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Our women, our country
Forgive me, but on that summer day in Sydney, I walked past Picasso. Yes, original Picasso masterpieces all the way from the Musee National Picasso in Paris - Man with a Guitar, Portrait of Olga, Massacre in Korea. Wearing bright red tees with PICASSO emblazoned in white, the gallery girls at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) were scanning entry tickets. I hurried past, trying hard to ignore that twitch in my heart. After all, who walks past Picassos?
I did. No, not because I do not like the dusty earth tints of Picasso's Rose Period, but because Mother India was waiting. Yes, a video play by Nalini Malani called Mother India: transactions in the construction of pain. Outside the display room stood a stern-looking security guard and inside five projectors had appropriated 15 metres of white wall. Brown settees broke the monotony of white but before the darkness of the room engulfed me, images began to flash on the five screens and a scratchy voice destroyed the silence. What do you take me for? A something machine?
A woman's voice pleads as archival images from the Partition fill the screens. A Nehruvian voice interrupts the woman "The national honour is at stake..." Images of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian national flag and people flooding across borders interleave with religious iconography and more contemporary representations of young Indian and Pakistani women. A woman pleads "Mercy. Mercy" and the Nehruvian voice beseeches, "And when our women are returned, do not punish them for their abductors' sins..." More images flit on and off the screen - a little girl, a cow, a still of the actor Nargis from the landmark film Mother India, the profile of a woman seething in agony - to create a narrative of violence from the Partition in 1947 to the Gujarat riots of 2002. The song at the end is haunting: They sat the girl on the table Stabbed seventy times before they stopped. Bitch so lovely. Dugs so cold. Leaving your love hurts hundred fold.
Five minutes. That is all it takes to tell the story of pain. This pain is not a borrowed idiom for Nalini Malani, one of India's foremost video artists. She has witnessed the pain, she was two when the nation was partitioned. The inspiration, however, is not merely anecdotal and familial;Malani was inspired by anthropologist Veena Das' 1998 essay Language and the body: transactions in the construction of pain. In perhaps the most powerful image of the video play - the image of a woman superimposed over a map - the figure and the map merge, with urban and topographical details marking the woman's skin. The image is a visual allegory of violence on women during the Partition with cartographic borders and inscriptions like wounds and scars on the skin. One is reminded of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas' Prastavna, Sadat Hassan Manto's Khol Do and Heiner Muller's Quartet - names and works that appear as the credits roll down.
This, however, is not the first time an artist has superimposed the image of a woman and a map. The late painter M F Husain's Bharat Mata used the same image and paid heavily for it. The iconography of India as mother goddesses is rooted in the concept of Bharat Mata (Mother India), an image that became enormously popular during the freedom struggle.
Premiered at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, Malani's Mother India refrains from passing a verdict - it lets you feel the pain of violence and interpret it your way. And that is exactly what Jackie Menzies Oam, head curator of Asian Art intended. Oam has never met Malani, but during her 30-year stint in AGNSW, she noticed a growing interest in contemporary Asian art. But it was the young Macushla Robinson of AGNSW Curatorial Services who spent hours over Malani's Mother India till the Gallery purchased it with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, Contempo Group 2011.
"What is your first reaction to Mother India?" I ask Oam as we stand outside the display room amidst antique Buddhas sitting within glass frames. "The video play is not a definitive narrative, it is episodic, " replies Oam. "It begins with a 1947 pain that the old have not forgotten but the young are not so familiar with but ends with a contemporary timeline of pain in 2002. "
For Robinson, the most fascinating aspect of Mother India is the use of a woman's body as a landscape. "It might seem like a tretched analogy but a woman's body has often been used as landscape, a lot of histories written on them. " Or as Veena Das puts it, "How is it that the imaging of the project of India came to include the appropriation of bodies of women as objects on which the desire of nationalism could be brutally inscribed and a memory for the future made?"
In Mother India, these questions resonate when a child's voice recites the following: The doll from Wagha border has no legs. How will she walk? The doll from Wagha she has no eyes. How will she see? The doll from Wagha has no mouth. How will she speak?
In Mother India, the poignant whisper lingers. Just as the trauma of Partition and the continuous pain of violence against women. That day at AGNSW I ignored Picasso. That day in AGNSW, it was all about Mother India.
The exhibition is on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, till May 20
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