A story in which the goings on in the narrative present are haunted by memories of the past, of childhood and innocence, the stuff of nostalgic black and white flashbacks in films about decline and decay, hinting at more than the photographs can show: the sudden appearance of a stranger, his adventures in faraway lands, his identity - neighbour? Childhood sweetheart? Relative from across the border? -, the memories he shares with the protagonist, her sister’s own secret desires, the mother’s despotism and the impending revolt. More words, in the form of fragments of a ghazal, translated, and appended to each photograph, constituting one more discursive layer that we might encounter before or after we see the photograph. And then the photographs themselves, with their dual systems of layering: on the one hand, we have black and white photographs that have been painted over by hand. In this way they not only embody the intervention of a quasi-traditional mode of artistry into a field of images that is supposed to have displaced it, rendered it obsolete; they also acquire the quality of film stills from colourized black and white films, where nostalgic fantasies triumph over and appropriate the ruins of the past, giving them new life, even if it is only through the artificial respiration of colour. Another system of layering inhabits the photographs themselves by way of the framing, distancing and point of view devices that are integral to their signification. There are high angle shots, shots in which distance is signaled by intervening parapets and staircases, as well as an accumulation of frames: not only doorways, stairways and arches, but also, magically, in one picture, a frame that frames otherwise, not by outlining a space within which the characters appear, but by appearing as itself, a pure frame: in the form of a blank (painted white) television screen! What is this if not a starring role for the frame itself? It is the only picture in the set where the camera is positioned in intimate proximity to the characters, leaving the figure of one of them partially out of the physical frame of the photograph. And yet its organization is such that the frame in the depth of the picture occupies our attention, as that of the characters in it. Materially speaking, the whole is composed of three media in the sense in which artists use that term: literature, painting and photography. But in fact these are only some of the mediations that are mobilized by the artist in her works, which are concerned with themes of loss and recovery, memory and forgetting, fantasy, desire, the space and place of art in the community, the question of community itself.
What I have been describing is the set of ten photographs entitled Dard-e-Dil (The Anguished Heart, 2002) which have been brought out as a book of postcards ( another framing device that adds to the multiple layers discussed above). For me, a relative stranger to the world of modern art, the encounter with this and other works of Pushpamala has been a strange experience. Here it was at first difficult to tell whether art had finally become more familiar, recognizable, redolent with the excessive passions, the melodrama and pathos, the thrills and suspense of the popular cinema (and if so, what might be the gain thereof); or whether these familiar things had now become strange and distant, acquiring new meanings and revealing hidden dimensions by virtue of their incorporation into the field of art, their framing in the space of art. But this seemed, in the final analysis, a fruitless, if not a false way for thought to approach this work. For art itself is not at its most self-assured here, appearing, if anything to be bedeviled by a crisis on several fronts: its materials, its modes, its place in the world. For me the significance of Pushpamala’s work lies here, in the reflection it provokes on the destiny of art, the artist’s place in the world. It is an art that not only points to a void at the heart of the art institution, but also poses questions about the place of the object, the relation between woman as object and creative subject, the hysteric’s impulse to move and mobilize the gaze as the fetishism that employs woman to stop the gap, fill the void.
Recollections of a Modern Past
All of Pushpamala’s photographic works are set in the past. Here we must understand the words “set in the past” not as suggesting merely a narrative time that belongs to the past, a period reconstruction. There is that, of course in such works as Sunhere Sapne (Golden Dreams 1998) or Dard-e-Dil, but the past is present here not only as a signified of the narrative but as an assembly of signifiers: the past of genres, photographic ad cinematic, the past of techniques and technologies, of costumes and hairstyles, all drawn from the stock of public memory, instantly recognizable even if usually forgotten, buried under the rush of new images. Genre and gesture are the two principle “media” in which recollection occurs in our encounter with Pushpamala’s work. Thus the video fragment Indian Lady (1997) in which the artist enters a stage with a painted backdrop of a modern cityscape, dressed in a red sari and cavorting in filmi fashion, recalls the Hindi movies of the sixties, sometimes set in exotic foreign locations (Sangam, 1964, for example, where Vyjayantimala romanced the spectator in the company of Raj Kapoor). The trio of portraits of Hindu, Muslim and Christian women again stir memory primarily by signaling the genre of the studio portrait: other pictures in Bombay Photo Studio and The Navarasa Suite (2000-2003) similarly refer to the genre of publicity stills for films. In Sunhere Sapne and Dard-e-Dil, it is the practice of hand painting photographs that, at the outermost surface of the work, is already a signifier of pastness. The titles of these works themselves index past narrative genres, as does the reference to the Phantom Lady, which to knowledgeable film goers triggers recollections of Nadia, the “Hunterwali” from the pre-Independence stunt pictures of Wadia Movietone and to some at least, the less well-known revenge fantasies of south Indian cinema of the 1970s, in which starlets formerly specializing in “club dances” turned into gun-toting masked heroines dressed in cowboy costumes.
Thus it is the collective memory of a modern nation’s urban citizenry, a memory embodied in images, that the artist evokes through her work. We do not get images of the past alone, but the images we might have seen in the past, or might associate with the past, a memory bank that subsists in the external world as remnant fragments of those images, but also as traces buried in the recesses of the mind. One could object that not all those images need belong to the pastthatsuchscenarios may well be imagined in the present. But that is in a way, to miss the point altogether, because it is in the recollection forced by the artist’s works that these images are rendered past, relegated to memory. It is only when we re-find those fragments that we realize that we have lost them irretrievably, that the world has changed. They are the ruins of a lost time of fullness, but we only experience it as a fullness now, at the moment of recognition of their loss. The gestic and significatory repertoire of an age gone by, which that age itself employed unconsciously, now stand out as its most memorable elements. Consider this picture “Sringara” from The Navarasa Suite. Here it is not only the signifiers of the genre of star publicity shots or film stills that convey to us the coming to presence of a past time. It is impossible to separate such effects from the dreamy look, the sadness, the gaze that seems to be directed to some faraway place, the hand placed above the head: all indexing a gestic medium which can no longer be found around us. Another such picture is the party scene from Sunhere Sapne, where a couple dance in the foreground surrounded by decorated pillars, while other people sitting behind them seem not to be paying attention. Here the dance form, the suggestion - reinforced by the frontal orientation of the dancers- that this could well be a studio rehearsal for a film song and dance sequence, (or a restaurant with a dance floor), the clothes and the colourized look of the whole are inseparable. It is a picture that at once conveys the sense of a singular instance in historical time captured by the camera (the indifferent people in the background absorbed in their own thoughts and deeds contribute most strongly to this effect), as well as a figuration of an instantly placeable gest that stands for the past age itself instead of being an element in it. Many other images from the same set, and others, have this quality of being restagings of the gest of other generations, other times. An immeasurable gap of silence constitutes the most elusive frame of all, separating us from and at the same instant recalling for us a lost object: not this or that picture in itself but something for which each of these pictures is a stand-in.
We should go further: what is thereby rendered is not any particular lost object but the possibility and actuality of loss itself as an experience, one that the cultural discourse of modern India has rarely shown the courage to acknowledge. It is necessary to take a detour through the history of this disavowal in order to appreciate the radical implications of Pushpamala’s work. The discourse of Indian culture is replete with the jargon of being and belonging, and within it art is assigned an expressive function tied to this phantasmic essence, figured as besieged by a modernity that threatens to banish it into oblivion. In such a conception, time has only one axis of articulation: there is a past rudely interrupted which awaits the restoration of its line of continuity, and the present, which is an interregnum of alienation. In this scenario, modernity has no temporal depth, no ruptures or transitions internal to its time. It is posed as eternally in conflict with its other - tradition- in a space bracketed out of time. This mode of conceiving the cultural domain has resisted all appeals to the evidence of far- reaching transformations in the social, cultural domains of cultural life and remains the key ideologeme of Indian cultural discourse. Such a stubborn disavowal of the contemporary is of course easily explained by reference to the difficult historic struggle for cultural survival after the devastating impact of colonial rule. But today we can and must pose against this nationalist imperative the necessity of not only coming to terms with, but also of embracing without reserve, the actuality of loss, rupture, ungrounding. It is only through such a gesture of recognizing that the only position of enunciation available to us is located in the modern that we can emerge from the stalemate of the politics of being. The nationalist discourse has glossed the freedom won by our ancestors as the freedom to go back to being what one always was (itself a fantasy construction), thus inaugurating the politics of being. If modernity continues to appear to us as an external imposition, it is only because we have not rallied to its cause, letting it instead only befall us. Against this constricting definition of freedom which imprisons us once again, we should strive to reopen the closed pathways to alienation, to the freedom of becoming.
In Pushpamala’s work, modernity appears in a strikingly new guise: it is an aspect of our past. It belongs to a specific , still dimly remembered time, a passing or already past, time when “modern” was the key signifier of fantasy. Modern no longer has the same momentous meaning for us today, as it did in that other time, when it figured in the national cultural imaginary (although our official cultural discourse remained blind to it) as the aegis of every stirring of the soul. It is in this light that the artist’s insistent recourse to the image genres of popular culture acquires its significance.
It was India’s high culture that remained devoted to the myth of a besieged tradition, all the while gratuitously ascribing the pains of such capture to someone else, to the people that it pretended were the real repositories of tradition. Pushpamala’s work forces us to recognize and acknowledge the modernity that we collectively disavowed even as it unfolded before our eyes. Suddenly, looking at the golden dreams of a hysteric, the thrilling masquerade of a phantom hunting the metropolis, the intrigues of unrequited love in a decaying household, the mixture of desire and symbolic inscription conveyed by the studio portraits from the Triptych, we realize that modernity itself is a possible lost object. In any case what we encounter here are not only images of the past, but of the passing of time itself. No longer does the passing of time exclusively signify the passing of tradition alone.
Narrative and the ruins of imagined community
Phantom Lady or Kismet (1996-98) the first of the series of photographic works, tells a story. Dard-e-Dil not only tells a story, but the story, more elaborate than the pictures taken together can illustrate, is provided as a supplement to the viewing. Sunhere Sapne too can be organized as pieces of an unfolding narrative. The rest of the works are organized according to other principles. Thus The Navarasa Suite brings together images drawn from popular visual culture organized as illustrations of the rasas of Sanskrit dramaturgy. I remain ambivalent towards this last instance, where the significance of the classical reference remains obscure to me.Iwilltherefore confine myself to some reflections on the role of the narrative in these works.
In Phantom Lady the cinematic reference is unmistakable, not only in the generic features of the stills, but also the narrative which refers us immediately back to the stunt movies mentioned above. None of these works treats the images as mere illustrations of a readymade narrative. Even the story provided with Dard-e-Dil leaves many of the details unspecified or offers multiple possibilities. The idea seems to be to offer the bare skeleton of a plot and let the viewers fill in the details in fidelity to their own fantasies. I wonder if this kind of participatory, rather than contemplative, viewing is something many people indulged in. In any case, I find myself in front of these images not reconstructing a story, with or without my own fantasy investment, but witnessing the ruins of a fantasy, all the more alluring in being mere ruins, referring obliquely to a lost narrative. It is true that the artist is there in the picture, impersonating a figure of the past. True that these are not found ruins of the past, but fragmentary reconstructions, restagings that that seek to resurrect a fossilized memory. It would be easy enough to put together a story to link all these images, but that seems to be somehow a banal exercise. I want to leave them as they are, art works referencing a time full of meaning, real or imagined, a time when some story was performed and seen, when a community came together temporarily around a performance. It seems impossible that these pictures could stir nostalgia in the viewer without at the same time reminding her of the impossibility of occupying the position of the original spectator, which is at the heart of nostalgic fantasy.
Moreover, there is an excess of signification- or should we say an excess after signification? - in these stills, that wrenches them out of any imaginable narrative flow, giving them each an autonomy, a residual quality, a stillness and intractability proper to ruins. The heavy, shimmering presence of the night-time city drenched in rain and lit by street lamps, the homeless sleeping through the excitement, is the most palpable of the resistances that the photographs offer to any quick narratavizing gesture. But the picture that leaps out of the series and gestures to another historical time, is the one showing the protagonist, the morning after the nightly adventures, sitting on an angular bench on a railway platform, still in her costume, her feet surrounded by puddles of rain water, and in the background a bewildering web of railway tracks, electric poles, signals, bridges, wires and buildings. It’s the end of the line for her, I cannot help thinking, and already the cityscape has turned her into a picturesque reminder of a happy dream, someone who might go on returning to that seat for the rest of her life, her story buried within herself, while the living world whirls past her, avoiding her fading figure.
Woman, artist; object, subject
Coming back to the question of woman, we must take into account the most unique circumstance that these art works evidence: the artist herself is physically present as the common element in all the pictures, in addition to being the creative intelligence behind it: object and subject. In these works we also recognize the encyclopedic desire to restage every possible image as woman that might have been produced in the age of Indian modernity. The images, wrenched out of the symbolic systems that they might have inhabited - wedding albums, films, publicity shots, studio archives -are re-presented to us as a sort of “the many faces of woman”, the many disguises of the feminine as seen in a modern age. Woman as image is centrally at issue here, along with the question of who she is, behind all these images. Torn out of pre-modern symbolic systems where she had her place and function, woman becomes fragmented, scattered over a thousand images. It seems to be a question of finding her place in the new world, a question of her being. Is this also the artist’s question? Is there here a personal exploration of the meaning of femininity in the modern world?
Impersonation, which is the name one might give to the artist’s activity in making these images, refers us to the masquerade of femininity. Psychoanalysts have pointed out that femininity - a social meaning, not a biological endowment - is only ever a masquerade that the hysteric puts on, in an effort to gain some space, behind the mask, for subjective freedom. Thus, in inhabiting a series of roles, all of them drawn from the time-space of modernity, the artist reminds us of the instability of modern subjectivity. The most important thing to keep in mind here that in these remarkable restagings of a wide range of fantasy roles, there is not a single one of which we might say with assurance: “ this is a representation of something in reality”, whether past or present. All of them are restagings of fantasy. This dimension of fantasy has two reinforcements : one, the fact that they are representations of representations, bearing multiple layers of discursive , imaginary and technical investment, bearing witness to the desires, the erotic ideals, the sorrows and pleasures of another time. Secondly we are also aware of the artist’s own fantasy investment in these images from the past, her presence as the impersonator being an invitation to similarly inhabit these or other memories for the sheer pleasure of it.
But it is not only a question of reliving past roles, of theme park adventures, a cultural historical karaoke. It seems to me that in these works a woman’s question about her being is inextricably entwined with the question of art and its object. Through these endless representations of woman as object, as image, Pushpamala seems to be posing the question of the art object itself as well as the object of art. To put it another way, by splitting herself into a creative intelligence on the one hand, and the most concrete, irreducible presence within these fantasmatic reconstructions on the other, the artist seems to be placing herself in the gap where, in happier times gone by, the art object presented itself to us, in supreme self-assurance. Thus the work seems to be posing some disturbing questions about a woman artist’s place in the symbolic network of the art institution. Historically, the dominant notions of creative authorship in the art institution were such as to make it difficult for a woman to imagine herself in that position. It is by no means clear that today the situation is any different, even if the sheer number of women artists in the field may have increased significantly. It is not thus a statistical/ demographic problem that is at stake here so much as the very self-image of the art institution. As the object of a male artist’s creativelabour,womanof course, is and has been, ubiquitous. What then can we make of this particular woman artist’s endeavour, which seems to so insistently place her own image at the heart of the work she produces? Could it be a reminder of the still unresolved crisis that broke over the subject of art, when that object suddenly disappeared at the advent of the modern, leaving behind the empty space of art? In any case, no evaluation of this work can be complete without a consideration of this singular fact that it stages these dualities -artist and art work, creative subject and represented object - in a manner designed to put them under question.
Today, artists routinely employ the term “media” to refer to the materials with which they produce their works. There is something unsettling in this state of affairs, although we rarely give it any thought. In the past, presumably, the artist derived his identity from the medium: thus, a painter. But today the artist’s position seems to have been disengaged from any medium. This freedom does not come cheap, for henceforth the artist will be forever haunted by the question of her place in the community. It is not an individual’s question but the question of art itself as a communal practice. In Pushpamala’s work, the role of cinema - its narrative formulae, its photographic conventions and paratextual image genres- seems to be to represent community itself, a community whose presence can be inferred from the representations that it witnessed. By this move, Pushpamala raises the all-important question of community, but also refuses to fall for some fantasy return to lost community. Instead she forces us to acknowledge the loss of that community, and provokes us to devise new communities, symbolic networks through which the ruins of the past may once again be resurrected into a new order of meaning and a project of becoming.
NotesI use this term, an English variant of Brecht’s gestus, in the restricted sense of a repertoire of gestures and expressions, poses and postures that belong to the realm of the sub-historical everyday flux of life. These are the very stuff of everyday life and it is only in the act of recollection that they become foregrounded as a remainder of the past. The discourses of history or sociology normally cannot throw a net fine enough to capture this dimension.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Bose Pacia (2004).