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A Woman's World

Woman, protect thyself


CAGED COMFORT?: Cane costumes inspired by the traditional Kathakali dress, the boxy Manipuri skirt and gowns from the Raj era

Artist Shakuntala Kulkarni's armour sculptures protect and imprison women at the same time.

Theatre has been an abiding interest for artist Shakuntala Kulkarni, who often combines performance and art. And for her latest show, the 62-year-old Mumbaibased artist has gone beyond the flatness of the canvas and into a realm that has grabbed centre stage over the past few weeks: violence against women. "I have always been concerned with this whole issue of violence. It has to be addressed, " she says. "My art all along has been about women and their experiences, work and safety. " For Kulkarni, it always comes back to the subject of protection. "I was reading about the recent rape and the thought that came into my mind was - in what way can I protect myself on the street?"

Kulkarni's showing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya titled, Of bodies, armour and cages - An art intervention within the museum space, is a display of protective costumes and shows ways in which a woman, vulnerable at the best of times, can make herself safe from attack, assault and antagonism.

The idea of using armour came to her from an incident a couple of years ago. Kulkarni was walking along the road one day when hot tar rained down on her from a roof that was being waterproofed. The workmen were oblivious of the damage they were causing. "From there came the need to find something to cover myself. I tried a raincoat, metal, plastic, etc. , but what I was comfortable with was cane. Cane is very interesting, organic, malleable, practically and visually appealing. It is also very linear and can be heated, turned and bent so I decided to try it to make armour. " But the plus point is that "it also looks fragile, delicate and feminine in nature". From that thought to actually moulding the cane into 'clothing' was a short leap. It took the shape of the traditional Kathakali dress, the boxy Manipuri skirt and even gowns from the colonial era. "All these come so close to each other, with no cultural or religious boundaries, " says Kulkarni, who researched extensively for the show.

"I also started looking at masks - all kinds of masks, which are incorporated as headgear. Also, hairdos are very important. And so is the way people are being dressed in these costumes, which is the whole shringar aspect, the process of adornment, which is the live performance. "

The works on display at the museum include a selection of full costumes - body armour and headgear - along with accessories like bangles, rings, ankle bands and more, all made in honey-coloured cane. There are also videos, which show Kulkarni dressed in full costume and moving around on Juhu Beach, in Shivaji Park, along the roads in Bandra, in an unfurnished house. Movement in the cane 'cage' is less than easy and distinctly awkward. But there is a point being made with that gawky presentation too. Is that not what a woman goes through every day almost anywhere in the world? In spite of all that she may do to protect herself, it is inevitable that some men will stare, grope or even abuse. And under the armour, the woman is trapped, caged, unable to escape either her own prison or those who have forced her into it.
Kulkarni explains, "I wanted to say you can use this costume as a metaphor - if I wear this, I am protected. But it is actually very rigid, uncomfortable and restricts movement. It recreates the discomfort felt by women within society. Within that framework, when you figure out how to move, you are again free. "

And even while her cane armour may do little to keep other bravehearts safe from violence, Kulkarni feels protection is important. "The way people look at women has to change. But until then, women need protection. "

'Of bodies, armour and cages' is on at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, till January 20.

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