On Women\’s Day (March 8, 2022), Abir Pothi lists out some formidable Indian women artists — and mind you, this is just the tip of the iceberg
The incredibly famous Hungarian-Indian painter is still breaking records with her art work, over eight decades after she passed away at the age of just 28. She has been called “one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century” and a “pioneer in modern Indian art”.
Sher-Gil is considered an important painter of 20th-century India, whose legacy stands on a level with that of the pioneers from the Bengal Renaissance. She was also an avid reader and a pianist. Her paintings are among the most expensive by Indian women painters today, although few acknowledged her work when she was alive. Sher-Gil\’s art has influenced generations of Indian artists from SH Raza to Arpita Singh and her depiction of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women at large both in India and abroad. The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
This prolific self-taught artist, now 90, was born into a family wholly involved in the arts. She is the sister of Hindi film director, producer, and actor Guru Dutt and mother of Hindi film director Kalpana Lajmi. In the mid-1980s, Lajmi\’s work had evolved into etchings, oils and watercolors. The works of the late 1980s and early 1990s reflect the latent tensions that exist between men and women, captured in the different roles they play. She portrays her women as assertive and aggressive individuals. She uses the images of Durga or Kali on the top of emaciated men who are kneeling, almost as if they were in the middle of some form of classical corporal punishment. She has also depicted the natural bonding that exists between women, between mother and daughter figures, perhaps drawing from her own relationship with her daughter.
Anjolie Ela Menon
Born in 1940, Menon is one of India’s leading contemporary artists and a well-known muralist. Her paintings are in several major collections across the world and her preferred medium is known to be oil on masonite, although she has also worked in other media, including Murano glass, computer graphics and water colour. She was awarded the Padma Shree in 2000, and lives and works out of New Delhi.
In her process, Menon applies masonite by using a series of translucent colours and thin washes. She is best known for her religious-themed works, portraits, and nudes that incorporated a vibrant colour palette and were rendered in a variety of styles ranging from cubism to techniques that recalled the artists of the European Renaissance. In 1997 she, for the first time displayed non-figurative work, including Buddhist abstracts.
Known to be a figurative artist and a modernist, Arpita Dutta’s canvases have both a story line and a carnival of images arranged in a curiously subversive manner. Her artistic approach can be described as an expedition without destination. Her work reflects her background. Critics write that she brings her inner vision of emotions to the art inspired by her own background and what she sees around the society that mainly affects women. Her works also include traditional Indian art forms and aesthetics, like miniaturist painting and different forms of folk art, employing them in her work regularly.
Arpita\’s paintings spoke a lot about wars and situations of turmoil at the national and international level. She would draw objects like guns, knives, cars and planes, soldiers, killers and corpses. India\’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi\’s assassination, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, communal riots and the Gulf War are some examples. Women would continue to find the center stage in her art and are shown at the receiving end. Arpita showcases problems like hatred, social injustice, etc. faced by a contemporary woman in her art. She would also paint around the ills related to girl child in India. In some of her paintings the women appear nude, but her paintings do not have sexual overtones and reflect the woman\’s vulnerability.
Contemporary Indian artist Nalini Malani has worked primarily in painting and drawing, with recognition received internationally. The sectarian violence that hit India in the early 1990s after the demolition of Babri Masjid triggered a sudden shift in her artwork. Her earlier foray into performance art and her keen interest in Literature also brought new dimensions to her art. She is often counted amongst the earliest to transition from traditional painting to new media work.
For two-dimensional works, she uses both oil paintings and watercolors. Her other inspirations are her visions from the realm of memory, myth and desire. The rapid brush style evokes dreams and fantasies. Malani\’s video and installation work allowed her to shift from strictly real space to a combination of real space and virtual space, moving away from strictly object-based work. Her video work often references divisions, gender, and cyborgs.
Malani roots her identity as female and as Indian, and her work might be understood as a way for her identity to confront the rest of the world. She often references Greek and Hindu mythology in her work. The characters of \’destroyed women\’ like Medea, Cassandra and Sita feature often in her narrative.
In a career spanning nearly three decades, contemporary artist Bharti Kher has worked across painting, sculpture and installation. Kher is known internationally for her signature use of the bindi in works across painting and sculpture. Kher reclaims this way of seeing by creating intensely layered and lavish ‘paintings’ that are charged with the bindi’s conceptual and visual links to ideas such as repetition, the sacred and the ritual, appropriation, and a deliberate sign of the feminine. An important theme in Kher\’s practice is the idea of transformation, where she activates materials to give them a new form. Over the course of her long career, Kher has engaged consistently with the body – her own and those of women around her – and has done so across several mediums and forms of art making. She sees the body as a literal and metaphorical site for the construction of ideas around gender, mythology and narrative. The most significant example of this is her process of casting, which she regards as a most intimate exercise in rendering the human emotions of her subjects and not just their physical form. Bharti Kher has worked in a variety of media creating paintings, sculptures, installations, and text. Her sculptures and collages often depict hybrid forms that unite different social constructs such as race, gender, etc.
Known for bringing modernity to the ancient Bengali sculpting art Meera Mukherjee was an Indian sculptor and writer, who passed away in 1998. She is known to have used innovative bronze casting techniques, improving the Dhokra method employing Lost-wax casting, which she learnt during her training days of the Bastar sculpting tradition of Chhattisgarh. She received the fourth highest civilian award of the Padma Shri from the Government of India in 1992 for her contributions to Arts. Mukherjee was commissioned by the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) to document the craft practices of metal-craftsmen in Central India. Her journey in India spread across the tribal heartland in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the east and the south. She was on a quest to discover the confluence of art forms with the daily lives of the artisans.