'I try to explore theatrical elements, using dramatic gestures ... My objective is to focus on the dramatic force of events' (Rummana Hussain on her previous exhibition, 1991).
In one of Rummana's early shows (1986) she used a snakes-and-ladders game as a metaphor for painted and assembled satires. Later, the sense of game merged into playful and nightmarish images of ritual forms (Parable Of The Blind, 1991). The effort towards objectivity made the reality itself increasingly bizarre, as the autobiography heightened the unreal on a pink-red-blue-green palette. The invented legends about decapitation, with fish and fisher folk (Big Fish Little Fish, The Angel and Colaba) were played out on a landscape over which, in one work, a gigantic angel spread out its gross body and pop-art wings. The body itself-the icon-hiding its protagonist who peers over the wings or rests atop it, condensed what was an unabashedly melodramatic land including, in one instance (The Dark Times) a howling dog, a moonlit tree and a clutch of buildings glimmering over the ocean. Rummana has not hesitated to underline the rhetorical anchor of the 'dramatic gestures', and with e.g. the subsequent pastels and water colours and their reclining female protagonist, she goes some way into what Umberto Eco once called the 'apple appeal': the desire for knowledge conflicting with the desire for language, even as the former shifts into the moralities of the socially forbidden.
She was already grappling, on her terms, with a major problem in Indian art, as it moved outside a politically-yoked modernism into an undefined terrain of the personal. The problem: what happens when an icon moves out of its time-worn social role and responsibility to become only a subjective amalgam. When it attempts no more than a stand-off conflict between the construction of the social (now occupied by advertising and allied forms), and the processes of an equally stultifying personal: mystifying, closed avenues pretending to the oldest myth about capitalist society, that every individual is unique.
Then the Babri Masjid holocaust happened. Rummana was one of those personally affected, as an artist, the most so. But it was also one of those rare historical occasions when the icon-in this case the semi-circular dome that succumbed to the ruthless assault of India's lumpenised neo-fascist elite-actually could straddle the personal with some of the most important political issues of our times. It is that cross that she explores in this show. The basic metaphor of the semi-circular dome pervades this exhibition. The Masjid itself, with its hooligans aloft, is repeatedly photocopied off a newspaper photograph and becomes a grid: an objective map upon which the more personal may be implanted. The circular dome, split in half, is precariously held together even as the consequences of its destruction lie before us in shards: the precariousness demonstrated by falling acrylic sheets, folding images one inside the other, gleaming from within as a perpetually receding mirage on the horizon.
In Rummana's early departure from the oil-painting mode (including, in this, watercolours), she had used the circle with a xeroxed and partially distorted image from Michelangelo's Last Judgement as the grid. The paper was itself materialised, through the equal relation of xerox to painted image (later extended to the act of washing and crumpling paper, or scratching on it with a blade). The Babri Masjid series thematised the still chaotic expressionism of a one-on-one relationship, by extending the metaphor into something beyond the subjective: indeed, as it regularly appears in her work, into something approaching the question of how a social symbol is formed - or destroyed.
So we have, for instance, the curved convex mirrors; a sort of double-entendre act physically illustrating the grotesque distortions of, in a sense, the viewer-perpetrator, even as the xeroxed grid opens out into a forest of illuminated tubes, and the whole process is diagnosed by a commentary of words running alongside. Or the mirror, elsewhere, holding together-as it were, one step removed from reality itself-the cracked destruction around it.
Some of this is genuinely spectacular work, as it would have to be to address the grotesque combination of spectacle and tragedy that it seeks to contain: the gaze that it seeks to redirect to a new, if currently distorted, horizon.
It would have perhaps remained just that, spectacle, if Rummana hadn't substantiated her argument, and chronicled the processes of her quest, in the several small works on paper that, in fact, contain the more controversial aspects of her argument. These are the landscapes of the female body, damaged and barely held together on the crumpled handmade paper.
The body is the icon, the icon the dome-and this cross between the personal (in its liberal identity) and the perverted nature of Hindutva neo-nationalism, in the way it also constructs a female identity-is one of the dark areas that Rummana explores. There is a large and relatively unexplored history here, to what Tanika Sarkar, at the "risk of provoking startled disbelief," argues as a neo-traditional and even self-consciously 'Hindu' sexuality that was entirely in consonance with colonial liberalism. "A general consensus about the differentiated nature of colonial law postulated a fissure within the system wherein Hindus could insert their claims for a sectoral, but complete autonomy, for a pure space. The specific and concrete embodiment of this purity seemed to lie more within the body of the Hindu women, rather than of the man ... (so that where) the feeble Bengali male physique became a metaphor for a larger condition ... of the ravaging effects of colonial rule, the woman's body ... was still held to be pure and unmarked, loyal and subservient to the discipline of the shastras alone. It was not a free body by any means, but one ruled by 'our' scriptures, our customs... Whereas for the liberal reformers she used to be the archetypal victim figure, for nationalists she had become a repository of power, the Kali rampant, a figure of rage and strength She attained (this grace) through a unique capacity for bearing pain and discipline that were exercised upon her body by the iron laws of absolute chastity, extending beyond the death of the husband, through an indissoluble, non-consensual infant form of marriage, through austere widowhood, and through a proved past capacity for self-immolation". And, Sarkar shows, even Bankimchandra glorified Sati through a "highly sensualised spectacle of pain and death, a barely disguised parallel between the actual flames destroying a feminine body and the consuming flames of desire" ('Rhetoric Against Age Of Consent', Economic & Political Weekly, Sept. 4,1993).
Many of the smaller works, physically ravaged on paper and moved out of their framed paintings-on-wall format by the precariously poised, mirrored, illuminated and now mobile sculptures seemed to indicate that, for Rummana, the female body was fundamentally implicated in the communal violence of the past year, that she was personally physically incapacitated by this condition, and that her desire for movement for maneuverability is to be addressed graphically. As an atheist and a liberal, she felt she had been physically attacked earlier by the parliamentary verdict on Shah Bano; and then, with the destruction of the Masjid, she was individuated but solely as a target: an amalgam of invented religious and class identities flavoured by a neo-liberal patriarchy. The graphic foregrounding of the female body mapped onto the metaphors of the terracotta dome: a new grid for what is no longer a game, a new and hopefully open-ended frontier for re-integration.
Published in the catalogue of an exhibtiion held in Jehangir Gallery and Chemould Gallery, 1994.