There’s an owl called Oscar, and he keeps holding on to my pallu and crying.”
In 1985, at 39, Nalini Malani had a wild idea. She wanted to hold a women-only show that brought together the most prominent Indian artists of that time; she counted 17 of them. When the thought first hit her, Malani wrote it out on a postcard and sent it to fellow artist Arpita Singh. “Her response was this wild story about an owl,” laughs Malani. “She thought the idea was so absurd that it deserved an absurd answer.” Finally, the country’s first women’s show did happen, but with four artists in attendance: Malani, Madhvi Parekh, Arpita Singh and Nilima Sheikh. The response from their male counterparts, Malani remembers, was nothing short of patronizing. “We had some senior artists come and tell us, ‘beta, bahut achcha kiya’ (child, you’ve done a good job).”
It’s the sort of condescension that Malani has left far behind in the last two decades. “Today, she is among the most well-known and most important artists in India,” says Geetha Mehra, of Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery.
Malani’s next show will be ‘Grid’ at Mumbai’s Bodhi Art in November
An artist who works on every medium, from canvas to video art, Malani has also crossed that line between being an “Indian” artist and just an artist. “She has always been very experimental,” says Mehra. “Her work is complex and layered, and she is as terrific with multimedia and video work as with paintings.” Malani’s works have a nationlessness about them and she delves into subjects and levels that go beyond mere geographical concerns. Her cylindrical works and reverse drawings, for instance, are a comment on image-making itself and a perception of the world with all its layers. “It’s an amazing reflection of the link between moving images and still images, and the way still images are used to produce moving reflections shows how the still image can be manipulated to show movement,” says video-artist Shilpa Gupta, who also worked on nalinimalani.com.
Malani’s works are presently on at three important international spaces: her first solo museum exhibition in Europe at Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art, which has also issued a monograph called Nalini Malani that inspects two decades of her work; she was given a large space at the Venice Biennale, where Splitting the Other is on display till the last week of November; a solo of her theatre video work is on show at the Walsh Gallery in Chicago till mid-October. Another book titled New Narratives–Contemporary Art of India, edited by Betty Seid, containing an extensive catalogue of her work, has just been published by Mapin.
In Mumbai, her life is in between things, just like her transitionary cast of canvas characters. While Malani’s south Mumbai studio is under renovation, her present home—which she shares with her partner and art historian Johan Pijnappel—near the city’s Gateway of India, holds her art-work-in-progress, Stories Retold, covered by sheets of plastic; the paintbrushes resting on the side.
In between the familiar faces of Sita, Radha, Alice and Medea, you can catch a glimpse of the feminist, who says masculinity doesn’t allow femininity to sustain itself side by side. Malani is also vocal about socio-political events. “Even if you don’t have anything to do with politics, it has a lot to do with you,” she says. “If you don’t take agency of your own role, then you have another Bush coming in.” In May 1998, when India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, Malani says she was left distraught by the euphoria it triggered, which disregarded the cost to the lives of villagers in the area. Her response was a complex video piece called Remembering Toba Tek Singh, which traced the history of hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Nuclear armament, traditional art forms, which she inspected via her Kalighat-inspired paintings, and the caste system—in relation to which she says that India should have gone the Chinese way, so that we would have at least been declassed by now—are favourite themes of this artist.
Appeasing Radha, a triptych
Born in Karachi in 1946, Malani’s early life was marked by the Partition. Her family—landed gentry in Karachi—moved to a one-room apartment in Kolkata and had to reorganize its life again. Her father, a lawyer by training, eventually found a job as an arbitrator with Tata Airlines. “My father used to say that an education was the only thing you carry around with you,” she says. So he wasn’t expecting his daughter to pursue a diploma in arts at the Sir JJ School of Art. “At the time, JJ was under the directorate of technical education, and it was like learning carpentry or plumbing. You couldn’t get a proper degree,” she says. But, the love of making art that began with biology practicals in school bloomed into a full-fledged career soon after she joined art school and had her first show at the age of 19 in Mumbai’s Pundole Art Gallery. “I joined JJ wanting to do medical drawings because I had a fantastic Biology teacher in school who encouraged me to draw dissected frogs and what not,” she says.
Today, the former biology student has gone far beyond lab sketches. New York’s Museum of Modern Art just purchased her shadow video piece, Gamepieces, for their permanent collection.
(As per recent auction results, Malani’s work costs between $25,000 (approx. Rs10,00,000) and $50,000.)