Quantifying a Memory with Pushpamala N.

Pushpamala N., The Spy (after 19c photograph of Countess Castiglione by Pierson). The Harcourt Set (2009), In collaboration with Studio Harcourt Paris. Commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou Paris, for the show Paris- Delhi- Bombay. 

It is not every day that Anna Wintour visits your exhibition. "Documenta Indica," Pushpamala N's solo exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road, displayed an enthralling body of works inspired by studies of historical documents. These pieces assimilated anthropometry, epigraphy, and ethnography — the study of inscriptions.

Pushpamala, widely referred to as India's most entertaining iconoclast, was first trained as a sculptor. Around the mid-1990s, she broadened her practice to fulfil her curiosity and push beyond conventional mediums. In "Documenta Indica," she displays a rekindling of her artistic beginnings, creating discursive objects that echo duties and records of the past.

Excavations of an artist's journey is a thought that comes to mind when learning about Pushpamala. She possesses a magic touch — where anything she lays her hands on; turns into art. Of course, this magic includes tremendous amounts of perseverance and hard work. But, it is those who strive to pursue a life beyond the duties thrust upon them, who dare to venture into the unknown that make an unforgettable artist like Pushpamala N.

Pushpamala N., Installation views of Documenta Indica. Photo courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road.

SHREYA AJMANI How did your practice come to be?

PUSHPAMALA N I joined art school rather late because I finished my degree in BA from Bangalore University, and then decided to study art. I joined a five-year course in fine arts in Baroda and my father said I can only go for two years, as they didn't like me staying in a hostel in some far-off place. When I went, I didn't know much about sculpture, so I wanted to paint. But we had a two-year foundation course and I got very interested in sculpture. I then did my Bachelor's and Masters in sculpture in Baroda. I did a lot of work in terracotta during my MA days, which was very feminist work because I decided that I would directly deal with a woman's body. In fact, from the beginning, ever since I went to Baroda, I always thought of myself as a feminist artist. My early terracotta works were about a young girl growing up to be a woman. After graduating, I practised for several years as a sculptor. In the mid-90s, there was a general crisis in society and the art world as well. A lot of us were questioning our practice. We knew about the whole organicity of traditional painting and sculpture, which is a standard form and way of doing things. Many of us started questioning that and began working with new materials and forms like installation, art, photography, performance, and different kinds of things.

Photo by Jyoti Bhatt.  A young Pushpamala N. during a performance at the Fine Arts Fair, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, 1983.

SA How did you shift from sculptures to photography?

PN I started working with photo performance around '96. It started off as a light-hearted thing — like a joke for the show. But then I really started getting interested in the medium. I began doing these photo romances, recreating historical and existing images. I did many series, projects, and worked for about 20 years. I still continue to work with all these forms: video, photo performance, also videos where I act. I've also begun doing live performances. I haven't done many. I'm not that comfortable with live performances.

Pushpamala N, Toda, from the series Native Women of South India , 2000-2003. Source: Nature Morte.

SA It's interesting, because your sculptural works kind of evoke a sense of mystery, but your photographs tell a story. Why is that? Do you think they inform each other through their themes?

PN I just showed some of these works in Bangalore a few months ago, and I was wondering what the reaction would be because people are used to seeing my photographic work now, which is very different. I decided not to mix them up. There are several things which are my ongoing preoccupations. One critic who is, in fact, a poet in Bangalore wrote a review and said, 'in all my work, I try to dismantle the scaffolding of the state', which I thought was a very interesting way of putting it. There are several similarities between the works. I explore the whole notion of citizenship and nation-state in all my work. I investigate similar things. They're all sort of related, but of course, the form is very different. My photographs can be very colourful, loud and my other work can be very quiet. But I don't think they're that different in terms of what they're exploring.

Pushpamala N, Circus, from the series Native Women of South India, 2000-2004. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard and Ronay Menschel Fund for the Acquisition of Photographs. 

SA How did the works for the show come to be? 

PN I saw some objects, tamarashasana, or copperplate inscriptions, at the Bangalore Archaeological Museum and loved the form. That's when I realized I can use this form. They were a way of preserving documents, which were either their land deeds or trade agreements; many of which come from the Southern Indian region. They're very beautiful objects and I'd never heard of them before seeing them. I then realized I can quite easily recreate them in my studio. When I started working on the "Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets," I thought I should create a kind of archive of a hundred, which really takes a lot of perseverance and is very tedious work. I was working from ten to five every day, and inscribing these letters onto the copper sheets. I had to learn all the technical things since I'd never worked with this material before. What actually happened was — in 2014 I did this large work for the Kochi Biennale, which I made into an installation. It was called the "Rival of Vasco da Gama." I felt a bit jaded and I needed to refresh myself because I had been working with photo performance for some time. That's when I went to the museum and found these works, and, I think, the Indian subcontinent has the most number of languages and scripts in the world out of any other region.

Pushpamala N., Documenta Indica. Source: Chemould Prescott Road.

Pushpamala N., Documenta Indica. Source: Chemould Prescott Road.

SA Do you have some early memories that inform your practice today?

PN Memories, different kinds of things, actually. I have a kind of archive in my head — of all kinds of things I've studied, experienced, things that just came about. I'm really interested in this idea of cultural memory. I feel that whatever we've gone through, the whole society has gone through there's a common memory. I touch upon all these things in my work so people can immediately recognize some things that they relate with. There are also strategies, sometimes they're based on this element of my personal experience of feelings, and sometimes it's just a social theme, film, or literature. I work with genres and archetypes. When I do a photo romance or film, I may use a genre, a ghost story, modern history, or detective stories in new forms which are very familiar.

Pushpamala N, The Popular Series, Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs, 2000-2004. Source: TAKE On Art.

SA The art world has changed a fair deal since you began working as a sculptor. What have been some of your observations over the years?

PN When I was a student, the practice was very organic. It was painting, sculpture, printmaking, art history, and so on. When this whole idea of conceptual art came in, it changed the art world completely. Now when you engage in a practice of pure painting or traditional sculpture, it still becomes a conceptual work. It is not something that stands on its own. It's part of what also came in with the advent of cultural studies — it's influenced art history a lot. I think it has liberated the art world. The whole idea of conceptual art is that you can make art out of anything. You don't have to only use noble materials. Now, I use noble materials in a metaphorical way. Like copper - it is a noble material, a traditional classical material which I use to memorialize ephemeral things from the street. They play with the meaning of things. Now, people often use found objects. You can make a video from a cell phone camera. What would happen before was that you could not work unless you had a lot of infrastructure. Now with this opening up, you can work anywhere, with any kind of material.


December 8, 2022

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