On the first floor of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is a Kalighat painting that depicts a man fanning a woman. An unusual event for the 19th century, the artwork is from a series that depicts the true story of a seduction, murder and a court trial in 1873.

The case is often referred to as the Tarakeshwar affair. The bare bones of the story are as follow: a childless couple seeks the blessings of a priest to help them conceive. The priest seduces the young wife, Elokeshi, and the husband decapitates her when he finds out about the affair. The husband and priest are tried by a British judge, and found guilty. This leads to a furore, because the Bengali population feels the husband is justified in killing his unfaithful wife. The case has been immortalised through Kalighat scrolls, such as the one at NGMA.

Elokeshi’s story is evocative. And the painting depicting it raises questions about gender, art and patronage. In early November, the Kalighat painting featured as the fourth stop on an art walk titled Ladies Only: Representation of Women in Modern Indian Art, as part of the Delhi Walk Festival. The two-hour walk comprised Habiba Insaf and Sujata Parsai of the education company FLOW India leading a group of 30 men and women (mostly women) through the NGMA’s new wing, to reexamine art through the lens of gender.

Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Whose picture is it, anyway?

Paintings as old as the Mughal miniatures speak volumes about the position of women in contemporary society. At the first stop of the Ladies Only walk, Insaf pointed to the courtesans in Mughal miniature paintings, as subjects who reflect the wealth and fertility of the men who commissioned the artworks – the emperor and courtiers.

The women in the paintings, all the way from Kalighat and Tanjore to Company School works by British painter Tilly Kettle, are often deities or “public women”: dancers, sex workers and courtesans. Their features are generic, perhaps purposefully avoiding semblance to a living person. That is, till you come to the early 20th century and painters like MF Pithawala.

A graduate of the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, Pithawala drew portraits of so-called respectable women. The NGMA has an entire aisle of works by him, including Portrait of a Parsi Girl. The portrait is made in her likeness, but every detail of the lace on her dress and the Chinese fan in her hand is designed to point to the affluence of her family. “By this time some Bombay traders had already made huge sums of money from the opium trade in China,” said Insaf.

The woman in the painting isn’t smiling. Like the Mughal courtesans, she too is undeniably a marker of the man’s wealth and station in society.

Portrait of a Parsi Girl, by MF Pithawala. Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

Seeing is understanding

In 1932, Amrita Sher-Gil painted her famous piece, Young Girls. A large oil-on-canvas work, it depicts two women in a private bedroom. Two years later, in 1934, Sher-Gil came to India. Living in her paternal home in Uttar Pradesh, she felt the need for a new art language, something that was suited to Indian subjects and sensibilities.

Drawing on the artistic traditions of the Ajanta caves and miniature paintings, she developed a style that was simultaneously unique and familiar. That’s what one sees in works like The Bride’s Toilet and Three Girls – also in the NGMA collection and part of the walk. The subjects of Sher-Gil’s paintings were often ordinary women, engaged in mundane activities, simply going about their day.

Stories about Sher-Gil (including her love affairs with men and women) are known to her followers of India. Yet the shift in her art truly comes alive when you see works like Young Girls and Three Girls together.

In the 1980s and 1990s, choreographer Saroj Khan set the tone for female sensuality through movement and dance in Hindi cinema. Photographer Dayanita Singh captured Khan’s process in a set of photographs titled Masterji Series (1994). The series is made up of pictures where Khan can be seen teaching actors like Rekha the choreography to a dance sequence. Often, there are no men in the pictures – just Khan and her female assistants, in various poses suggestive of everything from a budding romance to lovemaking.

A photograph from Masterji Series (1994) by Dayanita Singh.

“The process of creating this feminine sensuality is almost homoerotic,” said Insaf.

It’s an interesting perspective on the series. On the one hand, the finished product of the Hindi film dance sequence is a feminine identity that is almost regressive. On the other hand, the creative process of a brilliant choreographer and the space where women work in close proximity shows that they have the final word on the end product.

Material girls

The third floor of NGMA, devoted to contemporary art, featured on the walk thanks to three female sculptors: Meera Mukherjee, Mrinalini Mukherjee and Navjot Altaf.

Each one has a different style and story to tell. Meera Mukherjee famously lived in a Bastar village in Madhya Pradesh to learn the lost wax technique for making bronze statues. Navjot Altaf, an activist-artist, made the Palani’s daughter sculpture at the NGMA to protest female foeticide. Mrinalini Mukherjee’s very choice of material – hemp – straddles the debate around art and craft, where weaving and textiles are considered to be feminine by nature. Mrinalini Mukherjee worked with hemp for nearly 25 years. Insaf led a lively discussion next to an untitled work by her that resembled a vulva.

Art bears the stamp of the time in which it is made. One way to appreciate it and the cultural ethos in which it exists is through the stories art encapsulates. The Ladies Only walk wasn’t just about art made by women, it included works by Jamini Roy, Raja Ravi Varma and an amazing sculpture called Hunger by Sudhir Khastgir. The series of works were woven into a story about gender by the walk’s curators – with chapters ranging from the creative process to the artists’ own internal struggles.

Photo credit: Chanpreet Khurana

FLOW India organises the Ladies Only walk periodically. Visit their website for more information.