Nalini Malani
Apocalypse recalled: the recent work of Nalini Malani


by Chaitanya Sambrani

For nearly two decades now, Nalini Malani has sustained a dialogue with presences and absences in history, with the unending succession of brutality that human history represents. In her engagement with historical discourse, she is part of a distinguished cohort of third world artists who have insistently interrogated the structure of history. Such interrogation is perhaps a necessary manoeuvre for those dealing with complicated inheritance in a world that is manifestly not interested in listening to marginal voices. Or otherwise, in listening to marginality only when it is offered up in a recognizable, palatable guise, packaged into familiar parcels that do not fundamentally unsettle our expectations. As a necessary corollary to an interrogation of historical discourse and its elisions, Malani’s work has engaged with questions of representation in visual art, setting up a back and forth momentum between imagery pared down, bled of narrative charge, and a range of highly codified iconography, suffused with associative meaning. In either case, this momentum in her work operates through the “unreliable” and highly porous nature of memory, personal as well as collective.

Nalini Malani’s practice is manifestly diverse. She has painted on canvas, paper, walls, glass and mylar. She has made artist books and accordion books using monotype, photocopy, drawing and painting. She has created immersive environments through theatrical productions, collaborating with directors, actors, musicians and designers. She has made large video installations with several streams of imagery simultaneously channelled onto screens and monitors. She has also made single-channel animated videos, drawing and erasing images several hundred times in the process. And she has created proto-cinematic painted installations using revolving mylar cylinders.

Over the last decade, her work has been seen at least as much overseas as it has been within India, being represented in prestigious biennials and triennials in different parts of the world. She has been at the vanguard of a select band of Indian artists with highly visible international careers and de-facto world citizenship, who have nevertheless maintained close links in life and work to the cultural substratum of “home.”

The vast majority of Malani’s work is engaged with the drawn or painted image. It may seem curious that she prefers not to consider herself a painter. She has written,
…I do not think of myself as a painter. Drawing/painting works for me as a keyboard would for the music composer. It helps me to dream—to free associate—to flow into reveries; it helps me to compose ideas that can then work with creating all encompassing environments… [1]

Malani was trained as a painter at Bombay’s J. J. School of Art, and worked primarily in that medium until the early 1990s. The shift to installation and video in her work accompanied a sense of violation that a number of Indian artists felt with the growth of fundamentalist politics, and the perverted visions of identity and tradition that this fostered. Economic and political developments since the beginning of the last decade have made it imperative for contemporary practice—in India and elsewhere—to leave behind the certitudes of autonomous subjectivity, and the fantasies of object-hood within the gallery context. Challenges to the sterility of modernist fictions which in the Indian context were already being articulated by artists and critics by the end of the 1970s found another locus of fruition in the last decade of the 20th century, with globalization placing art increasingly on the agenda of international cultural exchange, and fundamentalism seeking to impose a restricted, sectarian and violent cultural regime within the country.

Alongside colleagues such as Vivan Sundaram and Navjot Altaf—also practicing as painters until the early 1990s—Malani found herself increasingly drawn to the transactional and potentials of installation practice. Significantly, she has taken this involvement to dramatic fulfilment through theatrical experiments. This has at times taken the form of “straight” theatre as in her work on Medeaprojekt (a collaboration with performer Alaknanda Samarth, based on a text by Heiner Muller, 1993); and The Job (a collaboration with director Anuradha Kapur, based on Bertolt Brecht’s play, performed at Bombay’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in 1997). On other occasions, Malani has worked with an “implied” theatre, immersing the bodies of her audience within the translucent luminosity of shadowy phantasms thrown up by mechanised, painted, or projected (video) installations [The Sacred and the Profane (1998), Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998-99), Hamletmachine (2000), Transgression (2001) and Game Pieces (2003)].

Malani’s art deals with culturally specific ideas, images and narratives. In a reiteration of the postcolonial’s claim to elements of home cultures and to those of other places, her materials are culled from diverse times and places. In a sense, such a claim becomes de facto payback for marginality, in that it asserts the right to appropriate from “others” inasmuch as the colonial encounter and the project of decolonisation have left no clear boundaries between the indigenous and the exotic in the contemporary world. Her work is intensely political, but this politics is not available to the viewer in terms of the straightforward declamation or manifesto. It appears instead in the form of embodied meaning, intrinsic to the artist’s formal devices and offered up in immersive, visceral experiences where the viewing gaze and body is fully implicated in a transaction with the artist’s provocations. As an accompanying coda, Malani stresses her imagery to the point of erasure and back, such that the viewer finds her/himself accompanying the artist in acts of violence, recuperation and remembering. Her work often offers images that lurk beguilingly at the threshold of legibility, conjuring up barely-remembered associations that are part memory and part oneiric excess. In doing this, her work implies a corporeal, physical relationship between the painterly gesture, the interested gaze, and an approach to the human body that is in equal parts genetic surgery and a keening wail of bereavement for worlds that hover briefly at liminal moments of embodiment, only to be swallowed up in the maw of an existential terror, or of historical atrocity.

Much of Malani’s work engages with historical discourse, and the burden/spoils of received knowledge. In the words of Ashish Rajadhyaksha, this discourse of history in her work
…is often juxtaposed with the familiar and the everyday, usually against the grain, no longer to carve out the space of a personal, but increasingly as a response to a larger imaginary—of those who cannot evade history and therefore evoke it tangentially… [2]

It is important that in the end, it is no longer possible to neatly separate the formal discourse of history from the everyday in Malani’s work. Both interpenetrate, become something else, come unhinged from their secure foundations and are made to consort with the ineluctably strange. Their meanings become readable only through this juxtaposition between the familiar and the foreign, the trace of observation being overlaid with meditations on abjection, on disenfranchisement, erasure and transmogrification.

Nalini Malani’s recent paintings refer to Hindu scriptures known as the Bhagavata Purana, and to stories from the Ramayana. They also reflect on relationships with ancient Greek myth through the plays of Euripides, particularly Medea with which Malani has had a long association—she started painting the theme of Medea in 1992. At one level, it is possible to see Malani’s interest in these literary/mythic/religious themes as akin to that of a structuralist. From the habitual excess of literature and myth, she retrieves a set of core mythemes, which then form the sites for her own excavation. To take the analogy further, this archaeological terrain is always-already polluted, violated, being the repository of “impure” histories, where the profane dwells inextricably within the sacred, and vice versa, where unspeakable terror and continuing violations figure as inescapable aspects of human destiny.

The Bhagavata is a body of devotional stories whose primary deity is Vishnu, the preserver, in the form of Krishna—the cowherd god, great lover, dancer, musician, prankster and warrior. In the post-Vedic Hindu trinity, Brahma, the self-manifest, is the creator; Vishnu preserves the world, manifesting in various incarnations (avatars) to rid the world of evil; while Siva, the terrible ascetic plays the role of destroyer, readying the world for reinvention. The fact that the religious structure of the world is conceived in terms of cycles of creation and destruction is fundamental to Hindu philosophical systems, making possible such concepts as maya (the world as illusion), transience, non-dualism (advaita) and reincarnation. Ultimately, this world-view also produces a kind of fatalism that encourages the believer to accept his/her given lot, since it is all a matter of human fallibility, the hope of transcendence and a play of ineffable meanings structured by an inscrutable godhead. Addressing such a body of religious material is not a challenge that Malani takes lightly, for her intentions are in diametric opposition to religious dogma.

There are significant instances of a critical engagement with religious imagery in the work of contemporary artists in India. Especially in a political climate dominated by fundamentalism, artists such as K G Subramanyan, G M Sheikh, Surendran Nair, Atul Dodiya among others have repeatedly made use of images ensconced in religious iconography, seeking to bring their presumedly fixed meanings into an ongoing, though fraught dialogue. [3] Given the tremendous store of iconographies and narratives bequeathed by the manifold Indian tradition, contemporary artists have repeatedly sought to resist their reification into univalent tropes (such as those generated by the Hindu Right through its political campaigns and public festivals). The genius of the Indian tradition is first and foremost, its plurality, the promise it holds forth for contrary readings that continually reaffirm dynamic relationships among icons and narratives, and between narratives and the world of lived experience.

As with all things that she engages with, Malani subjects this diverse body of poetry, ritual and art to alchemical processes, probing the veils of semblance and the limits of representation. The corpus of stories and images she deals with is put under intense pressure to the point of liquefaction, creating strange blends of science and fiction, history and myth, and generating a visual language that plumbs dystopia as an inevitable element of the present, and perhaps, as the ultimate fate of the world. There is no salvation at the end of the story; there is no eventual redemption in a triumph of good over evil. There is not even the conceit of the believing eye which is able to see good and evil as separate entities.

Malani’s current art practice can be viewed as a dialogue between her series of paintings, and larger assemblages, installations and video works. Since 2002, she has been working on a continuing series titled Stories Retold, five paintings from which were shown at the 2002 Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane. A word about the retelling of stories before we proceed further: it is in the very nature of the oral tradition that stories be narrated and re-narrated. Narration, being inherently performative, always involves interpretation, and the vitality of the tradition consists in a non-canonical, horizontal spread of alternative interpretations, which constantly flow into one another, and wash up against the “authoritative” interpretation, engendering transformations and creating a dynamic, “living tradition” [4]. In the Indian context, the rich corpus of mythology has grown along interweaving tracks with (classical) written texts and (vernacular) oral renditions being built up from, and feeding into, each other, through a complex interaction between regional, linguistic and sectarian traditions. It is precisely by seeking to regulate this plenitude along the lines of a single canonical narrative that fundamentalism seeks to impose its restrictive agenda of cultural purity. Whereas tradition is essentially always mobile, and thus under a degree of stress that this mobility causes, the present situation subjects the notion of tradition to quite a different level of stress, in effect attenuating it into a forced conformity.

As this essay is being written, Malani has been working on a painting titled Sita-Medea. Like her ongoing involvement with the figure of Medea, she has earlier dealt with the figure of Sita in one of the paintings in the 2002 APT. In Sita-Medea for the first time, these two figures have come together; have coalesced into a symbol that extends beyond the dimensions of either story. Medea in Euripides is a princess of Colchis, a land on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, and home to the fabled Golden Fleece whose possession bestows prosperity. Jason and his comrades (the Argonauts) embark on the legendary quest for the Fleece, travelling eastwards on an adventure that develops eerie parallels with the journeys of exploration and conquest that Western Europe was to launch eastwards in the modern period. The relationship between Jason and the alchemist-witch-princess Medea is accompanied, especially in Heiner Muller’s version of the play, by an undercurrent of colonial desire, collusion, betrayal and violence. Medea betrays her own people out of love for Jason, helps him to escape with the Fleece, even as her own brother is killed in the pursuit. Having followed her husband into exile, Medea bears Jason two sons, while he grows restive, commencing an affair with the daughter of King Priam. Medea is thus the story of colonial conquest and betrayal; first as Medea betrays her own family and “nation,” choosing exile for the sake of love, and then as Jason betrays her as he embarks on another amorous conquest. One the eve of Jason’s wedding, Medea presents the bride-to-be with an alchemical robe, poisoned with magic/chemistry which drives the princess to an agonised death. Medea’s terrible revenge continues in the murder of her own children, borne to Jason the duplicitous conqueror. It is a terrible story, one that has supported a rich vein of literary, theatrical and filmic interpretations. [5] Malani’s own involvement with the story of Medea has been via the work of East German playwright Heiner Muller, [6] resulting in an ambitious theatre, video and installation work in collaboration with Alaknanda Samarth. Medeaprojekt was performed in Bombay’s Max Mueller Bhavan against the backdrop of communal riots in 1993 which followed the 6 December 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists who claim that the mosque stood on the birthplace of Rama, a legendary god-king considered an incarnation of Vishnu and the embodiment of human perfection.

Sita, the other protagonist in Malani’s painting, is Rama’s consort in the epic Ramayana, attributed to a robber-turned-poet, the sage Valmiki. In its myriad versions and through literary and performative traditions across South and South East Asia, the Ramayana is one of Hinduism’s greatest epics, and as such has been central to fundamentalist mobilization. Inevitably, its use as the singular “gospel” of Hinduism has also resulted in the systematic erasure of difference from regional renditions of the story, and represents yet another violation of India’s plural traditions. Sita in the Ramayana is the earth-born daughter of Janaka, king of Mithila (now in the state of Bihar). The childless Janaka, having undertaken a ceremony for the betterment of his people, comes upon the newborn Sita as he ploughs the ceremonial field. Also known as Bhumija (Earth-born) and Janaki (Janaka’s daughter), Sita marries Rama, who performs a feat of arms to win her hand. Rama is exiled to the forest by his father, Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya, who is bound by an old oath. Sita goes into exile following her husband, forsaking the life of a princess for that of a hermit. Sita’s abduction by the demon-king Ravana while Rama and his brother Lakshmana are lured away by another demon precipitates Rama’s quest for his beloved in which he is helped by the army of monkeys and bears that he befriends on his journey southward. In one sense, the Ramayana can be read as an allegory for the conquest of the Dravidian south of India by the Aryan north: southerners, all of whom figure as sub-human in the story, either feature as the monkey-and-bear army of devoted followers exemplified by Hanuman, [7] or as evil, demonic persons with magical powers typified in the ten-headed figure of Ravana, king of Lanka. Subsequent to the battle between Rama and Ravana and the conquest of Lanka, Rama publicly rejects Sita, implying that her prolonged captivity with Ravana has sullied her chastity. Sita undertakes a trial by fire, and emerges unscathed, even as Agni, the Vedic god of fire, appears to vouch for her purity. Sita’s trials do not end here, and culminate in yet another rejection by Rama, at which time she calls her mother the Earth-goddess as witness to her chastity, and is swallowed up by the earth. [8]

For Malani, there are parallels between the story of Medea and that of Sita: both are associated with the earth, both went into exile for the sake of their husbands, both were eventually rejected by their men. Sita and Medea then, figure as supremely tragic and potent symbols not only for deeply ingrained gender-biases in Indian and European mythology, but also—and this is as significant in the case of Malani’s art—for desire, violence and betrayal as basic characteristics of human behaviour. [9]

Sita-Medea presents the two sets of mythemes in one intertwined structure: most of the quasi-narrative image-corpus is situated within a single circle, the orb of a poisoned earth rendered in viscous blue-greens and in the crimson and pus-yellow of entrails. The central character of Sita/ Medea is represented as a double, reclining on the right margin as she waits for the rejection which is her inevitable fate, and again seated in the middle of the work, as an old hermit (Ravana in disguise, or a prematurely aged Jason draped in the Golden Fleece?) approaches. Outside the central orb at the top and bottom of the work are creatures of the forest, wild animals positioned as though they are supporting the earth, and members or Rama’s army of monkeys and bears at play/ hastening to battle. Painted on the reverse of transparent mylar, Malani’s work presents the imagery as though reconstituted from eviscerated, dried up and reconstituted detritus of human and animal bodies. There are clear indications in Malani’s manner of figuration of her particular perspective on historical change. History in Malani’s reckoning is nothing like the chain of progress, of betterment and the eventual prevalence of truth that policies of state and renditions of mythology have enshrined in our consciousness. [10] There is no ultimate redemption for humankind: we are condemned to perpetrating violence by the vary greed of our primal natures.

Malani’s imagery makes repeated references to iconography from varied sources. Starting in the late 1980s, she embarked on a sustained project of devising ways of representing the subaltern body in painting, a process that came of age in her series Hieroglyphs: Lohar Chawl (1989) based on the street environments of the densely populated inner-city neighbourhood where she had her studio. In a seminal essay, Geeta Kapur has written of Malani’s relationship with the figure of the subaltern:
While she has a desire to identify with the common man/woman, her sense of responsibility is ambivalent. There is more a need to get out of her own skin into another’s, to find a common corporeal web. The membrane of paint is a loose mantle wrapped round the body and easily sloughed for the body to appear anonymous in some longed-for collectivity. Is it perhaps to find an ontological security that she so identifies with otherness of all variety? [11]

In her recent paintings on mylar, Malani’s figures are not only presented as though with a loose mantle of paint that can be sloughed off; rather, it is as though the body is essentially reconstituted from a primeval sludge accumulated through centuries of bloodletting. These bodies are translucently thin, tenuously holding their form as bodies as though through some accidental coagulation of the viscous mess we have learned to call history/the world. This sense of bodies and forms teetering at the brink of liquefaction, bodies with thin amoebic skins, has been developed through Malani’s influential series of Mutants (1996-97) based on genetic mutilations caused among Pacific peoples from the Bikini Atolls after the United States used their islands for nuclear testing. Malani has spoken of incidents of “jelly-babies,” infants born with no recognizable human features, amorphous lives that pulsated for a few hours before dying. Through the Mutant series, and further into her video installations Remembering Toba Tek Singh and Hamletmachine, Malani has engaged with the legacy of technological nightmare at the service of nationalism gone desperately wrong.

Malani’s video Unity in Diversity (2003) was made in response to the Gujarat riots of February-March 2002, and makes reference to two well-known factors in modern Indian culture. “Unity in diversity” is the primary motto of cultural policy in a post-independence India (with an exact parallel in Indonesia’s slogan of Bhinneka Tunggal Eka). It is one of the foundational myths of the modern, secular democracy that was mobilized to support the creation of a sovereign state out of the disparate remnants of British colonialism. An early visualization of this ideal was Ravi Varma’s Galaxy of Musicians (1893), which presents an orchestral arrangement of richly bedecked Indian women from identifiably diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, typical representations of Indian womanhood in its diverse guises assembled in a single symphony. Ravi Varma’s Galaxy is of a kin with the construction of genre paintings as visual machines geared towards the propagation of national virtue (Jacques-Louis David comes immediately to mind). In Kapur’s words again,
In the otherwise grand historical project of a united India in whose name the superb galaxy is arranged…like a conference of goddesses, the artist gives himself over to the prevailing orientalism: the group of eleven oriental women representing different regions of India…make up a perfect anthropological vignette…it lays out this mannered group with its uneasy glances as a testimony for a nascent modernity. [12]

Malani has worked on this painting earlier, in her 1989 water-colour, Re-thinking Raja Ravi Varma where quoted figures from the Galaxy were presented as being pushed into the margin by the massively articulated form of a female nude that represents an animated conversation with normative notions of Indian womanhood. [13]

Unity in Diversity speaks specifically, and with brutal clarity, of the atrocities committed against the Muslim minority in Gujarat, in collusion with state bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies. In the video, the fragile fabric of the national ideal is quite literally stretched, torn apart. The spectacle of bejewelled women from Ravi Varma disintegrates into the incomprehensible horrors of contemporary political violence. Using quotations from Ravi Varma juxtaposed with her own drawn animation based on his figures, Malani’s work presents a vision of apocalyptic proportions compressed into an eight-minute single-channel video.

Placing inherited iconographies and the cherished stereotypes of culture under intense pressure, Malani’s work in painting, video and installation forces a series of visceral mutations, summoning forth the base materiality of human fragilities, physical and above all, ethical, moral, spiritual. Hers is an art of excess, of going beyond the boundaries of legitimised narrative, exceeding the conventional and setting up a constant flow of dialogue between our aspirations to beauty, poetry, progress and justice, and the fundamentally flaws of human nature with its capacity for acts of unimaginable horror committed in the name of ideals.

[1] Nalini Malani, artist’s statement, Text and Subtext: International Contemporary Asian Women Artists Exhibition, (Curator: Binghui Huangfu), exhibition catalogue, Singapore: Earl Lu Gallery, 2000, p. 62.
[2] Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “Nalini Malani: The Mutants,” The Second Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1996, p. 90.
[3] Interestingly, Malani appears as the sole woman among these artists who have directly pulled religious narratives and iconography into a contemporary dialogue. While other women artists in India have often referred to religious narratives and images, these references have occurred through deferral/ ellipsis rather than in terms of outright confrontation. There is an as yet unwritten story here, which perhaps needs the passage of time to reach clarity, at least for this writer.
[4] The Living Tradition is the title of K G Subramanyan’s seminal series of essays, which presents a case for an indigenist modernism, envisioning a dream where to be individual and innovative does not have to imply being an outsider to one’s own culture. See Subramanyan, The Living Tradition, Kolkata: Seagull, 1987, p. 85.
[5] For an account of some (primarily European) interpretations of the Medea story in theatre and film, see essays in Edith Hall, et. al. eds., Medea in Performance 1500-2000, Oxford: Legenda, 2000.
[6] Muller’s work has been an important reference point for Malani. She has worked on large scale theatre and video installations based on Muller: Medeaprojekt (1993) and Hamletmachine (2000), reading into both texts allegories for colonial and sectarian violence, perversions of tradition, selfhood, sexuality and desire.

[7] Local religious traditions in some parts of South India, such as Hampi in Karnataka, represent Hanuman in his childhood form, as an impetuous and powerful monkey-child at play. More widespread representations of Hanuman where he figures as a muscular, mace-wielding adult warrior at Rama’s feet, is an instance of what historian D D Kosambi has called “Deity of the Crossroads” where local deities are integrated into mainstream narratives in subsidiary roles. See Kosambi, Myth and Reality, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1962.
[8] While most versions of the Ramayana story are told from the perspective of Rama, there exist other readings, against the grain, which tell the story from the point of view of Ravana (who is regarded as a great scholar, dancer, and devotee of Siva in some southern Indian traditions). For a verse rendition in English of the story from the point of view of Sita, see, K S Srinivasa Iyengar, Sitayana: Epic of the Earth-born, Madras: Samata Books, 1987.
[9] There is a fascinating study of parallels between female heroes and demi-goddesses in Indian and Greek mythology in the work of Wendy Doniger. See her Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
[10] Satyameva Jayate (the truth shall prevail) is a slogan from Mahatma Gandhi which has been enshrined as the motto of the Indian state administration.
[11] Geeta Kapur, “Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work,” in When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, New Delhi: Tulika, 2000, p. 30.
[12] Geeta Kapur, “Representational Dilemmas of a Nineteenth-Century Painter: Raja Ravi Varma,” in When Was Modernism, op. cit., p. 168.
[13] For a discussion of this painting, see my “The possibilities of device: the work of Nalini Malani and Nilima Sheikh,” in Binghui Huangfu, ed., Text and Subtext: Contemporary Art and Asian Woman, Singapore: Earl Lu Gallery, 2000, p. 129.

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