BY | February 26, 2019

You come from a sculptural background and have done collaborations with photographers, filmmakers, writers and theatre directors. Is there a form of collaboration which you feel transports your concepts and ideas the best? How do you choose who you want to collaborate with?

Sometimes I am invited to collaborate, sometimes forced to collaborate and sometimes I invite someone to collaborate with me! My photographic and video work is by nature collaborative, as I work with photographers and a range of people on production. Sculpture of course, historically, has always been collaborative, as you work with a variety of technicians. The interesting thing of working with other people is that their histories and subjectivities come into the work and give it another twist, which I enjoy. It also creates a creative community. Sometimes it is working with technicians. Sometimes the formal collaboration credit is dictated by the nature of the grant or commission that demands I must give a certain credit. Sometimes I am invited by someone like a theatre director – in my case Rustom Bharucha- to design the sets and costumes, and it is a new thing for me. It involves deep discussions with the playwright, director and myself to give shape to the scenes. When I invited Kannada poet Mamta Sagar to collaborate on my first live performance ‘Motherland’ I asked her to respond to my action of knitting, dressed as Mother India. She brought in the lost of history of an early Kannada woman poet who was the first to write nationalist poetry. Our performances ran parallel like a montage, my silent act and her monologue, which brought out the complexity of the relationship between the ideal woman, and the real place of women in the idea of the nation. I would call this collaboration a co-authorship.

In India photography is mostly used in documentary approach with the legacy of Raghu Rai. How does your audience react to your photographs? And who remains your inspiration in Indian photography/fine art scene?

The audience loves and responds to my work though it took a long time for the art scene to take my staged photographs seriously. When I started doing performance photography it was seen as jokey and silly. I was very influenced by the work of Bhupen Khakar both in my sculpture and photography. You can see it in the humour and popular elements I use, all through my work. The funny thing is that he was a great admirer of my sculptures but disapproved of my photographic work! However, I think I have developed my own interests and pre-occupations over the years with a distinct sensibility, which has its base in a strong feminist vision and an interest in history and theory as tools to look at the present.

I am not a photographer myself but see myself as an artist using photography as a medium, which liberates me from photographic conventions. I am very interested in 19th and early 20th century history, photography and film, as I see it as the ‘primitive’ stage of the modern. Someone asked why photography had to be so serious. My work has introduced humour, wit, irony, satire and emotion into photography. It has created an interest in discredited forms like the early histories of staged and studio photography, the painted photograph; forms like portrait photography, photo-novellas, ethnographic and police photography, advertisements - and brought in a conceptual versus a documentary vision into Indian photography. Suddenly you see many photographers here doing self-portraits, performance and staging photographs. When I did my first photo-romance ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’ it shook the photographic world here as the convention of photography in India was the very purist documentary style of the Magnum school most defined by Raghu Rai’s work: ‘realist’, ‘objective’, shot on the spot using only ambient light, capturing the moment. My ‘photo-romances’, planned and shot on locations like films, and studio photographs with painted sets shot with studio lights, sometimes painted on, obviously constructed, and referring to other histories or recreating existing images, broke all these norms of ‘purity’.

In your artwork you always take the role of a feminine character; fictional, historical or mythological figures. Thus you are a very close observer and analyst of the female role in Indian society. How do you feel the role and position of women has changed in Indian societies throughout your lifetime?

In my recent works: ‘The Arrival of Vasco da Gama ‘ and ‘Land’ I play male characters, so I don’t only play female characters. I may play an animal next! My pre-occupation is not only in looking at female roles or identity- my work is not about identity politics at all. I use a feminist vision as a platform to look at the world and intervene in various ways and use women’s narratives to playfully examine history and society. I have also made works in France, for instance, which look at French society through the gaze of a woman ‘ethnographer’.

I think today in India, and elsewhere in the world, there are two kinds of movements going on simultaneously- where women are usurping more and more freedoms, and to counter it, the patriarchy is getting even more violent and resistant. Women and minorities become a soft target for men to vent their class frustrations and vengeance in increasingly unjust societies. As for myself, while I have infinite freedom to do whatever I want, I still feel that in spite of my pioneering work and experience, I am not taken as seriously or respected as much as a male artist of my stature would be. It could also be because my work is seen as provocative and disturbing the status quo!

Note: This interview was held by Tanzim Wahab / Emily Wabitsch and edited by Mary George