Monday, July 14, 2014

Persistence of Memory III: The repertoire of Pushpamala N

A generic overview: Random Thoughts

Human face and Human body is the most expressive element for a human onlooker, where as in other natural elements also we relate to things with regard to human anatomical expressions. We see the face of a mother or the beloved in the moon, we see the curves of a reclining human body on the contours of mountains.

In the history of visual representations human face (i.e. portraits) and human figures remained so central so long and it will remain so in the future. Though there was a certain period marked in the history for the rise of 'humanism', the humanistic depiction and humanistic perception was already out there across the visual understandings. Human body remained the microcosm for all, either in conscience or in subconscious mind.

When photography and camera introduced to human, it again focused on portraits and capturing the human body essentially. For the computer screen, for any sort of image-editing platform there are two modes: portrait- that is vertical and Landscape, meaning something horizontal. When the digital takes over the analogs: you point a digital camera in any direction, it will search for the human face and the display screen or monitor will identify the faces with square boxes. The system is in Facebook and other online forums also where the human face is quickly found out automatically to tag or to name or to identify.

All these features have something to do with voyeurism and scopophilia: wherever the human body and the matter of looking and gazing are concerned. 

When photography introduced into the art world, the creator photographer remained the artist just like the painter who paints, the sculptor who sculpts. The subject matter, particularly in photography, is always given, found material. It happened because the art of photography was ever considered as a medium of documentation rather than a creation. Though in the history of painting also, we remembered the artists but never asked about the models who posed for it.

Now, we shall talk about the aspects around photographic capturing and turning live into a framed visual, shifting the focus from the shooter-as-artist. the history of the shooter and the history of the objects shooted share the same historical timeline. If there were capturer who wanted to capture a portrait, there must be a subject who wanted to be captured.

Now the psychology of the objects of capturing, shooting, framing has multiple interesting facets to observe. The camera made everyone narcissist: the ones who love to be photographed, and the ones as well who hides face as soon as notices a camera around. Perhaps never in the history before the camera's intervene, human felt the stage-fright and subjective conscience. The camera started making an ordinary person: subject, actor, object, focal point. Then starts the self-consciousness regarding the representation of the self. A small piece of represented visual, i.e. a photograph, taken as something beyond the everyday ordinariness, as it turned to be a magic-box for recollection of memories in the future, and at present, a hive of possibilities in coming future. Thus it turned to be 'larger than life'. Ambiguities and fear started here: what if I'm represented wrongly! A sort of stage fright! Then starts some common adaptations of posing in front of the camera.  

Performance art, across the globe, has at least one thing in common, that is making the body of the subject central and transcending the bodily presence into something else from what is it. So it is not difficult to understand the insisting energies behind a "costumed" performance art. And then 'posing for camera' entered into 'performance art'. And then posing for camera, with costumes, with crafted mise-en-scene got a different history.

The repertoire of Pushpamala N

Pushpamala N, with her splendid repertoire stands pioneer and limelighter in performance photography in India. Recreation of popular cinematic sensibilities, re-taking of mythological characters that kept overwhelming the society for ages, re-presenting the representations of women in representational visual art tradition in India and along with many other vigorous and vivid energy  Pushpamala N stands forth.  

She was the first as she herself claims in the interview "Beyond the Self": "It was a turning point I think, for my work as well for Indian Art because nobody had done conceptual photography before..."

The achievement of Pushpamala is multifaceted. Firstly her works took the tradition of 'copy' and 're-takes' to a completely different level which was never imagined before. secondly, the focus on visual sensibility and mise-en-scene kept her outstanding within the realms of visual arts and performance arts. Her works remained highly conceptual without being abstract but figurative. I think serious art practice is necessary to human life and expression. In her voice: "My work is very conceptual, but I don't want it to be dry[1]". Forms, colors and other representational elements in her works are so affluent  that even if she was not the first one to do this (if some debatable argument occurs somewhere), still she holds the ability to stand as a milestone in the genre.  Thirdly, the balanced understanding of the mediums like film, photography, sculpture and painting, along with the balanced appropriation of political contexts made her works ever comprehensive. Her takes on mythology and representation of women have feminist connotations, but they are not overtly feminist. Yet they are much more stronger to make the viewer to think about certain issues- than many feminist works of her contemporary times. 

The early phase of the photo performances of Pushpamala had some concerns with 'Documentation'. Realised through a two-year India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grant, their unusual concept is explained thus: "Pushpamala, South Indian artist, and Clare Arni, British photographer who has lived most of her life in South India — one black, one white — play the protagonists in a project exploring the history of photography as a tool of ethnographic documentation. Playing with the notions of subject and object, the photographer and the photographed, white and black, real and fake, the baroque excess of the images subvert and overturn each other[2]."

Thus the representation here started with the concern of documenting. In Susie Tharu's words: "It soon becomes evident that what has hitherto been described and celebrated as creation/revelation/fact/truth may itself today be more usefully read as citation, reiteration, intertextuality. Key questions would be: How and to what effect is the "Toda" "woman" cited in colonial ethnography? What are the processes that are formative of the "empirical" facts of tribal life, or in another instance, the physiognomy of the criminal body? How is the Lakshmi figure and her double, the knife-wielding dominatrix, cited in a modern, nationalist cosmology? How does the dancing dervish of popular south Indian Islam fit into these schemes?"[3]


Pushpamala N. was born in 1956 in Bangalore. Her early training was in sculpture, but as her practice progressed she brought an early enthusiasm for narrative figuration into her photographic work. Pushpamala’s photographic works are usually created as series, some the artist refers to as projects, others as ‘photo-romances’. Pushpamala uses her own body to perform different roles in these series, which draw from the imagery of popular culture, mythology and historical references from India and elsewhere, using humour, wit and a sharp critical gaze to look at contemporary society.

Pushpamala’s performative photography and videos sometimes function as a kind of installation, where the exhibit may resemble a film or theatre museum or even a movie theatre. She conceives, researches, scripts and designs the mise-en-scenes, working with photographers or photo studios to produce the work where her friends may play supporting roles, or offer their places as locations, which also function as hidden ‘jokes’.  She has also made experimental short films that play with film genres. Pushpamala has exhibited internationally and her work is held in many major institutional and private collections. She lives and works in Bangalore and New Delhi, India[4].

"...  In Pushpamala, the photographic medium creates a similar sense of estrangement from both the self and the cultural mythology it embodies. While the artist’s self becomes distributed and re-assembled as myth, the camera breaks the mythic surface into an uncanny array of competing references. At the same time, the carefully staged images insist on their indexicality: the heft and weight of the body, the facial contortions, the crumpled garments, the stilled mist were all present before the lens. The photograph’s capacity to reveal what Walter Benjamin calls the ‘optical unconscious’ of the visible world produces in the body a new effect, that of mutability[5]. It is only when the indexical image of such a body looks back from that virtual point, as Foucault has it[6], that it reinscribes a sense of self in both the artist and the viewer"[7].

In an interview with Aditi De[8] Pushpamala says, "I've been doing performance photography, instead of sculpture, since the 1997 Phantom Lady series, which Clare saw in the United Kingdom. As a photojournalist, she's interested in images of South Indian women. That captured my imagination. We decided to collaborate and applied for an IFA grant for our ambitious work, a departure from the performative photo-romances or studio portraiture I'd earlier directed".

In the interview it was continued: "In my earlier performance photographs, a mise en scene was set up. Other characters and I posed, while a still photograph was taken. Both Clare and I were interested in the tableaux form. We decided to recreate representations from different media — paintings, newspaper photographs, historical photography, advertisements, film stills, including goddesses, mythological characters and criminals. Clare insisted that each shoot should differ in terms of image, set, lighting, costume, even character. Of course, the 1960s Jayalalithaa picture (in Zorro-style action gear) from the India Today cover connects directly with the Phantom Lady. Choosing the painterly Ravi Varma woman with the pot suited us fine because I was working with hoarding painters for the backdrops, and he's been so influential in forming the image of the Indian woman."

[to be continued...]

[1] Interview with Adity De

[3] Susie Tharu, "This is not an inventory: Norm and performance in everyday femininity", Native women of South India : manners and customs/ Pushpamala, N; Clare Arni; Bangalore: Indian Foundation for The Arts, 2004.

[5] Walter Benjamin, ‘A small history of photography’, in One way street and other writings, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London and New York: Verso, 1997, pp. 242–43.
[6] Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, ‘Of other spaces’, Diacritics, vol. 16, no. 1, Spring 1986, p. 24.
[7] Ajay Sinha, Professor of Art History and Film Studies, Mount Holyoke College, United States,

[8] see link:

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