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Vidha Saumya at her studio. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Vidha Saumya at her studio. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The hidden Sensuality of our bodies

Vidha Saumya's bold and incisive exploration of sexual tension and the politics of the body

The living room of Vidha Saumya’s apartment in Madh Island, a ferry ride away from Mumbai, is cluttered with what the artist, who prefers to go by her first name, calls “experiments"—cardboard cones coloured over with ballpoint pen, small sculpted figurines made with natural clay, books covered in thick paper, a pair of red juttis, placed in a purple tray. Some of these may make it to her forthcoming solo exhibition at Colaba’s Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke—she doesn’t have a working title for it yet—in September. Her second solo, the show will also exhibit seven 4x4ft drawings made using her favourite medium, a Cello Gripper ballpoint pen.

The 31-year-old held her first exhibition in Lahore in 2008. She attended Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University on a nine-month fellowship, while studying visual communication design at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. But it was her 2011 solo exhibition at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai, Love Charades that made people sit up and notice her pen-drawn drawings. Vidha introduced the viewer to images that forced them to confront their own discomfort with a woman’s body, even as the drawings offered a metacommentary on the internalization of the patriarchal gaze. The works showed corpulent women in a pageantry of display—laughing, grimacing, and contorting their body, often within a circus ring, with a spotlight shining directly on them.

Two years later, Vidha’s new body of work—each drawing was named after a hurricane and showed a large-bodied woman about to sneeze—took these concerns further. These portraits of women, which were exhibited as part of the gallery’s Touched By Bhupen group show in 2013, no longer directly engaged with the gaze of the viewer, and their bodies seemed more stylized. The ballpoint pen, however, continued to lend a levity that belied the seriousness of the artist’s interrogation that underpinned each portrait.

The drawings, made with black ballpoint pen, showed women in bras, men with naked torsos and fancy underwear, all in various stages of undress. There is a laconic quality to their bodies, and their gaze is sometimes directed towards the viewer. The relationship between the characters, despite the predominant strain of sexual tension, seems tenuous and tentative.

“Sexuality and sensuality exist all the time," says Vidha, who is busy putting in the hours to complete a set of seven drawings for her new show. “We are trained not to think about it, to unlearn this about our bodies. Each society comes up with rules to negate (it), which teach us what can be touched, and what can be seen. How people can be with each other."

While Explosives and her new book of drawings—still in progress, titled Gunpowder—deal with the subject overtly, her new 4x4ft drawings on mulberry bark paper takes the sexuality of its characters as a subtext, and uses it to discomfit the viewer. The rich discomposure arises from the placement of these bodies: strangers are forced in positions of proximity to each other. The underlying question that Vidha seems to ask through these new large-format drawings, also made with ballpoint pen (red, blue, black and green), is what happens when strangers perform acts that would, in another context, be considered one of great intimacy? In one drawing, for instance, a group of men and women feed each other. In another, bodies lie close to each other, one’s head on another’s lap, hands entwined. The bodies, following her earlier series, are large-bodied women and men, who are also older. In her inimitable style, stencilled patterns emerge on and around the bodies, which are at times, incomplete. The artist wants to make the viewer work her imagination, even as she works through intense discomfort.

“What I’ve drawn—we see more than this in real life. Say in the Bombay local train, for instance. I’ve not even crossed into the imaginative space," says Vidha, in a moment of self-reflection. “Am I drawing things that are impossible, that don’t exist? I want to make the viewer feel unsure of facing the work."

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