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Mother India in Sydney
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

Forgive me if it sounds like an art lover’s fallacy but that one summer day in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), I walked past Picasso. Yes, original Picasso masterpieces from Musee National Picasso (Paris) – 1911 Man with a Guitar, 1918 Portrait of Olga, 1932 The Reader, 1952 Massacre in Korea… Wearing bright red tees with PICASSO emblazoned in white, the gallery girls were scanning entry tickets. I hurriedly walked past the large hall trying hard to forego the Picasso temptation and ignore that twitch in my heart. After all, who walks past original Picassos?

I did. No, not because I do not like the dusty earth tints of Picasso’s Rose Period, but because Mother India was waiting. Yes, a video play by Nalini Malini called Mother India: transactions in the construction of pain. Outside the display room stood a stern-looking security guard and inside five projectors had appropriated 15 metres of the white wall. Brown settees broke the monotony of white but before the darkness of the room stifled me, images started flashing on the five screens and a scratchy voice destroyed the silence.

What do you take me for?

A something machine?

A woman’s voice pleads as archival images from the Partition clutter the screens. A Nehruvian voice interrupts the woman “The national honour is at stake…” as images of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian national flag, people flooding across borders interleave with religious iconography and more recent allegorical representations of young Indian and Pakistani women. A woman pleads “Mercy. Mercy” and the Nehruvian voice beseeches, “And when our women are returned, do not punish them for their abductors’ sins…” More images flit in and out of the screen – a little girl, a cow, a still of actor Nargis from the unforgettable Mother India film, profile of a woman seething in agony. The voice keeps intervening with the images and the narrative that begins with the 1947 Partition of India and closes with images of the destroyed landscape after riots in Gujarat in 2002.

The end-song haunts:

They sat the girl on the table

Stabbed seventy times before they stopped.

Bitch so lovely. Dugs so cold.

Leaving your love hurts hundred fold.

Five minutes. That is all it takes to tell the story of pain. This pain is not a borrowed idiom for Nalini Malini, one of the foremost video artists in the country. Malini has witnessed the pain, she was barely two when the nation was partitioned. The inspiration, however, is not merely anecdotal and familial; Malini was inspired by anthropologist Veena Das’ 1998 essay Language and the body: transactions in the construction of pain. You can find poignant traces of the inspiration in perhaps what is the most powerful image of the video play – the image of a woman superimposed over a map. The figure and the map merge, with urban and topographical details marking the woman’s skin. The image is a visual allegory of violence on women during the Partition with cartographic borders and inscriptions seeming like wounds and scars on the skin. One is reminded of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Prastavna, Sadat Hassan Manto’s Khol Do and Heiner Muller’s Quartet – names and works that appear as the credits roll down.

This, however, is not the first time an artist has juxtaposed/superimposed the image of a woman and a map. Noted painter M F Husain’s Bharat Mata echoed a similar sentiment. Perhaps all this borrows from the very compelling – and very common – reference to Bharat Mata (Indian woman) in the history of India’s freedom movement. Nalini and Husain have very individual representation of the image, but in both it is the intensity that is searing.

Premiered at 51 st Venice Biennial in 2005, Mother India refrains from passing a verdict – it lets you feel the pain of violence and interpret it your way. And that is exactly what Jackie Menzies Oam, Head Curator of Asian Art intended. Oam has never met Malini, but during her 30-year stint in AGNSW, she has noticed a growing interest in contemporary Asian art. But it was the young Macushla Robinson of AGNSW Curatorial Services that poured hours over Malini’s Mother India till the Gallery purchased it with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, Contempo Group 2011. The show that opened in mid-February (the show is on till May 20, 2012) is the first one-person show by an Indian artist in AGNSW.


“What is your first reaction to Mother India?” I ask Oam as we stand outside the display room amidst antique Buddhas sitting within glass frames. “The video play is not a definitive narrative, it is episodic. It begins with a 1947 pain that the old have not forgotten but the young are not so familiar with but ends with a contemporary timeline of pain in 2002,” Oam explains. Perhaps it is the no-verdict stance of the video artist that adds intrigue to the play. The image of a broken pot could have a million interpretation - all interpretation taking cue from an individual definition of pain. Or, as Veena Das puts it, “How is it that the imaging of the project of India came to include the appropriation of bodies of women as objects on which the desire of nationalism could be brutally inscribed and a memory for the future made?”


For Robinson, the most fascinating aspect of Mother India is the use of a woman’s body as a landscape. “It might seem like a stretched analogy but a woman’s body has often been used as landscape, a lot of histories written on them.” In Mother India, it resonates when a faceless, nameless child voices over:

The doll from Wagha border has no legs.

How will she walk?

The doll from Wagha she has no eyes.

How will she see?

The doll from Wagha has no mouth.

How will she speak?

In Mother India, the poignant whisper lingers. Just as the trauma of Partition. And the continuous pain of violence against women. That day at AGNSW I ignored Picasso. That day in AGNSW, it was all about Mother India.



The Crest Edition, 2012

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