Nalini Malani’s shadow plays have become the cornerstone of her rich and rigorous body of work. Using a variety of media, they weave into their narrative structures her political and feminist commitment. Her spellbinding installations have featured in many international exhibitions and are held in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, among others. Influenced by the Kalighat painting of Bengal, they transpose a profusion of forms painted in reverse onto transparent, rotating cylinders that recall magic lanterns. The superimposed images compose an oneiric vision of a world replete with mutant creatures and animals. The profuse iconography builds both on Indian as well as on European fables and myths and remind us of the many linkages that exist between them. In the exhibition space, the projected images meld with the shadows of the viewers and draws them into the narrative of the shadow plays. At Documenta 12, one such installation inspired by feminist writer Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra (1984), and borrowing its title from a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, “In Search of Vanished Blood”, captivated visitors who found themselves immersed in the installation.
Similarly, Remembering Mad Meg forms the “spine”, according to an awoved bodily logic, of the current Centre Pompidou retrospective curated by Sophie Duplaix. The work combines visions of subaltern girls and women, as stressed by artist and theoretician Mieke Bal. It reveals, in the words of Bal, “young girls caught in a history of violence and poverty, one with a leg blasted off by a mine, another, Alice-like, skipping rope as an innocent version of reiteration; a young homeless girl or protester peeing in public space, signifying poverty but also recalling the prestigious precedent of Rembrandt. ... Goya-like torture and execution; a monster morphing into a woman, or the opposite ….” The installation takes its title from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Dull Gret (Mad Meg, 1562), a kind of perverted character who, in Malani’s view, symbolizes one of the last hopes for saving humanity. Other works elaborate on the myths of Medea and Cassandra. However, it is not so much women’s role in society as the feminine part of the world that Malani defends, so as “to reintroduce,” she explains, “male-dominated history from a female point of view.”
Onanism (1969), a work Malani made while still a student at the J. J. School of Art in Bombay, and never previously exhibited, attests both to her feminist commitment and to her pioneering role in bringing film into the visual arts in India. In this short black-and-white film shot in 16 mm, the camera looks down onto a woman with long, loose hair, holding a sheet between her legs and shuddering convulsively. Evoking female pleasure but also hysteria and the stigma surrounding it, the film was rejected, explains Malani, by the male artists she knew at the time, including the painter Akbar Padamsee. The latter had however invited her to take part in the Vision Exchange Workshop, which played an incubating role in the artist’s cinematographic experiments.
Nalini Malani came onto the scene in Bombay at a time when Indian art was still dominated by the male painters of the Progressive Artists’ Group. In 1981, more than ten years later, she was still the only woman artist to feature in ‘Place for People’, the manifesto exhibition of like minded. She was able to establish herself in an art scene that was till essentially male. Inspired by the AIR Gallery in New York, she began to conceive with sculptor Pilloo Pochkhanawala of a major exhibition of Indian women artists. After a period of material difficulty and following the death of Pochkhanawala, she eventually started exhibiting in 1987 with a smaller group of artists (Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh and Madhvi Parekh) in the show ‘Through the Looking Glass’.
Malani was especially quick to move beyond the limits of a generation of artists who concentrated exclusively on painting. She used not only this medium but also photography, cinema and installation. Her first participatory installation, Alleyway, Lohar Chawl (1991), confronted during its first presentation at Chemould Gallery the popular neighbourhood of Lohar Chawl, where Malani lived and worked for about twenty-five years, with the established South Bombay neighborhood of the gallery. Comprising five sheets of painted polyester and stones laid on the ground, the work juxtaposes the portraits of a homeless family, a working class woman resting on a handcart, a daily-goods carrier, a salesman and a man urinating on the street. Echoing their makeshift homes, the work itself is made of low-cost materials. Malani uses to this effect the transparency and seeming fragility of mylar, a cheap polyester film that she has included in a number of installations. Another milestone, not included in the Pompidou exhibition, was her first ambitious video installation, Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998-99), conceived in response to Indian nuclear testing at Pokharan, not far from India’s border with Pakistan. The title of the work comes from a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto about the absurd exchange of Hindu and Muslim psychiatric patients carried out at the time of Partition. Drawing on archival documents, the installation evokes the violence that accompanied the separation of the two countries.
Nalini Malani was born in Karachi, in today’s Pakistan, in 1946, a year before the independence and partition of British India, to a Sikh mother and a theosophist and freemason father. Her family took refuge in Calcutta and then in Bombay. This story is told in Excavated Images (1997), a work that repurposes a blanket that the artist’s grandmother used to package some of her possessions when fleeing from Karachi. Portraits of women, a family tree, but also newspaper articles about violence inflicted recently on Dalits appear on its surface. A recurring reference, Manto’s short story is also printed onto the blanket in English, Hindi and Urdu, the three languages most commonly spoken in North India. When the work was presented in India and Pakistan, visitors were invited to pin onto it wish threads used both by Hindus and Muslims.
Throughout her career, the artist has drawn from her personal history of trauma and resistance, but it was during her stay in Paris from 1970 to 1972 that she developed a critical thought on the condition of the dispossessed. “My student card allowed me to attend,” she explains, “any lectures in the many institutes in Paris. This non-structured period became an intellectual and politically engaged learning adventure that made me what I am today.” In Paris she attended lectures by Noam Chomsky and Claude Lévi-Strauss, took part in the public events initiated by Michel Leiris, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir,and met Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker at the Cinémathèque Française. “Each of these engagemens,” she continues, “formed a deeply political and humane motivation, and gave an inspiration that would stay with me for the rest of my life. A political engagement, which creates a mindset that one nowadays would call ‘cultural activism’.”
On returning to Bombay, Malani made the diptych Utopia (1969-76), which speaks of the disenchantment she felt at the failure of Jawarharlal Nehru’s modernizing project. On one side is Dream Houses (1969), a color animation film shot in 8 mm, and on the other the eponymous Utopia (1976), a black-and-white film in 16 mm. In the former, Malani layers blocks of color on an architectural model. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller and her architect friend Charles Correa, the film evokes the construction of social housing under Nehru, but also the modernist experiments of the Bauhaus. In the second film, accomplished after her return from Paris, a young woman contemplates a disenchanted urban landscape in which skyscrapers and slums feature along each other. The utopian images of Dream Houses appear superimposed on top of these.
The myths referenced by Malani in her more recent works also translate into contemporary society. For the German playwright Heiner Müller, one of her seminal influences to whom she pays homage in the installation Hamletmachine, Medea represents the migrant worker in contemporary German society. Likewise, when Andreas Huyssen analyzes Malani’s work he remarks that “to visually render human pain and social suffering, past and present, in such a way that its representation
nurtures and illuminates life, rather than indulging in voyeuristic titillation, or succumbing to fatalism in the face of mythic cycles of violence-this, it seems to me, is the quest that has energized Nalini Malani’s remarkably consistent body of work since the 1970s”.
Echoing her shadow plays, the polyptych All we Imagine as Light (2017) references the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali and conjures words and images of the world. The narrative has no fixed starting point. Disfigured characters and drawings taken from anatomy books are surrounded by smudges that spread from one panel to another creating a pictorial matrix that plays with colour and transparency. In one of these panels an embrace between two men and a woman holding a female hyena is accompanied by words from Agha Shahid Ali: “I am the one you have lost. My memory is constantly intervening in your story.” It is this feminist world-thinking that characterizes Malani’s magisterial work. Forty-eight years after Onanism, she concludes an interview with Sophie Duplaix conducted on the occasion of her retrospective by stating: “For me, understanding the world from a feminist perspective is an essential device for a more hopeful future, if we want to achieve something like human progress. … Or, if I wanted to state it more dramatically, I think that we desperately need to replace the alpha male with matriarchal societies, if humankind wants to survive the twenty-first century.”
First published in Artpress 450, décembre 2017, p. 49-54 under the title « Nalini Malani. Une féministe en Inde »
Translated from the French by C. Penwarden