Songs From The Blood Of The Weary by Rekha Rodwittiya depicts strong and assertive women inhabiting a disturbed and dystopian landscape. It was painted on the inner walls of a portable wooden cabin in the gardens of the UN office in Geneva during the agency’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1995. But the private space of the cabin cannot inhibit or contain the fierce and powerful women painted on its walls.

“I wanted my artwork to become a womb-like landscape of memory that called to attention the sacrifices made, in the hope of a better tomorrow," says Rodwittiya. “The painted room holds the recollection of shared histories that bind us together, which speak of displacement, of violation, and the resulting anguish and sorrow of betrayal."

This “painted room" was acquired by art collector Jehangir Nicholson just a year after it was presented in Geneva. Considered to be one of the earliest installations by an Indian artist, it will be displayed for the first time at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). Curated by Kamini Sawhney, the show, named after the painting, also features 12 works from roughly the same period, drawn from the collection of the artist and Sakshi Gallery.

Rodwittiya’s women protagonists are keenly aware and conscious of their own power. They preside over the scene or their environment through their large physique and confident postures. They wield household objects like scissors and sickles as weapons. Rodwittiya also weaves personal stories with myths and legends. In the painted room, one striking figure is of a woman wearing an asymmetrical black dress, imprinted with eyes that seem to be floating like boats. This is an inversion of the mythical Argus, the all-seeing man with a panopticon gaze.

“I shy away from speaking about the source from which an idea may originate or from where the poetics of an image is culled," says Rodwittiya. “The narratives in my works are never direct stories and I employ the use of metaphors, allegory and legends as pictorial devices."

The 12 works selected for the show also revolve around women. “These works correspond with the language that I have used in the painted room done in 1995," says Rodwittiya. “The central pivot of all these works is the world of women."

Some of the works depict women’s struggles, and cruelty against them. Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruits, which portrays a nude woman smeared with red pigment, references honour killings, female infanticide and dowry deaths.

The Other Pieta, which features a seated woman in a diaphanous dress with an unflinching gaze, surrounded by dismembered legs and bodies, is themed on the sorrow of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Another work, titled In Search Of My Mother’s Garden, depicts a grown woman within the womb of another; it is inspired by Rodwittiya’s childhood experience of quiet nights at her ancestral home when she would drift off to sleep, while her mother would softly recount anecdotes from her life to her sisters and her grandmother. Such experiences from daily life were instrumental in shaping the feminist politics and poetics of Rodwittiya.

Through her art, she combines the everyday events of a woman’s life with myths and allegories and exalts them to the level of collective female histories.

Songs From The Blood Of The Weary is on till 31 July, 10.15am-6pm (daily), at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, Second floor, East Wing, CSMVS, Kala Ghoda. The artworks are not for sale.

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