First published in catalogue by Chemould Art Gallery, 2007 and Westerly, 56:2, November, 2011.
“…and when she roared the universe quaked” complicates our understanding of violence - how do we relate to it when we find it at the centre of a performance, when martial art practices allow us access to techniques to contain it, when movies aestheticise it, and when we find it explosively affecting our daily lives (cities strewn with ripped, wounded, and fragmented bodies)? Shakuntala Kulkarni’s new works raise questions about the space that violence occupies in our lives. She re-visits rebellious heroines of mythology and re-imagines their ways of harnessing violence; and she examines the anger of the modern woman and the challenges it engenders. Everyday fear, suppressed anger, collective memory and feminist struggle implode as Kulkarni’s protagonists battle unseen demons, both within and outside the body. The body becomes not just the site of violence but also its weapon.
Kulkarni’s figures repetitively assume positions of defence or enact stances of offensive action. Even as these documents remind us of the ways in which everyday acts of violence against women are normalized, they suggest that violence is not merely destructive, it might also be productive. In the Foucauldian paradigm, the exercise of power subjects bodies not to make them passive, but to render them active. Kulkarni’s work can then be viewed in this context where in the process of violence; the forces of the body are trained and developed with a view to making them productive. The body then exercises its own power that corresponds to the exercise of power over it.
Four of the six video installations are about playing games - games that Kulkarni played as a young girl but which she now uses as a metaphor to explore another kind of power-play. Her work speaks to what Kalpana Kannabiran has evocatively called The Violence of Normal Times (2006). The video installations titled, is it just a game? take on the everyday gendered imbalances, sexual harassment and a pervasive sense of anxiety subjecting them to scrutiny. Kulkarni uses her own body as the site for these games self consciously recalling the games once “played in innocence”. In one we see her besieged by group of men in black playing kabbadi that are in retrospect now forcefully reminiscent of the images of two young women being molested on New Year’s Eve 2008 in Juhu by a crowd of men that were splashed on the front pages of newspapers. In another, she invokes the now almost mundane cat-calls that women have to negotiate in public space, where her blind-folded protagonist encounters whistles and jeers. The blind-fold subtly but effectively conveys the idea that ‘good women’ are not supposed to look back but pretend not to be able to see.
Kulkarni engages these not from the passive position of the helpless victim but as acts of strategy, negotiation and agency. The other video installation the role I would love to play: messiah seems to underscore this, as Kulkarni uses Aikido, karate and Kyodo to mount her retaliation. While in conversation with Kulkarni about her work, she points out to me that these martial arts aim not to decimate the opponent but to response as a respectful gesture that demonstrates a strong intent that is tempered with compassion.
Kulkarni’s concern with pain as a continuum is reflected in her smaller works which contend with the embodied woman often framed, connected, linked by the metaphor of the umbilical chord. These glass paintings are displayed as an extended ceiling installation from which the show takes its title, “…and when she roared the universe quaked”. The viewing of these paintings creates a space of intimacy where the viewer-subject engages the images in a mirror. In the hand held mirror, the viewer confronts the bleeding, wounded, productive, reproductive, warrior like women who defy the boundaries of their bodies even as s/he might see her own face peering at the edges of the frame. This action acts to subvert possibilities for the viewer to distance herself demanding that s/he locate herself in relation to them.
Kulkarni unlike many younger artists does not shy away from the label ‘feminist’, but self-consciously engages the larger artistic practices where performance and video have become important media to explore women’s lives, celebrate the body’s rhythms and pains, build dynamic narratives of gendered experience, and explore relationships between the body as performing agent and the subject of action and the body as site of spectacle. Her works do not aestheticise violence but nor do they assume a moral position on it. Violence and the gendered experience and enactment of it are closely examined with an awareness and empathy that is far from apolitical.
The attempt is not to neatly ameliorate past traumas or fashionably invoke ‘feminine power’ but to examine the enabling possibilities of violence which include its power to transform and upturn existing hierarchies of power. Kulkarni’s protagonists frequently ‘perform violence’ but this gendered enactment nonetheless evades ritualisation suggesting that that these almost stylised acts produce disruptions, evasions and ultimately resistance. Without essentialising women as inherently nurturing and without forgetting that women are also capable of premeditated and brutal violence, these works make it possible for us to re-configure existing lines of control that contain women into neat defined categories and offer spaces to re-imagine our place in the world and to re-invent ourselves.