Shortlists offer thematic selections from AAA’s Collection, including overviews and annotations by invited contributors. The following Shortlist by art historian Rakhee Balaram focuses on women in the visual arts in India and South Asia.
Any definition of women in the visual arts of India and South Asia should consider the diversity of their roles—from critics and writers to curators, museum directors, gallerists, arts workers, academics, activists, etc.—as well as the parameters of what constitutes the field. I offer not an exhaustive list, but a select one to suggest preliminary ways of thinking about the position of women in the visual arts, and to serve as a foundation for more comprehensive lists to be produced in the future. As scholar Anna C. Chave once wrote concerning the question of segregating “women artists” within the general classification of “artists”: “Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.” Her comment reveals the political necessity of recovering and retrieving individual names (at the expense of possibly erasing or overlooking others), while also acknowledging (and even celebrating) the reinstatement of difference(s).
Untangling the many factors that lead to the marginalisation of women artists in South Asia necessitates an intersectional approach and a process of recuperation, in which the conditions of coloniality and postcoloniality often overlap and intersect, as do shared regional or international terrains (e.g., artists from different countries educated together in art schools). This extends to the more globalised conditions of working in the arts today, where opportunities—in exhibitions, fairs, and biennials; in diverse forms of digital and web activities; and in artists’ own initiatives and practices—are reshaping what a sense of belonging to a specific location actually means.
The history of women artists in India cannot be separated from the evolution and sustained critiques of Indian feminist thinking since the nineteenth century, and the way such critiques overlap with appraisals of other forms of social, sexual, or ethnic marginalisation. Any analysis of modern art history from the works of Raja Ravi Varma in the nineteenth century onwards, or any critical study of the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay after India’s independence, has produced a decidedly male narrative—even when written by a woman. But since the 1930s, there has been a recognition in India of Hungarian Sikh Amrita Sher-Gil’s central importance as a pioneer of a European and Indian style of painting, whose influence has been acknowledged by a number of later artists. Her presence disrupts an art historical narrative otherwise dominated by men. A generation of artists and collectives—such as the aforementioned Bombay Progressives’ Artist Group, the Kerala Radicals, and the artists at Cholamandal Artists’ Village—were predominately male, with the exception of Anita Dube among the Kerala Radicals, and Arnawaz Vasudev and Anila Jacob in Cholamandal. Women artists in India responded to these male painterly traditions, or the heroic narratives surrounding them, either directly through their own cultivated artist personas, or by way of practice through their post-Independence cultural and social critiques, or through a combination of the two.
Feminist critique is inherent to any study of women’s role in the arts and has been a catalyst for the major reassessments of women artists in the 1970s that continue today. Timely inquiries coincide with Western movements, even if they are not explicitly ”feminist,” such as the reevaluation of Amrita Sher-Gil by a generation of artists and art critics in the 1972 edition of the Indian journal MARG. Even before the political mobilisation of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s, or women’s active engagement with the Telangana and Tebhaga Independence movements of the 1940s, the nineteenth century saw the emergence of social campaigns involving women. During that time, women enrolled in colonial art schools in India or abroad, while other amateur artists across social classes often limited their work to the domestic sphere within the rural, folk, academic, or modernist traditions. More names emerge in the early decades of the twentieth century: Ambika Dhurandhar(1912–2009) and self-taught watercolorist Sunayani Devi (1875–1962).
In the decades pre- and post-Independence, women in India enrolled as art students in government art schools; and in Santiniketan, this extended to accepting international women as students. In the decades after Indian Independence, women artists began to make their mark at the M. S. University Baroda. Nasreen Mohamedi, whose abstract practices ran counter to the figurative trends of the time, became an important mentor and teacher for a generation of students; the practices of Rekha Rodwittiya and Nilima Sheikh were equally influential. Significant early group exhibitions by women included Through the Looking Glass, initiated by Nalini Malani in 1979, which became a travelling exhibition from 1987 to 1989 of watercolors by four women artists: Madhvi Parekh, Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh, and Arpita Singh. The watercolor format not only facilitated the easy transport of the works but also signalled a rupture with the dominance and prestige of the oil-on-canvas tradition, associated with male artists like the Progressives Artists’ Group in then-Bombay.
Achar, Deeptha. “‘Invisible Chemistry,’ The Women’s Movement and the Indian Women Artist.” In Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism, edited by Deeptha Achar and Shivaji K. Panikkar. Tulika Books, 2012. REF.ACD2
Balaram, Rakhee. “Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self in Portraits.” In Amrita Sher-Gil: The Self in Making. New Delhi: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 2013. [English and Hindi]
Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1993. REF.KUR4
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University, 2003. REF.MOC
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.“Moving Devi.” Cultural Critique, no. 47 (Winter 2001):120-163. CLP.01.WIN
Sundaram, Vivan et al. Amrita Sher-Gil, MARG Publications, India Book Centre, 1972. See also: Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram Archive.
Tharu, Susie, and Tejaswini Niranjana.“Problems for a Contemporary Theory of Gender.” In Feminism in India, edited by Maitrayee Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Sage, 2004.
Through the Looking Glass. New Delhi: Centre for Contemporary Art, 1989. Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram Archive
Re-routing Regional Traditions
A legacy of colonial institutions in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Lahore also gave rise to regional strengths, each with their own individual histories, that ultimately led to the decline of a purely European training and the embrace of more local traditions and subject matter. In the post-Independence period, schools evolved and continued to shape aesthetic practices in the area, training women artists in India and hiring some of them as teachers. In the South, women artists with a diversity of styles responded to daily life and experiences through an identification with local languages, cultures, and histories. These artists include Kavita Deuskar, Anila Jacob, Rani Nanjappa, T. K. Padmini, Padma Reddy, and Arnawaz Vasudev. In Bengal, artists such as abstract painter Amina Ahmed Kar and sculptor Meera Mukherjee defined modernist trends alongside male counterparts. This regional focus allowed artists to choose to self-identify within these frameworks as an expression of empowerment, or to challenge the more nationalistic and urban-based narratives of Delhi and Bombay.
Charting Contemporary Practices
Contemporary art in India has expanded to include voices and critical interlocutors that disrupt the more dominant forms of practice, as well as challenge cultural, class, and caste authority. The work of artists who explored caste oppression parallel the range of expression seen in Dalit literature, as seen in the confessional paintings of Jaya Daronde. Folk artists have also found a wider public through their adaptation of traditions. Madhubani painters Sita Devi, Mahasundari Devi, and Ganga Devi became influential names, the latter exhibiting internationally and achieving acclaim for her innovative melding of folk forms with contemporary events.
In the 2000s, art practice, exhibition making, and art writing by women remain diverse and extensive. Women artists in India explored historical and nationalist critiques, migration, globalisation, class, caste, and feminist issues, garnering market attention and critical acclaim. They have also shown themselves to be innovators in various media forms. A number of contemporary women artists work across mediums, thus it is necessarily shortsighted to restrict them to one or two forms in the following list, which serves an overview across generations. These artists include: painters Anjolie Ela Menon, Arpana Caur, Anju Dodiya, Nilima Sheikh, and Mithu Sen; sculptors Mrinalini Mukherjee and Latika Katt; printmakers Anupam Sud and Zarina; video artist Nalini Malani and performance artist Rummana Hussain. The photo-performances of Pushpamala N., along with the body-focused works of Sonia Khurana, Shakuntala Kulkarni, and the early pioneer Ratnabali Kant, were equally important to performance art. Sculptors and installation artists such as Navjot Altaf, Sheba Chhachhi, Anita Dube, Sheela Gowda, and Bharti Kher offered powerful feminist critique through these mediums. Community and public art projects, such as those by Indrani Baruah, brought collaborators together to raise environmental awareness in the northeast.
In photography, Homai Vyarawalla, left an important legacy as a photojournalist who chronicled the Independence movement. More recently, Dayanita Singh recorded the intimacies of personal lives, while Gauri Gill collaborated with Warli artist Rajesh Vangad over Fields of Sight, which features Warli inscriptions on photographs. The current generation of women employing media technologies include Nalini Malani—who as early as 1969 made early experiments in video at the Vision Exchange Workshop—Shilpa Gupta and her subversive use of websites in the 2000s, Tejal Shah’s investigation of sexuality and transgender issues via digital media, and Jasmeen Patheja’s activist usage of blogs in her work.
Bean, Susan S. “Feminism and Women Artists in India.” Contemporary Indian Art: Other Realities, edited by Yashodhara Dalmia. Marg Publications, 2002. REFL.DAY
Jain, Jyotindra, ed. Ganga Devi: Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting. Mapin Publishing, 1997. MON.DEG
Kamble, Baby. The Prisons We Broke, translated from Marathi by Maya Pandit. Orient Black Swan, 2017. REF.KAB2
Kapur, Geeta. “Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work.” In When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000. REF.KAG2
Mitter, Partha, Parul-Dave Mukherji, and Rakhee Balaram, eds. Twentieth-Century Indian Art, Thames & Hudson (forthcoming). Important essays on or about women include those by Ashrafi Bhagat, Rohini Iyengar, Nandini Ghosh, Amrita Singh Gupta, Gayatri Sinha, and Y. S. Alone.
Roy, Nilanjana S. “A Parity Gap for Women in Indian Art.” New York Times, January 31, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/01/world/asia/01iht-letter01.html
Sen, Geeti. Feminine Fables: Imaging the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography, and Cinema. New Delhi: Mapin Publishing, 2006.
Sinha, Gayatri. Expressions and Evocations: Contemporary Women Artists of India. Marg Publications, 1996. REFL.SIG2
Navigating Women's Exhibitions
Exhibitions of women artists in the last few decades have emerged across India and throughout South Asia. Increasing visibility remains a priority for many artists, curators, and interested gallerists, as significant economic disparities continue to exist between sexes and career opportunities remain elusive for many women trying to forge a sustainable practice. Museum and gallery exhibitions of women artists—both national and international ones—often combine women artists from India with those from other countries as part of a shared curatorial concept. Women’s exhibitions and workshops also take place in galleries, alternative platforms, and other small venues as a means of fostering solidarity and activist-oriented practice in the field. Exhibitions can bring critical insight to the contemporary meaning of “woman” and can question essentialist categories of gender and sexuality such as Mapping Gender at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi, in 2013. New research continues to unfold and challenge normative assumptions and easy binaries concerning gender.
Historically, art critics such as Stella Kramrisch, Jaya Appasamy, and, later, Geeta Kapur have left a marked legacy in art writing in the premodern, modern, and contemporary periods. Kramrisch and Kapur also played significant roles as curators. Kapur’s exhibition Dispossession at the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale, for instance, focused exclusively on four women artists—Sheela Gowda, Nalini Malani, Pushpamala N., and Nilima Sheikh—using the profile of the biennial to increase gender visibility across the Global South.
As with the work of art historian and curator Salima Hashmi in Pakistan and the Women’s Action Forum (established in 1981), political initiatives and activism have shaped the lives and experiences of women artists, and are reflected in individual and collective practices, curatorial work, and critical writings. In Myanmar, this is seen in videos of women artists, such as those created by Mie Mie in 2017, which documents the lives of five female artists, and attests to the interdisciplinarity of artists working in different mediums or across local and national frames. Women-only exhibitions and workshops continue to be held in galleries and other small venues in India and across South Asia, sometimes mixing artists of only local or different nationalities—examples that span recent decades include the exhibition Her (2017) in Lhasa, Tibet, and She (1994) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At times, these worlds intersect in artist collaborations and exhibition opportunities for artists from across South Asia. They remain vital platforms for the recognition and advancement of women artists.
Dalmia, Yashodhara and Salima Hashmi. Memory, Metaphor and Mutations: Contemporary Art in India and Pakistan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007. REF.DAY
Gadon, Elinor W., et al. Tiger by the Tail: Women Artists of India: Transforming Culture. Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 2007. EX.USA.TTW
In Order to Join, curated by Swapna Tamhane and Susanne Titz. Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, 8 December 2013–16 March 2014, and CSMVS and Goethe-Institute, Mumbai, 26 February–10 April 2015. There was a workshop in association with KHOJ, Delhi, in Spring 2015.
Kapur, Geeta. “Gender Mobility: Through the Lens of Five Women Artists in India.” In Global Feminisms: Kapur, Geeta. New Directions in Contemporary Art, edited by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin. London; New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2007. EX.USA.GLF
Kapur, Geeta. “Dispossession.” In Africus. Johannesburg Biennale, 1993. See also: Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram Archive.
Mapping Gender exhibition. The School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, November 16–December 6 2013. EX.IND.MGB
Milford-Lutzker, Mary-Ann. Woman Artists of India: A Celebration of Independence. Oakland: Mills College, 1997. EX.USA.WAI
Re-picturing the Feminine, curated by Marnie Dean. Gallery OED, Kochi, 2012.
Shivadas, Vidya. “Fluid Structures: Gender and Abstraction in India (1973–2008).” New Delhi: Vadehra Gallery, 2008.
Telling Tales: 5 Women Artists from India, curated by Rasna Bhushan and Jane Connarty. Victoria Gallery, Bath, 1997. See also Andrews, Jorella. “Telling Tales.” In Third Text 12, no. 43 (June 2008): 81–9. PER.THT
The Second Sex: Feminist Photography on the Cusp, curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala. Lakeeren Art Gallery, Mumbai, 2011.
In recent years, contemporary artists have concertedly worked over, across, and through the borders of South Asia. Starting in 2000, Indian artist Shilpa Gupta collaborated with Pakistani artist Huma Mulji to establish Aar Paar, a project that lasted through several iterations over the years, with the purpose of artistic exchange between Karachi, Pakistan, and Mumbai, India. The project employed simple ways of transporting works across borders such as via the postal system and video, and used emails to print posters, allowing art to break down geographical borders between nations. Artist platforms—Khoj in Delhi, Vasl in Karachi, Theertha in Colombo, Britto in Dhaka, and later Sutra in Kathmandu—formed the South Asia Network for the Arts (SANA), fostering solidarity across geopolitical boundaries. Initiated by British art collector Robert Loder of the Triangle Arts Trust, SANA (which ceased to exist in 2011) in some ways echoed soft-power measures such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which since the 1980s has offered government initiatives for artists. These platforms presented, and continue to present, opportunities for women by incorporating them more broadly into local, regional, and international networks. Their workshops often support and give attention to women artists.
Women artists in the diaspora also redefine their ties to South Asia through art produced in their home countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, Britain’s Black Arts Movement saw the mobilisation of women of South Asian origin, such as Sutapa Biswas, Chila Kumari Burman, Samena Rana, and other women of color, at a time of political struggle and racial tensions. In the United States, efforts to draw together women artists of South Asian descent are seen in the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC), a collective active since 1997, spearheaded by artist Jaishri Abichandani and her collaborators. Originally based in New York, it has expanded over time to include other branches. The group holds annual exhibitions in addition to major retrospective exhibitions that have appeared at the Queens Museum in New York. Many of these artists also exhibit in India. Bolstered first by the now-defunct Person of Indian Origin card in 2002, and subsequently by the Overseas Citizenship of India status instituted in 2006, many diasporic women of South Asian origin shape and change the character of the arts in India and neighboring countries: by frequently exhibiting, curating, lecturing, and participating in art events there, they diminish and question the importance of national borders.
Aar Paar. “About: Aar Paar 2000.” Accessed August 6, 2018. http://www.members.tripod.com/aarpaar2/about.htm.
Her Stories: 15 Years of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective. Queens Museum, New York: South Asian Women Creative Collective [SAWCC], 2012.
Himid, Lubaina. The Thin Black Line. Institute of Contemporary Art, 1985.
Sambrani, Chaitanya. “Printing Across Borders: The Aar Paar Project.” In Art Monthly Australia, no. 171 (July 2004). PER.AMA
SANA: South Asian Network for the Arts. New Delhi: Ford Foundation, 2014. REF.SOP2
Sood, Pooja, ed. The Khoj Book, 1997–2007: Contemporary Art Practice in India. Noida, India: Harper Collins, 2010. REFL.SOP2
Rakhee Balaram is a writer, critic, and art historian. She is Assistant Professor of Global Art and Art History at the State University of New York-Albany. She previously taught at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
This shortlist has been revised and expanded.