Mohini Maya
  Anupan Sud
  3th to 30th October, 2002


Mohini Maya

So successful is Anupam Sud’s treatment of the power of suggestion that it encourages apocryphal readings of her paintings. A work that may be seen as central to this approach in this exhibition is titled Mohini Maya. The episode of Vishnu-Mohini quoted in the Bhagavata Purana (Book 8) refers to the incident of the churning of the oceans, in which the devas and the daityas combine their energies to obtain the life sustaining elixir, soma. In order to delude the daityas, and deprive them of the drink of immortality Vishnu assumes the form of a beautiful apsara, Mohini. So enchanted are the daityas by Mohini’s beauty that they fail to notice that Mohini has distributed all the amrit among the devas. In this way the devas regain their energies and successfully drive the daityas out of heaven.

The critical point here, as Wendy Doniger writes [in Splitting the Difference: Gender and myth in Ancient Greece and India] is that Vishnu chooses to assume the female form rather than allot the task of deluding the daityas to any of a number of heavenly apsaras. The gender switch, moreover, does not appropriate memory. As Doniger notes, Vishnu presumably takes on merely the outer form of the apsara: "he never forgets that he is Vishnu; he retains his male memory and his male essence and resumes his own form after returning the Soma to the gods."

In an elaboration of the myth in the Brahmanda Purana, in another lightening flash reversal, Vishnu on the request of Shiva once again assumes the appearance of Mohini. Through several poetic verses we learn that it is a form of such beauty that it enchants Shiva into a heightened amorous state. The Purana describes Shiva’s passion for Mohini, the consequence of which is the birth of Hariharaputra or the god Mahashasta, also worshipped as Aiyanar.

Anupam Sud invokes the Mohini myth with the quality of deceptive, even teasing play that one has come to expect from her work. The female and male figures in the painting Mohini Maya are unequivocally related to the myth by the peacock feather, the perennial symbol of Vishnu/Krishna. Placed as they are, the figures invite the viewer’s speculative interest. But the issues of desire are treated with ambiguity, even as the artist leaves the pictorial narrative loosely suggestive.

With this exhibition of paintings Sud marks a palpable shift in her oeuvre. As the foremost printmaker of her generation in India, Anupam has built up a distinctive style which is both openended and highly deliberated. For over two decades now Anupam has been recognized for her extraordinary graphic facility, for the immensity of visual and emotive detail that she succeeds in coaxing out of the zinc plate. Particularly in the decades of the late eighties and nineties, her prints were distinguished by their large format, and the dominant sculpturesque human figure which exists outside any recognizable narrative.

As a print maker Anupam works perceptibly towards structure. Particularly in the period of the 80’s and early 90’s, her figures are emphatically defined by architectural forms – cubes, blocks, crumbling walls, city park benches that attract the speculative interest of the lonely figure, exteriors of grey, decaying 19th century buildings. Against such hard edged structures, the figure [such as the nude women in Pick-Up Girls, 1980 or the men and women in the series titled Dialogue 1984] appears in images of duress—only part revealing a psychic life that we cannot construct for ourselves. The artist creates a charged wise-en-scene, even as she appears indifferent to issues of identification. Elsewhere appurtenances of clothes, masks, tubes, vials and bottles are seen in disturbing conjunction, circumscribing feminine activity and creating hierarchies in gender behaviour. However, in leaving the critical point, -- on whether the women are the subject or the object of representation in her work – deliberately cryptic, Anupam maintains a degree of tension that lends her work its defining edge.

In her large body of work there is nothing to indicate that Anupam has exhausted her energies as a print maker. In all probability, she will once again make the transition from the canvas to the etching plate quite seamlessly. However, since the late 1990’s Sud has turned with a palpable sense of liberation to painting. Her initial tentative treatment of form and texture has settled into an unhurried, lucid style. Hard edged architectural forms have disappeared to create impressionistic backdrops that release the figure into an evocative rather than a definitive space.

Correspondingly the creative emphasis on the nude is the dominant aspect of her painting. When pressed for explanations, Anupam has steadily argued for the recognition of the nude as the essential body, one shorn of all cultural markings and thus rendered with an objective formalism." I see the nude body as pure form, as a singular entity." She defines perspectives on the body as a reflection of the viewer’s gaze. "In the viewing of Akka for instance, you see her as nude or covered, depending entirely on the spectator’s viewpoint" she says. Correspondingly, she explains that her figures are rendered bald to free them of the cultural associations of hair and its covering or adornment.

Even within the artist’s readings however, such a mode of representation can be problematised. Kenneth Clark [in the chapter The Naked and the Nude, from The Nude, John Murray, 1956] argues that the nude itself is of little interest to the viewer without the artist’s creative intervention. . "A mass of naked figures does not move us to empathy, but to disillusion and dismay. We do not wish to imitate, we wish to perfect".

Modes and ways of painting the nude have undergone a remarkable number of shifts, particularly in the long haul from post impressionism to post modernism when the very idea of the perfectibility of the human form has been sharply parodied, condemned and even dismissed. Yet even in the wake of post modernity, Anupam quietly works against the grain. Issues of patriarchy, of the feminine as subject/object, or passive/active are never dominant. In the artist’s interest in the nude, we recognize the need to invoke both nature and culture, to expose even as she maintains an austere formality and respect for her subject. Simplistically argued perhaps, the form is delivered to our gaze, even as its psychological delineation is kept tightly under reign.

Anupam returns to the nude the potential for perfectibility, imbuing it with a formality that is both classic and austere. Her sources could be as varied as ancient Greece or the Buddhist caves at Karle (c.10 AD), in which women in the dampati figures are accorded an coequal status to men. Yet her use of the image continually reveals a number of paradoxes. Anupam’s nude is simple and sculptural even classic in its modelling, yet modern in its emotive state. The figures are frequently still, even devoid of gesture, but never entirely tranquil. Energy—what Kenneth Clark identifies as one of the defining features of the nude-- is demonstrably held in abeyance. It is in the tension between the nude and the small or large painted forms that violate its space that we are continually reminded of the extreme vulnerability that she accords to her figures.

In the present series there is a quality of stillness and repose, even yogic contemplation. Issues of conflict or hiatus, so apparent in her outstanding prints titled Dialogue now make way for solitary introspection. There is also the admission for the first time of the aging female body [The Magic Mirror 2001, and Meditation 2000]. Inspired as these figures are by women in her family, here seen in private acts, Anupam defiantly pushes for the need to recognise the aging feminine body. [The only other Indian woman painter to deliberately foreground the aging woman, and to deliberately challenge the male gaze has been Arpita Singh]. Unlike Singh however, Anupam’s concerns are not guided by domesticity or quotidian acts of the everyday. Nor again is she interested in the transmission of life from the mother to the girl child. Instead Anupam delivers to the viewer’s gaze the fat, flaccid body seen in contrast to the idealised nude: both of which are repositories of fullness and desire.

There is also in these two paintings a quality of resilience which is in sharp variance with the

painting Reflection {2001}. Given the suggestive conjunction of the nude figure and the lamp, this painting is much closer to the spirit of feminine submission – even exploitation – that imbues so much of Anupam’s earlier work. There are other significant markers in images of incompatibilities, as in the man and lizard both of whom appear, prone and steadily observant, with reptilian intent.

The transition from printmaking to painting has been gradual. From the textured, expressionistic surfaces of her oil paintings of the late 1990’s, Anupam has turned to using translucent layers of paint, in which images appear, like free floating associations. The highly defined figures of her prints now appear in her paintings. With this she encourages a free open ended readings of her work of figures now liberated from rigid architectural definitions. Such free associative readings of her paintings are deeply reflective of the artist whose innate timidity makes her shy away from insinuating herself in her work.

Like any other child growing up in the pristine Simla hills of the 1950’s and 60’s, Anupam’s earliest memories are sensory. Of the overpowering textures and touch of moss growing like green sheets on rocks and the smell of rain soaked soil of pine needles slick and slippery to the touch on the hill side. A painting in this exhibition recalls idle late mornings as the women and girls of the household dried their washed hair in the weak shifting sunlight of the mountains. Among her five siblings and the gaggle of cousins who would come and holiday with them each summer, she recalls being distinctly shy and solitary. In hours of lone pursuit she would read from the books that lined the family living room, or else spend after school hours watching the enigmatic march of the ants, who seemed oblivious of the watchful eye of the lizard, or the young girl.

Anupam’s father who worked with the army shifted between Simla and Delhi for six months every year. Her memory of these transitions, from the idylls of the hills to the horripilating energy of the growing capital in the hot plains are memories of the shock of public encounter. "Being brushed past on the street, or pressed like bags of grains in a public transport …. my experience was so immediate, so powerful, yet everyone goes through the same thing" she says. Her entry into College of Art, Delhi as a student marked her training as a painter and she participated in her first two exhibitions with paintings. However Group 8, a dynamic platform of printmakers gave her a much needed forum, and was followed by her training in print making at the Slade school in London. Each year however, she continued to paint a little, while the habit of drawing was a continual exercise.In her solitary resolutions of pain and pleasure, Anupam sees herself as the keenest spectator of feminine experience.

This she does with a characteristic isolation, allying neither with dominant streams of feminist ideology nor with current attitudes towards the female body and its contested parts. In virtual innocence of the mainstream, as it were, she restores to the body a wholeness and beauty even as she continually evokes the power of suggestion. Painting in the hands of Anupam Sud evokes not statement but possibility.
Gayatri Sinha Gayatri Sinha is an independent curator and art critic who is currently a columnist for The Hindu and the London based magazine Contemporary. Her publications include the edited volume Expressions and Evocations --Contemporary Women Artists of India (Marg, 1997) and Krishen Khanna, A Critical Biography (Vadehra, 2002). She has edited a volume of essays on Indian art which will be brought out by Rupa later this year.

Her curatorial work includes the exhibition The Self and the World at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, an exhibition of women artists for the festival of India at Bangladesh (1997), Woman/Goddess, a Ford Foundation funded project (1998-2001) and more recently the exhibition titled Cinema Still (March 2002).


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