s birthday, “Rekha@Sixty: Transient Worlds of Belonging,” on view last month at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, included this series alongside more than eighty works on paper and canvas. Everything in the show was made in 2018, yet the transient worlds of the title were also based on a larger pool of images, which the artist has been creating since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Rodwittiya, who was born in Bangalore, first moved to Baroda, a pivotal center in the history of modern art in India. Those images are taken from the artist’s everyday life, but they are at the same time ambiguous, imbued with subtext. Throughout the exhibition, Rodwittiya combined elements of nature—including flowers, fruits, seeds, plants, birds and other animals—with objects of personal significance. The fact that many those objects, from a lamp and a teacup to a sewing machine, could also be read as domestic accoutrements offered the first of many clues to her feminism.
Rodwittiya often employs autobiographical references and personal narratives in her work. The image of the plane that appears in many of her paintings, for example, is meant to represent her father, who was a fighter pilot. In her earlier works from the 1980s and 1990s, the artist uses the female body as a site of inquiry for delving into the collective histories of gender-based inequity and violence. In paintings such as Songs from the Blood of the Weary (Dialogues of Peace) (1995), Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruits (1993), and The Traveler Tells His-Story(1985), Rodwittiya raises concerns for volatile issues including voyeurism, female infanticide, and honor killings by painting larger-than-life women in an agitated, gestural manner. It is as if by magnifying these figures, the artist is amplifying their strength and monumentalizing their existence. Later works, such as those exhibited together in the 2016 show “Rituals of Memory: Personal Folklores and Other Tales,” present similar concerns in more theatrical ways. The women in Rodwittiya’s paintings remain larger-than life and for the most part asexual, but she eschews the role of the victim—her dynamic, expressive strokes become carefully mediated drawings that celebrate and empower “the woman.” The works in “Rekha@Sixty” demonstrate a new departure in terms of format, as many of the pieces are much smaller in size.
Four of the untitled watercolors in “Transient Worlds of Belonging” render human beings inseparable from nature. One of the them resembles an anatomical drawing, seen through a Surrealist lens. The tranquil facial profile of an effeminate figure extends down to its trachea and ribcage. The trachea is painted in washes of dark green and brown, reminiscent of tree bark. A branch extends from between the upper ribs to become a pinkish-white flower and a blood-red custard apple abundant with seeds. The skull is seen teeming with verdurous vegetation and brings to mind the idea of a nourishing, protective space—something like a womb, even. Marking the boundary of the skull, however, is a snakelike, grey-black form that lends the image a sense of menace, bringing to mind the creation myth of Christianity, where a serpent deceives Eve into eating the fruit of a forbidden tree (Rodwittiya was raised a Roman Catholic, though she later rejected the affiliation).
The personal has always been political in Rodwittiya’s oeuvre. She was born into a deeply patriarchal culture. She embraced feminism early on. When she moved to Baroda to study art, the city was saturated with Marxist and socialist ideologies. Rodwittiya identified with them, but she was discontented by their lack of attention to women and gender. It was later on, when she was pursuing a graduate degree at the Royal College of Art in London, that she found the tools to express the identity politics of the time—the distance from India was crucial for her to examine it critically.
In another watercolor done in the style of an anatomical drawing, we see a female figure in full body profile, a child in her womb. Elsewhere, Rodwittiya shows the frontal view of a nude woman with her torso torn open to reveal white fruit and leaves within. The tear extends down her torso, opening out at her vulva. Cut fruit, tongues, scissors, and butterflies spread around different figures in other watercolors like motifs, acquiring their own lives in seemingly infinite spaces. Executed in the intricate details of miniature paintings, they defy clear-cut meanings and evade categorization.
Throughout the exhibition at Sakshi Gallery, viewers were constantly driven back and forth between the abundantly organic yet chillingly decorative, between the seemingly familiar yet strangely unintelligible. In one watercolor, lines from Maya Angelou’s poem “Passing Time”—“Your skin like dawn/Mine like dusk/One paints the beginning of a certain ending/The other the end of a sure beginning”—are drawn on (and above) a polka-dotted tongue with a vase at its center. In the series “Bedtime Stories,” sixty sleeping nudes, all identical but rendered in different sizes, appear above, below, or next to various objects such as a gun, a cow, a lamp, the Buddha, and Hokusai’s wave, outlined in a red suggestive of menstrual blood. Rodwittiya certainly constructs images and crafts metaphors, but she leaves the narratives completely open.
This is due, in part, to her belief that most images elicit readings far beyond their original meanings. By working in a deliberate manner that is rarely theoretical, Rodwittiya attempts to evoke the concept of shakti, the universal feminine energy in Hinduism that is responsible for creation and change. “It is through the ordinary that we best witness the ideals of any ideology,” Rodwittiya told me via email. Drawn from a plethora of sources both individual and collective, Rodwittiya’s images are filled with the possibilities of multiple associations and therefore create a displacement of sorts by deferring the meaning-making process—so much so that they run the risk of becoming codes, acquiring strange, distant lives of their own.
“Rekha@Sixty: Transient Worlds of Belonging,” was on view at Sakshi Gallery, Grants Building, Floor 2, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai, October 31–December 15, 2018.