Rekha Rodwittiya is an unabashed feminist, a peculiarity in these times when the female figure is used more as an aesthetic vehicle than a symbolic subversion of the male gaze. Which is why these 20 new works, part of Rekha@fifty, a solo at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, celebrating 50 years of her life through heavily stylized, unibrowed figures, appear at first glance somewhat dated.
Gimlet-eyed, bow-lipped and heavy-limbed, they fit every aesthetic stereotype of the pop-toned deities so often seen on greeting cards. These women, some spread across 9-10ft of canvas, are not the lithe, sleek-bodied muses seen in the works of (Jiten) Thukral and (Sumir) Tagra and their peers. They brandish swords (sometimes hidden in whip-like hair extensions), but also lug around jhadus (brooms), gajras (flowers for the hair), and other hopelessly prosaic symbols of domesticity.
Blue lady: Rodwittiya’s exhibit features 20 new works.
Yet perversely, her figures, for all their jewel-toned cheeriness, are explicitly ugly. Brows meet at the centre; hairstyles are bunned and pinned in Buddha-like austerity, or left flying around with dangerous intent; even those hackneyed symbols of feminine wile, serpents, are coiled around ankles like shackles on a roving seductress.
Rodwittiya, a Vadodara-based artist of considerable renown, has made a name of mucking around with female archetypes. “Though gender equality is far from the norm as a reality of this nation, there are nonetheless a multitude of voices that stridently call to attention the need to dispel the bigoted stereotype of gender bias, and seek to accommodate the changes that we know to be possible and real,” she says in the statement that accompanies the show. And these mixed acrylic and oil works are clearly an attempt to correct the see-sawing injustice of male/female inequality.
Her women occupy multiple avatars simultaneously, and often in the same canvas, sometimes appearing almost provincially coy, at other times, strangely butch and bordering on the cross-dressing divide. In one, a Buddha-like dancer, standing demurely in red ballet flats, holds up Rajasthani puppet dolls, her arms extended like Lady Justice. In another, she lies stomach down, flopped on the ground like a puppy ready to play, her plait split into an umbrella of serpents. These are some of the best works on display because they deftly explain, in very clear form, Rodwittiya’s point that female empowerment and its attendant baggage is a complex thing.
However, 20 works of 20 naked women later, and some soon start to veer into the bizarre. Why is a woman licking the tail of a terrified-looking leopard? And why is another doing the same to a diya while standing like an Egyptian? Feminism and feminists are clearly vital for stirring up the age-old debate, especially in a country where gender inequality is still a woeful part of our landscape, but even feminism has its limits—stretch it and the rebellion becomes ridiculous.
Rekha@fifty will be on view at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai, until 18 November