Selected works by Pushpamala N.

Pushpamala N.
From The Ethnographic Series Native Women of South India: Manners & Customs, 2000-2004 (Supported by an Arts Collaboration Grant from the India Foundation for the Arts)


Medium: set of 45 sepia-toned silver gelatin prints

Dimensions: variable

Bangalore based Pushpamala N is a photo- and video-performance artist who is the subject of her own compositions. In this series of works, the artist explores photography as a tool of ethnographic documentation and humorously challenges the authenticity of the photographic image. Created in collaboration with photographer Clare Arni, The Ethnographic Series draws attention to the choreographed stylistics of early anthropological studies, enacting and thereby transforming stereotypes of women. Dressing in period costume, Pushpamala refashions these stereotypes to subvert and critique the forensic classification of humanity. The strength of The Ethnographic Series lies in Pushpamala’s wit in reconstructing such scenes and playfully deconstructing them, acting both as subject and object to the camera.


Heroic or the Mock Heroic: Pushpamala's exactitude

In Pushpamala's provocatively titled Native Women of South India - Manners and Customs, which evokes the coloniser's 19th Century ethnographic project for western eyes, the terms of reference run up and down the scale like a mocking echo. Elevated and popular art, the studio and the street, the original and its mocking facsimile become the sites of engagement. For, in the choice of subjects and their rendition - the number of pearl strings around the Yogini's neck for example or the exact way in which the nayika modestly holds up her sari in Ravi Varma's Lady in the Moonlight, Pushpamala often works for near Xerox like exactitude. That she carries off the project with panache is only a part of its success.

Pushpamala enters the area of Walter Benjamin's concerns around the art of mechanical reproduction, of the original and kitsch and by making her own prints available for sale in cheap plastic frames, climbs out of the gallery paradigm into the popular space.

The project, as a whole, also investigates the larger issues around representation in the 19th Century of the subject races, studio portraiture, the ideas of decoration and the gaze. This she does by moving through several types - the toda tribal, Ravi Varma's heroine, the prototypical heroine of South Indian cinema, the petty criminal.

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Performance photography : Q and A with Pushpamela N

PUSHPAMALA N. proves a natural to performance photography, provoking alternate ways of seeing and art-making. In her recent work, "Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs", which was on at Bangalore's Gallery Sumukha from March 7 to 27, she collaborates with photographer Clare Arni with dramatic results.

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."

Sourcing data from artist friends, working with hoarding and auto-rickshaw painters, Baroda-trained Pushpamala is central to the 10 main tableaux, a nayika recreating generic stereotypes. These encompass detailed renditions of three Ravi Varma paintings � "Lady in Moonlight", "Lakshmi" and "Returning from the Tank". That's besides a newspaper photograph of two women chain-snatchers, holding identity slates; a 1960s still of Jayalalithaa in action gear from an India Today cover; a 16th Century yogini from a Bijapur miniature, communing with her spirit medium; even a Velankanni Mary amidst the devout. The most startling renders a Toda woman against a chessboard backdrop, her arm outstretched against a measuring device � adapted from a photograph of a bare-breasted Andamanese native being subjected to colonial "ethnographic studies".

Deconstructing these "native types", the artists take off with the subversive wit so individual to Pushpamala's work. This results in a Ravi Varma heroine as a popular Amrita Sher-Gill figure. Or a gingham-clad Clare and her collaborator in sepia renditions sourced from a catalogue of oceanic photography. Or even the Toda woman astride a scooter.

En route, these conceptual artists interface with gender studies, art history, or sociology � including the women-only zenana studios of Kolkata and Hyderabad. Chuckling, Pushpamala describes the multi-layered show as "a sister act, double bill or even a dasavatar".

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ART IN REVIEW: Pushpamala N.

Photography and filmmaking arrived in India immediately after their invention in Europe, which is one reason South Asia has such a long history of sophisticated work in both media. Pushpamala N., a contemporary artist working in Bangalore, takes account of that history and makes it her own in a strong New York solo debut.

The four photographic series in the show have links to South Asian cinematic conventions. ''Phantom Lady, or Kismet'' (1996-98) is a takeoff on Indian pop films about the exploits of a superheroine named Nadia, who here wears Zorro-esque attire to rescue a vampy younger sister from underworld embroilment. Shot mostly in nighttime Mumbai, the series has a rich, film-noir atmosphere and a surreal, Bollywood-style narrative structure that can be reshuffled for different showings.

As in all her work, Pushpamala N. is chief actor as well as director, and she is a charismatic on-camera presence. She plays both sisters in ''Phantom Lady'' with aplomb, and brings the same qualities to ''Golden Dreams'' (1998), a kind of woman-having-a-nervous-breakdown tale of romance and entrapment that concludes with the heroine holding an invisible opponent at gunpoint. Here the original black-and-white prints have been hand colored, giving them a slightly antique look, as is true of the 10 pictures in ''The Anguished Heart'' (2002), a story of lost love that might have come straight from Satyajit Ray.

The melancholic tone of this last series is also distilled in a single portrait of Pushpamala N., one of a group shot by J. H. Thakker, famed for his studio photographs of Indian film stars of the 1950's and 60's. In this group of photos she represents the seven moods traditionally associated with women in northern Indian poetry and painting -- sad, erotic, happy, angry and so on -- and plays each role with a confounding mix of self-consciousness and conviction.

It is precisely this mix that sets her work apart from other implicitly feminist artists like Cindy Sherman and Eleanor Antin. They make their distance from their cinematic models clear; she, selectively and daringly, keeps the connection alive.

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