New York, once known as 'Fun City', soon became 'Gun City' --- just as Hollywood fast morphed into 'Follywood'. And yet, we repeatedly see the echoes and reflections of such decadent and degenerate cultural practices within our own country's urban milieu. Of late, we find the Bollywood-model affecting almost every genre of Indian culture. Trends of India's current gallery-culture, showcasing our urban art, indicate that it is high time we seriously examine why the sleaze of the western 'entertainment industry' now threatens to over-run and tarnish even our most valuable and beautiful aesthetic Rasas, and authentic stylistic Gharanas.
Regardless of the 'trendy' nature of her enacted digital imagery, Pushpamala N. is no novice-imagist. She must surely know better than to blindly enact the western crime-comic mode. Many recent aspirants purporting to join the current 'cool-art' bandwagon—the 'trendy pretenders'—do not have this senior performer's decades of experience of navigating the 'cool art' scene. After a BA in English, Psychology and Economics from Bangalore University, she did Fine Art at MS University Baroda; then went on to re-invent herself as an avant-garde Photo-Video based 'performance artist'. She constantly features herself as her own thematic model in her imagery, in a self-obsessed narcissistic style.
Using the internationally-popular mode of 'Ethnography' -- a form of aesthetic currency that is easily amenable to 'coding' and 'de-coding' others via the soft avenue of culture -- the South Indian Pushpamala went on to exhibit all over the western world, Japan, Singapore, Australia and South Africa, aside from select Indian galleries. Utilising a trendy gallery-lexicon covering gender, ethnography, sociology and history, she uses certain marketable elements of 'ethnic Indian popular culture' -- which may also be described as 'local colour' -- as her international USP. She has, as a result, often exhibited in collaboration with western photographers, such as Claire Arni at London's Saatchi Gallery.
In the current exhibit at Gurgaon's Nature Morte, oddly titled "The Return of the Phantom Lady (Sinful City)", 21 'Giclee Print' photos, in a very conventional wall display, consciously aim to depict Mumbai as a stronghold of sleaze --- in dark images peopled by wannabe Indian gangsters, molls, criminals, nautch-girls and other low-lives, functioning lasciviously within shady Mumbai metropolitan haunts.
In an ominous photographic sequence of western Film-Noir recreations, this series documents eccentric characters from the Indian underbelly, who are seemingly imitating western gangsters, molls and comic-book characters. Are the villians of mafia-dom now 'cool' emblems?
'Giclee' is an American term, coined in 1991 for high-resolution, ink-jet art-printing in fade-resistant large formats, done on IRIS Printers. The term originally comes from the French word gicleur, which means 'to squirt from a nozzle'.
Pushpamala's first 'photo-performance' series of 25 photos, created in 1996-98, formulated the initial persona of an eccentric Indian 'Phantom Lady', also known as 'Kismet'. The artist featured herself as this Phantom Lady, photographed in comic-book uniforms, 'starring' as this character who is part 'Phantom' and part 'Wonderwoman', in an Americanised DC-Comic-book mode -- alongside her lost twin sister, known as 'The Vamp'. The current Nature Morte show, Return of the Phantom Lady, is a sequel to 'Kismet'.
In this Show's 21 images, we find the hooded, masked protagonist navigating dark webs of crime, intrigue and mayhem in murderous, mad Mumbai. The masked Phantom Lady rescues an orphaned schoolgirl, thus running into the underworld land-grabbers and goons. American-gangsterish 'Chase' enactments are rather insipidly photographed inside decrepit Mumbai movie halls, jhuggis, chawls and modern official complexes. Deceptive glass covers and mirrors reflect the false facades of the city's nightmarish, Kafka-esque mazes. Under the heading Project Cinema City, these photo-sequences were exhibited with much 'serious intent' at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore.
Technically, however, these images are neither visually striking nor thought-provoking. Instead, they reek of Bollywood cliches, emulating the repetitive lexicon of western crime-oriented comic-books. There seems to be a sudden spate of blatant sleaze-genres in Indian Art, Cinema, and Literature.
It must be further stated that, technically, Pushpamala's Giclee prints are too small and unfocussed for any lasting aesthetic or creative impact. Their sizes, at 20" x 30", are unimposing, with an overall darkness, and dank colour-fields that do not inspire any genuine human drama, nor any real emotional connect. More than half of the photo-surfaces are stark dark --- such as Office or Tamasha. Pushpamala, as an Indian Wonderwoman, looks awkward and wooden. Strangely, too, I detected the presence of the technically-gifted Mumbai painter Atul Dodiya in the series --- Dodiya is 'modelling' as an Americanised gangster in two of the photos on display.
By contrast, Pushpamala's prior (2000-03) photo-series, Women of South India, conveyed more aesthetic clarity. In terms of composition, concept and colour, Yogini and Lakshmi contained traces of the genuine Indian aesthetic --- and this was despite their kitschy Oleographic tenor, evidently catering to the touristy eye. The current Sinful City photo-tableaux, however, bears absolutely no Indian Rasa. Its overall effect is that of the most banal and conventional western commercial photography.
In a 1990's interview Pushpamala was asked if she was a congenital narcissist, since she repeatedly posed as different Doppelganger (double-faced) characters, wearing odd and flamboyant outfits and exaggerated makeup, in her various photo-series. She had then answered, "The artist Bhupen Khakkar has photos of himself in a 1972 catalogue, posing as James Bond, Mr. Universe, and 'A Man With a Headache' -- turning artistic narcissism on its head! I felt that was a lost moment in Indian art, as nobody really followed it up."
But the fact is, Pushpamala's inherent aesthetic reveals itself only when she recreates tableaux of genuine Indian goddesses and authentic Indian women. Losing the Rasas of such authenticity, her Phantom Lady's comical facileness, in an orchestrated enactment of Sin City, seems irrelevant and insipid. Indian artists must return to, and replenish, their own authentic cultural traditions.