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An avant-garde Indian artist looks both forwards and back in history

By Rosslyn Hyams

Nalini Malani is an avant-garde multi-media artist from India, whose personal and national histories are keys to her work, as is her way of challenging established mores and customs.

The Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris which has one of her installations in its permanent collection (Remembering Mad Meg, 2007) has co-organised a retrospective of her work with the Castello di Rivoli in Italy. It's called The Rebellion of the Dead.

For a retrospective the number of exhibits is small. However, the size of the exhibits is huge. Some of them are audio-visual installations like the constantly morphing and vocal Hamletmachine (2000), the title taken from Heiner Muller's play. It's one of the several signs of Nalini Malini's love of theatre.

Another, The Job (1997), is more static. A stuffed headless, white cotton body lies on a table, legs dangling, exhausted or dead, with dozens of extruding cotton-stuffed hands, where the head should be, is a computer screen.

The dummy is the centre of a piece based on a story reported in a newspaper about the death of a widow who pushed herself to earn enough money just to feed her children.

Beneath, on a parquet floor is stencilled, By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou fail to earn thy bread, inspired by a short story by Bertolt Brecht.

The drawing and patches of colour are on both sides of a bed quilt Malani's grandmother brought as a refugee from Karachi at the time of India's independence from Britain and of the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

On the other side of the room, picture frames hang on the wall in the drawing-room-style composite installation, Unity in Diversity (2003).

In a big frame, the 19th century masterpiece Galaxy of Musicians by artist Raja Ravi Varma, is superimposed by video images of ordinary people who experienced the 2002 riots in Gujurat State.

In her 2016 work called All we imagine as light, window-size reverse paintings run like a belt around four walls, glassy and brightly coloured, one of Malani's traditional skills, contrasting with her penchant for experimenting with moving image and sound techniques.

They bear the words from the poems of late Kashmiri poet Agha Shadid Ali in The Country Without a Post Office (1997).

"We are having a lot of problems there, and it also connects with other problems we see in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Yemen now. Most of the works you will see have to do with separation and the pain of parting. That's losing one's children as they go into hidingand the grandparents not seeing the grand children ever again. So it's separation I speak about in these works," says Malani.

Images, colours, sounds move in Malani's work and have done always since she finished studies in classical painting in the 1960s.

Scenes of urban life back then and more recently, in black and white and then in colour, hang side-by-side to contrast the then urban dream-plan of new-age architecture and the now isolated people trapped in dour tower-blocks.

Even the black and white and shades of grey go to work in her experimental cine-camera pieces in 1967-1969 when she filmed a man weaving to the rythymic sound of the handloom. She said he'd told her that "Women were not allowed to touch the loom. They could only spin the yarn."

Even before Malani came to Paris for a couple of years soon after the social revolutions began in 1968 in Europe and the US, she was concerned about attitudes to, and freedom for women.

The weaver film hangs next to one of a woman writhing and moaning alone on a bed. And she says modestly, "I had a gap in my education, I came to Paris because I needed to learn about the philosophy of aesthetics".

Retrospective Nalini Malani, The Rebellion of the Dead at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris until 8 January 2018, and in March 2018 at Castello di Rivoli, Italy.

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