She is known to recreate popular artworks across eras and continents, give them a feminist spin and add dollops of humour to make her quirky interpretations accessible to people. It is this nature of her work — deconstructing popular art, concepts and ideas and present them in a completely different light — that has earned her the title of being ‘the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art’.
From a sculptor to a photo and video performance artist, writer and curator, Pushpamala N’s artistic journey has been multifaceted. We caught up with her when she was in the city.
“In art, there are lots of things happening simultaneously. And that’s what you have to take note of,” she says, referring to her artwork, which reflects her insatiable appetite for film, theatre, literature, history and popular art. Right from giving an unconventional creative twist to Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings to posing as Fearless Nadia, Pushpamala’s work has been a mix of artistic mediums with historical and socio-political references.
The sexagenarian credits her wide-ranging interests, particularly her interest in the idea of stories, for motivating her to make a shift from sculpting to visual art.
“I am trained as a sculptor. But, after working as a sculptor for about 10 years — till the mid ’90s — I felt as though I was working myself in a corner. It had become very static. I was finding sculpture to be immobile and bulky to express my ideas and interests,” she says. Hence, when one of the art galleries in Mumbai asked artists to contribute a work on film to commemorate the anniversary of cinema in 1996, Pushpamala gave way to “a crazy idea”.
“I always liked the character of Fearless Nadia. So just for fun, I dressed up as Fearless Nadia and asked a photographer friend to click my pictures. When I saw the contact prints of the shoot, I found it so interesting that I thought of developing it into a body of work. I gave the pictures the popular Hindi film narrative of the lost and found twins from the ’80s, where one is a good twin and the other is a vamp. There was no text. We shot this narrative through photographs in different locations in Mumbai and called it ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’. I used the style of film noir to create stock scenes and found the process very interesting,” she recounts. The photographic narrative was a ‘photo romance’, a form of photography invented for the working class women in Italy in the 1930s.
“Photo romance was very popular with women and used to mainly appear in women’s magazines. It revolved around the typical love story of a poor girl falling in love with a rich guy. The pictures were usually accompanied by text,” the artist, who uses numerous references from the history of photography in her works, informs.
“Whether it’s photography, sculpture or painting, for me, it’s a medium and you have to know about it. So even though I don’t take photographs, I have my own strong ideas about it. I know the history of photography, I read, research and use a lot of that knowledge in my works,” Pushpamala tells us, adding, “What also happened is post ’50s, photography became very purist. So there were only black and white pictures shot in ambient light and one couldn’t do anything on the pictures. A photograph was only a documentation of fact. But from the beginning of the history of photography, pictures have been used for so many different purposes — medical photography, ethnographic photography used for anthropology, police photography, studio photography — and that’s what I am interested in. My work has brought the different genres to the forefront and now, many people have started using these references.”
Pushpamala’s photographs have been described as performance photography, in which she herself is the performer. Being the subject of her own art highlights her feminist interest in performance. “My work has been very feminist. I use a lot of women’s narratives and representation in my work. And this whole trend of being a subject of your work started as a part of the feminist movement in the ’60s, where women started performing and becoming the subjects of their works as opposed to merely being the object of the male gaze. I find this whole idea of putting yourself right inside the picture and being the subject of your art very interesting. Also, I like performing, although I am a terrible actor,” she confesses.
Currently, Pushpamala is working on her project called the ‘Mother India project’. “I have been working on it since years. And although I have been showing glimpses of it along the way, I plan to have a big show in January next year,” she signs off.