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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Woman in a cage
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Woman in a cage

A new intervention at a Mumbai museum puts women in confrontation with hostility

The suits of armour are distinctly feminine, pliable and gracefully woven. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.Premium
The suits of armour are distinctly feminine, pliable and gracefully woven. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

There is an undeniable masculinity—visual, physical, metaphorical—to a historical suit of armour. In Shakuntala Kulkarni’s of bodies, armour and cages, an art intervention within the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) museum space, the suits of armour are distinctly feminine, pliable and gracefully woven.

They are equipped with the skirts and breast pads suited to an obviously female user. They sit, at once majestic and awkward; contemporary interjections between the more staid permanant galleries of antiquities on the ground and second floors.

Kulkarni has been working with themes of protection, women’s bodies and the hostile gaze for four years now. The project happens to have been completed at a time when parts of the country have been wracked with anger, protest and debate over the rape and death of a 23-year-old girl in New Delhi in December.

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Shakuntala Kulkarni (left) with Dilip Ranade, exhibition consultant at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

There are images in the commentary that run alongside, of the artist wearing the suit in a public space. She stands by her cage in a glass case and speaks to passers-by who do not realize she is the artist. “The metaphor is the need to place oneself in an enclosed space to be protected from the hostile gaze. Yet the armour is restrictive. When you wear it, you can only move in certain ways. These issues, which happen to be reflected in the current debate about guidelines for women, what they wear, how they move, restricting them for their own security, are in fact age-old issues," Kulkarni says.

Viewers instinctively react to images of her wearing it by asking what it felt like, how inhibited she was by it, and how people in the public spaces reacted to her. Her translation of the language of being a woman is extrapolated into a viewer’s varied personal, prismatic interpretations of it.

The placement of the armour pieces, made of cane, leads the viewer up towards the gallery of arms and armour in which the clear juxtaposition against a historic suit of armour is a clever conceptual play.

Dilip Ranade, exhibition consultant with the museum, points out the physical contrasts of texture, functionality and form. “Texture becomes crucial to the interplay of functionality. When a hard object is made of a soft one, it evokes a specific reaction. How will it protect? Cane is strong and pliant and while the artist has chosen it for its femininity, its use is also something that, placed between all the metal and the lead around, makes people respond differently. It is exactly for these kinds of reactions that the intervention has been used."

Ranade says the museum has been consciously evolving a policy to extend its spaces and uses of contemporary art in this manner to facilitate a dialogue with viewers. Write-ups have become shorter, kiosks are available to viewers who want details, and exhibits, like the one showcasing Mughal miniatures, are fleshed out.

Of bodies, armour and cages is on at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya till 20 January, 10.15am-6pm (Mondays closed).

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Published: 10 Jan 2013, 07:14 PM IST
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