Pushpamala N: India’s Entertaining Iconoclast

© Pushpamala N. ‘The Arrival of Vasco da Gama’ [detail] 2014

I think that it is the audience that completes the work of art.


The narratives of popular culture arise in many ways: from aspirant idealism and from prurient escapism. They may retell the stories of old or seek to imagine a future. They may arise from among the people or be fed to them as a form of propaganda. They may seek to change things or they may seek to maintain tradition. Like genetic material, these fragments, with their diverse pedigree and divergent agendas, become hybridised in repeated retelling. In time, they may evolve to such an extent that it is hard to discern the original meanings or intentions of stories that are at once familiar and opaque.

The things we know best are sometimes those we understand least, simply because we have become so close to them we can no longer see them for what they are.

The Indian artist Pushpamala N works in a range of media. Initially, she trained as a sculptor, winning the country’s highest awards for her sculptural pieces. However, in the mid-1990s she began to create photographic series and videos which drew their stylistic language from Indian popular culture. This work does not simply replicate those popular forms; rather, she subverts them as a means of critique that is approachable yet challenging. Indeed, she has been described as “the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art”.

For Pushpamala N the process of creation is multifaceted, involving her in all aspects of what have become increasingly complex theatrical tableaux. While she relies on others to click the camera shutter, hers is the guiding vision. She is an ‘auteur’; shaping the work of many hands while firmly remaining author of her imagery.

As one of the country’s pioneers of conceptualism, her work has had a deep influence on contemporary art practice in India. A feminist and provocateur, she seeks to subvert the dominant cultural and patriarchal discourses. Interestingly, she rejects the notion of ‘authenticity’ – the idea that there is a single underlying truth – preferring instead to understand the world as having multiple realities depending on the perceptions and perspectives of the viewer.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: Your art practice spans many media. Why did you begin making photographs?

Pushpamala: I’m a trained sculptor. As a sculptor, I was interested in creating a distinctly Indian ‘language’ in my work, using basic materials such as terracotta to speak about contemporary Indian society. But India is, in fact, a highly industrialised manufacturing country and I came to question my rather essentialist and Orientalist notions of India as a pre-industrial society.

In 1996, while I was living in Mumbai, I shot ‘Phantom Lady’ for a show on Indian cinema. That was my first photographic work. I also made my first video ‘Indian Lady’ around that time. I found photography and video very flexible, perhaps because in these media I am an ‘outsider’, whereas my training as a sculptor tends to make me more restrained when I work in that medium.

How did ‘Phantom Lady’ come about?

The masked character is based on one played by a popular stunt film star of 1930s Hindi films called Fearless Nadia [born Mary Ann Evans (1908–1996), she first became famous for her film ‘Hunterwali’ (woman with a whip) released in 1935.] She appeared in films made all over India before Independence; a sort of superhero character who comes in to solve society’s problems. My Phantom Lady is rather more vulnerable and the work is shot in a dark Film-Noir style rather than that of an action movie. It is about woman as an ‘outsider’ in the city.

What draws you to the styles and tropes of popular culture?

Well, simply, I love these genres. I grew up with them. I am also interested in the idea of ‘cultural memory’, and believe that by referring to these very familiar forms I can avoid the alienation of the viewer from art. People engage imaginatively with the work and come up with very interesting interpretations, which add further layers of complexity.

In ‘The Anguished Heart’ there is a filmic sense of montage as one scene leads to another. What is the narrative behind the series.

I use montage in all my works, still and video. The stories are like a string of stock scenes. They are familiar to everybody, but there is a twist. I don’t depict the entire story, just bits. ‘The Anguished Heart’ is a typical Indian love story where an over-controlling family could destroy a romance or even a life. People here love this work, they identify with it!

In ‘The Navarasa Suite’ you made a set of self-portraits in the photo studio of J H Thakker. First, who was Mr Thakker?

He was a stills photographer on Hindi films in Mumbai in the 1950s and 1960s, the Golden Age of Indian cinema.  He used his own unique approach to Hollywood-style glamour lighting to create publicity stills for films in his studio. I wanted to evoke that increasingly forgotten history and the beauty of the studio portrait.

In the suite, you portray a series of distinctive characters. Who are they, why did you choose them?

‘The Navarasa Suite’ is based on the nine moods of Indian aesthetics: eroticism, anger, heroism, comedy, pathos, fear, peacefulness, compassion and wonder. Some of these works draw directly from photographic conventions or film-still formulae, while others I invented. ‘Karuna’, for example, is based on Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’. I like to work with a diversity of genres and ways of representing women. It’s very playful really.

‘Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs’ is a large body of work divided into four sections. Can you tell me about the overall concept?

The original idea was to recreate ten archetypes of South Indian women based on existing stereotypical imagery. However, the concept expanded while we were shooting. All the time we were collecting reference materials: books, postcards, newspaper clippings, advertisements and so on. We started playing around with each stereotype, giving them alternative roles. By the end, I was consciously planning the various series.

© Pushpamala N from ‘The Process Series’, part of the project
‘Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs’ 2004

The project started to take on the form of an ethnographic investigation, which in turn suggested the series titles, each of which uses ethnographic language. The inclusion of the behind-the-scenes images further deconstructs the work and seeks to make the ‘process’ more transparent.

What is it you want to communicate in the re-enactment of pre-existing image content?

This was a feminist project. Each pose explores the iconography of a particular ‘type’ or female ‘construct’: goddess, nubile girl, erotic woman, vamp, villager, tribeswoman, entertainer and so on. I am playing with cultural memory here, because most of these ‘types’ are well established in Indian popular culture.

The images ‘Kali’ and ‘Kichaka-Sairandhri’ also draw on famous prototypes.

These images are part of my long-term project on ‘Mother India’ and explore a history of representing the nation at various times during the period of the Independence movement [a resistance against colonialism that spanned 1757 to 1947]. The fearsome Goddess Kali was an early version. The Mahabharata story of Prince Kichaka’s attempt to rape the princess Draupadi while she was disguised as a sairandhri [female servant] was a popular one, understood as a metaphor for colonial rule. According to the anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney, these images circulated on postcards as cryptic references to the Independence movement that could evade British censorship.

You travelled to France to make ‘The Harcourt Set’: how did this come about?

I was invited by the Centre Pompidou to collaborate with the Studio Harcourt Paris to make work for an exhibition. Studio Harcourt had a similar history and style to that of J H Thakker. My project was to recreate three images employing an approach akin to that used for my Indian work. I drew on iconic scenes from the history of French art to comment on the place of women in French society. I chose ‘Liberty’ by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) to illustrate the glorious history of the French revolution, where the symbolic woman leads the people forward. ‘The Slave and her Slave’ by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) I selected to address the histories of colonialism and slavery. ‘The Spy’ mimics a portrait of Countess Castiglione [made by Pierre-Louise Pierson around 1863–66]. A mistress of Napoleon III, the Countess was used as a diplomat and a spy. Being a male dominated society, while France could not have an empress, it did have several powerful mistresses.

© Pushpamala N – two scenes from ‘Return of the Phantom Lady’ (2012). Commissioned by Majlis for the project ‘Cinema City’. Cast: Pushpamala N, Atul Dodiya, and Kattyayani Joag; photo: Clay Kelton.

Your work comes full circle with ‘Return of the Phantom Lady – Sinful City’, this time made in colour. What is the storyline here?

I was commissioned to shoot this work for a project looking at new Mumbai as a ‘cinema city’. [Mumbai is the home of India’s Hindi-language film industry, popularly known as Bollywood.] So, all the shots are in cinematic locations. This time, the Phantom Lady comes to investigate the land mafia (all the locations are in litigation!) and rescues a school girl. Again, nothing is said, you have to imagine the story from a montage of shots.

© Pushpamala N [Left] ‘The Anger Room’ 2012; [Right] ‘The Palace’ 2012. Two scenes in ‘Intrigue’ from the series ‘The Passion’. Cast: Pushpamala N, Sudhindra Seshadri, and Shreelata Rao Seshadri; photographer: Clay Kelton.

In ‘The Passion’, you draw on characters and story-lines from the Indian epic ‘Ramayana’. Can you briefly set the scene?

The ‘Ramayana’ is an international epic that spans South and South-east Asia. It is the story of a good warrior king, the hero, and god Rama. He is banished from his kingdom to a deep forest as a result of the machinations of his stepmother, Kaikeyi, who wants her own son to be king. Rama’s wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana, follow him into the forest. Towards the end of their fourteen-year exile, the shape-shifting demoness, Surpanakha, the guardian of the forest, is attracted to the two young princes and, taking human form, tries to seduce them. The brothers mock her and, as she plunges to attack Sita, she is punished by Lakshmana who cuts off her nose and ears. The wounded Surpanakha then goes to her brother, the powerful demon king Ravana, and incites him to abduct the princess Sita in revenge. This leads to a Great War where Rama kills Ravana and defeats the demon army, fulfilling his destiny as the god-king, for which he has been incarnated.

‘The Passion’ explores the characters of three women from the ‘Ramayana’ as archetypal figures. Set in fantasy environments, fateful incidents from the epic narrative are played out on a spectacular stage.

© Pushpamala N ‘The Mist’ 2012. A scene in ‘Abduction’ from the series ‘The Passion’.
Cast: Pushpamala N and Suresh Jayaram; photographer: Clay Kelton

This is a very traditional story. What do you think it has to say that is of contemporary relevance?

In Indian mythology, Rama is the ideal king and the ‘Ramayana’ story has been a basis for Indian national identity since the days of the Independence movement. Gandhi referred to the ideal state as Ramrajya or the Kingdom of Ram. In 1992, there was a crisis in the Indian state when Hindu fundamentalist groups destroyed the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya [in northern India], claiming that it was built over the birth place of Ram. This claim is at the centre of a tussle over the definition of India: as a secular state or a Hindu state. So, this is a very contemporary political issue.

An epic such as Ramayana is always about war and machismo. In this work, I focus on the three female characters. Their predicaments may mirror current situations, especially the violence against women which is being unleashed in the name of tradition.

© Pushpamala N ‘The Arrival of Vasco da Gama’ 2014
Cast: Pushpamala N, Umesh Maddanahalli, Sudhindra Seshadri, G Mahesh, Vineesh Amin, Gururaj H S, Mohammad Rizvan, Amaresh Bijjal, Shamsunder, Amshu Chukki, Pradeep Kambathalli, Harshavardhana, and Vinay Kumar; photograph: Clay Kelton.
Commissioned by the Kochi Biennale

Your installation ‘The Arrival of Vasco da Gama’ is one of your more recent works. At its centre is a large photograph in the style of a history painting. What is the significance of the event portrayed?

The event is about the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama on the shores of India, marking the beginning of European colonisation in India. [The photograph references Jose Veloso Salgado’s depiction of the scene in his painting of 1898.] However, there is no history in the history painting, because the triumphant meeting of the explorer with the powerful King of Calicut never happened. In fact, da Gama was insulted, made to wait and criticised for bringing poor gifts. Even the costumes and setting of the original painting seem to have been hired from a theatrical wardrobe and everything, from the clothes and appearance of the Indians to da Gama’s costume, is historically inaccurate.

This image seems quite different from your earlier work: the scale and clarity of the rendering, the complex, multi-figure staging and the focus on male characters.

The work was made for the Kochi Biennale 2014, so I felt I should create a monumental work. The character of Vasco da Gama was my first male role and I rather enjoyed playing this heroic macho explorer from European history. With each new work, I like to give myself a fresh challenge.

I hired a studio and invited twelve friends come along to perform. By some miracle, after an entire day spent on makeup and costuming, everyone managed to stay still long enough for the photograph to be shot. I put this image in the centre of the final installation, which included the set, props and text to make clear that this was a construction of history. I had done a lot of reading about da Gama and research into his life. In a way, the piece was intentionally educational.

© Pushpamala N ‘Toda’ (after a British anthropometric study of 1898) from the series ‘Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs’ 2004

Many photographers remain behind the camera. In your work, personal performance is central. Why is this?

My performance forms a very small part of the production of the work. I would say I work like the director of a film. This is conceptual photography. I undertake research, conceptualise the work, design and produce the sets, decide on the locations, composition, style, lighting and so on. Pre- and post-production take months. While I have worked with many varied types of photographer, I think you can sense the continuity of an auteur in the forms and concerns addressed in my images, regardless of the particular photographer with whom I have worked.

Over the years, what have you learned through exhibiting your work that you did not realise while you were making it?

I had an interesting experience with ‘The Anguished Heart’. A young artist kept coming up to me in the exhibition and asking me why the second woman was there in the story. He later said that his father had married his mother’s younger sister. He had seen the sister in ‘The Anguished Heart’ as an erotic figure, which had never occurred to me. I had put her in the story as an emissary or confidante. Suddenly the work became charged!

I think that it is the audience that completes the work of art.

Biographical Notes

Pushpamala N. was born in Bangalore in 1956. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, English and Psychology from Bangalore University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Sculpture and Master of Arts in Sculpture, both from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. She initially worked as a sculptor, with her first solo exhibition in 1983. However, by the late 1990s she had begun to focus on performative feminist and conceptual photographic works that seek to subvert the dominant cultural and intellectual discourse.

She is the recipient of many honours, including a National Film Award (1984); a gold medal at the Sixth Triennale of Delhi (1986); a Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship (1992–93); a Senior Fellowship at the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development (1995–97) and an Arts Collaboration Grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (2000). Her work is held in many important public and private collections including National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi; Centre Pompidou, Paris; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and Harvard University Art Museum. Pushpamala N lives and works in Bangalore and continues to exhibit widely in Asia, Europe and North America.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the August 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.