Q&A | Nalini Malani

Nalini Malani was born in Karachi in 1946, and the momentousness of her birthplace and year augments her art. Issues of identity, gender and racial inequality are its long-lasting, vital themes. With a hefty exhibition history spanning continents, Malani has found inspiration in Lewis Carroll’s Alice as well as Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. A feminist, multimedia artist who facilitated the first Indian woman artists’ show in 1985 in Delhi, her new show, Womantime, at Mumbai’s Art Musings gallery points to a redefined space for women in society. Edited excerpts from an interview:

The title of your new solo, ‘Womantime’, gives away the broader theme of the exhibition. Could you tell us a little more about it? What were the immediate triggers?

There are moments in time when one feels that something crucial is moving. I believe we are now living in such a moment. More than ever we must express our ideas and convictions that for the rest of the world the time has come that women take a central role in the development of society. In large parts of the world it seems as if conservative patriarchal forces are feeling this as well and trying to counterbalance female progress with all their power. The question is, will they be successful or are we, in the next three decades, into a new era of “Womantime", and as such will be able to save humankind from destruction before the end of the 21st century.

The exhibition Womantime consists of two segments. My latest works, triggered by the politically engaged poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which took shape in a series of large prints and a single-channel video play called In Search of Vanished Blood (2012).

A work from a series of reverse paintings on display at the show
A work from a series of reverse paintings on display at the show

In 2007, you had said in an interview to ‘Lounge’, “Even if you don’t have anything to do with politics, it has a lot to do with you." Over the years, has your own politics and stand on bigger realities changed?

We live in seemingly rapidly changing times. Beyond the electronic gizmos, after centuries a woman enjoys a more progressive, equal status in society. But the larger realities have hardly changed as, on a daily basis, half the population of earth is still not free to choose its destiny. As a woman, everything one does or what one is forbidden to do is related to politics.

Do you believe in a particular political ideology?

No, not a specific political ideology that would work for all of us. I believe in being equal and human in the absolute sense, which in my opinion should be the basis for any political ideology.

You were born in Karachi in 1946, and Partition has had a bearing on your art. ‘Toba Tek Singh’, the women of Partition—do you plan to revisit these themes?

I can do without a limb but can’t cut off my history without destroying my life. My history is my identity and as such the themes as you mentioned will always be there in the larger context of my works.

You have often said that you make art like a novelist. How do you view the power of the word in the hyper-digital, Twitter age?

It is the scale in which one lives and operates that has changed. In this hyper-digital age, we now can create a global bush fire and as such counteract the global powers of the international corporates or political crimes against humanity. More than ever the individual can take responsibility for the collective, which I think is a good thing.

Tell me about your process. Do you paint in spurts? Does the theme dictate your form entirely?

Art for me is there all the time, in the day and especially as well in the night. It feels like an unfolding galaxy where I sometimes get a grip on parts of it, but mostly it swirls around me at a mesmerizing speed. Mostly during the day I try to give form to it in my daily 8-hour ritual in my studio.

It is a form of riyaz (practice session) in which I do a good amount of research on the ideas and give things shape while I draw, paint or experiment with the camera and performers. The form in that case grows from the theme/subject in often a natural way. When I put my brush on the surface I know only my first figure, the rest grows on the spot and can go in various, even for me, unknown directions that might not seem to immediately relate to the theme/subject.

You were a pilot of the first women’s art exhibition in India. Now there are many practising women artists. Do you think their being women should necessarily be considered while seeing their art?

No, not at all—besides there are male artists who are feminist. The male principle and the female principle operate in each one of us, regardless of one’s gender. The thing is to allow the female part to have a life and not denigrate it. Negating or suppressing the female part has led to tragic situations. We have lived too long in this world under the hegemony of patriarchy. In order for humanity to progress in the real sense, we must become life givers not life takers.

Your home city Mumbai has undergone monumental transformations, most of it related to urbanization. Does it inspire you or provoke you? What is the role of art in changing a city?

My hometown is Bombay, but a city like Mumbai where one cannot stroll and partake of nature is to live unnaturally.

This dehumanizes all of us. A city where the automobile is given more importance than the human being is a city that is dying. A city where one cannot see the sky whenever one wishes to is a sad city. Art can provoke people into thinking, and as such might help the process of humanizing change.

Two men have inspired your art, Toba Tek Singh and Winin Pereira—one from Manto’s work, a “nowhere man", and one a scientist and activist who championed the man who lives symbiotically with nature. How do you define uprootedness today in your art?

Manto and Winin Pereira remain a vital part of many men who inspire my art, such as Heiner Mueller and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Most of their work is related to uprootedness, which I find a vital aspect of our global society in the 21st century that one way or the other we must learn to deal with.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?

I have just come back from installing two museum shows in Japan and will now start up a whole new series of work that relates to the complexity of communication. To make visible the unpredictable might give some comfort in a time where we more than ever lose contact with each other and the earth.

Womantime is on at Art Musings, 1, Admiralty Building, Colaba Cross Lane, Mumbai, till 15 March.

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