February 15, 2018


By Georgina Maddox

Ritu Kamath’s solo exhibition i-seek opens in Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, on February 21, 2018. The show is curated by Anoop Kamath. MOA reproduces the catalogue essay by Georgina Maddox.

Where the wings of a dragonfly morph into a cable of hair and bone,
Where mountains are women and a ball of thread becomes an umbilical cord
Where flight and sleep are the dual gatekeepers of Never Land…
Here dreams are so sweet, they will probably never come true.

The world as perceived by artist Ritu Kamath is full of dualities: wry humor mingles with unabashed hope, mythology and dream meets the everyday realities of life in her visual diary which is packed with metaphor and aphorisms. One such metaphor that cuts to the quick is the skeleton with wings, flying towards the clouds. With this carnivalesque imagery, Kamath appears to be saying, death can be a great liberator and need not be seen only as a negative ending of life; it is hope for the hopeless since dragonfly wings are messengers of optimism.

The flying skeleton hints towards the afterlife that is promised to individuals, a kind of miasma that keeps us going back to sip from the bitter cup of life. It also possesses a gentle humor that trumps the darkness of the grim reaper.

Kamath has been working on her solo exhibition since 2013, secreting away work until she had a large enough body of artwork to mount a solo. Her current set of offerings comprise of her signature mixed-media creations, acrylic on canvas and charcoal on paper. Thematically they are bound together by what may be perceived as feminine concerns, from the politics of hair to the politics of the female body, from the everyday back and forth of gender polarities between man and woman, to the individual struggles of the self, Kamath lays out the ground for this discourse with a rich repository of imagery. 

Let us examine the first body of work. The mixed media creations, ingeniously take an everyday material like PVC and transform it into art. The sleight of hand of the artist, is evident in her works, as Kamath has cut out the forms like wings and female bodies in profile. She sets these cutouts against a white backdrop, where she has further drawn upon the surface with ink-pens. These works bear a meticulous precision and exactitude while they have a popish air to them. What is interesting about these representations of women is that they vary in body type…from the lithe, athletic woman to the dysplastic ‘large’ woman. By deliberating upon the female body to include a variety of forms, Kamath destabilizes the size zero culture that prevails in the post-modern, post-feminist millennial which preferences the anorexic body over a full-bodied woman who is proud of her femininity. She introduces this ‘othered body’ as the shadow of a dancing woman, which repeated over the picture plane, inducing a sense of rhythm and celebration.

In another work she has reflects upon the woman’s body as landscape in her work that juxtaposes the profiles of women with those of mountains. One is reminded of feminist artist Barbara Kruger’s photomontage of a woman’s face with each eye covered by a solitary leaf, accompanied by the following text: “We won’t play nature to your culture”. In the book Feminism/Postmodernism/Development, edited by Marianne H. Marchand, Jane L. Parpart the author of the essay ‘Territory’, Craig Owens, further elaborates that this image by Kruger presupposes a binary logic of opposition and exclusion, that divides the social body into two unequal parts in order to subject one to the other: naturalisation over de-naturalisation, (Owens 1983:5). The question to be posed here is do Kamath’s women automatically get coopted into the nature culture binary or are they in fact resisting it?

One must first locate Kamath’s work within the South Asian context to understand that the wildness and untamable quality of nature has often been aligned with feminine power or Sakti. It is not perhaps subject to the same politics of gender that a Western perspective may offer. The Goddess Kali, who also embodies shakti – feminine energy, creativity and fertility – and is an incarnation or avatar of Parvati. Kali with her wild untamed locks, her necklace of heads, skirt made of arms and protruding tongue is a counter-force to notion that Mother Nature is a benign force. She brings the antidote to the domesticated and wholesome woman that is portrayed by patriarchy. It is this untamable quality of the feminine that Kamath taps into when she represents her women alongside nature.

The theme of the untamed woman, continues in Kamath’s second body of work, that looks at hair through a series of sensuous and wild hair drawings. These hair drawings have humorously been named Hirsute with a pun on the word which has masculine connotations. As an artist and woman, Kamath has been ‘deeply curious’ about hair as an extension and part of the human body. As a child she has experienced a fair amount of admonishment for leaving her hair ‘open’. This was because wild open hair in South Asian society is seen as indicating a loose or easy woman. A good girl always ties her hair up.

We see that this is not entirely unusual; In their book, Gananath Obeyesekere, Alf Hiltebeitel, Barbara D. Miller – Hair – Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures (1998) in a section titled Confucian Korea the authors cite: “Uncut, however, does not imply unruly. The long hair was never allowed to hang freely. It was controlled: knotted or braided in particular ways, each style specifying aspects of the wearer’s social position. Children’s hair was parted in the middle and braided, the long braids hanging down their backs, boys with one braid and girls with one or two (Bishop 1898:127, Rutt 1972:25).”

The works in this series seek a release from the bondage that tames and ties down this hair. In one of the Hirsute series, voluptuous and voluminous layers of hair spill over onto an eight-foot-long charcoal on paper drawing where the hair appears both unraveled and plated.

“Hair is a powerful metaphor in the Hindu mythology. The myths represent traditional sacred stories, typically revolving around the activities of gods and goddesses and heroes that purport to explain natural phenomena or cultural practices. Tracing back the importance and significance of human hair to the dawn of civilisation of the Indian subcontinent, we find that all the Vedic gods and goddesses have used hair to convey a message,” says Kamath.

Taking off from the mythology of the Mahabharata, Kamath cites the example of Draupadi. When Dushasana pulled apart her triveni (triple braid) at the dice game, the Kauravas did not just defile her, they tore apart familial ties and the dharmic order, say scholars. Hair-binding in Indian culture has been traditionally associated with femininity, her role in society, her duty and deference to her husband. For the next 13 years, she kept hers unbound, signifying that the Pandavas lost their marital rights to her. Neither Draupadi nor the world could be pure until dharma was restored.”

Hence the trope of the woman with unbound hair acquires in Hindu mythology a symbolism of fierceness. In Greek mythology hair in a man is a symbol of wealth and power while slaves are usually shorn of their hair. According to an Anglo-Saxon myth, Lady Godiva’s naked ride through the streets has made her a heroine to the common people of Coventry. The image of Lady Godiva riding a horse with her body covered with only her long hair has become a symbol of civic freedom and beauty. Kamath presents hair as an impenetrable curtain a tangled, rebellious mess, untamable and wild.

The theme of hair spirals into the third body of work, which consists of square-box shaped canvases upon which Kamath has painted in such a manner that the front of the canvas may appear as an abstraction of the whole picture, while the sides reveal the entire narrative. “I do not like painting on a flat canvas, it becomes too predictable for me. That is why I created these box-like works and decided to paint over them on all five sides of the canvas,” says Kamath.

These canvases are unlike the mixed media work that are primarily constituted of pinks and greens, these works are a riot of colours, whether it is the bright red of a chili, eye-popping yellow of a flower or the azure of the summer sky. The gentle humor that has been Kamath’s way of dealing with ‘heavy issues’, is much more apparent in these works. A woman sits in the center, meditating, as her hair extends out towards a pot of chilis which are balanced on the head of a man. The implications are more than evident when you factor in that the hair appears to ignite under the influence of the fiery chili, giving rise to disquiet among the two.

In yet another set of works, Kamath depicts a couple balanced over the Taj Mahal, a man being held aloft by a woman and a man and woman sharing a quiet moment in the bounty of the foliage. Here clearly the romantic import of the works suggest harmony, between the sexes. One gets a sense that these are brief moments carved out of a busy and vexed lifestyle, not necessarily a constant state of bliss.

In another section Kamath contemplates the self: A woman appears entangled in her thoughts the thread and wool then extend into and take the shape of hair. In another Kamath takes out a leaf from daily existence. She captures a female protagonist, presumably herself, pushing her red car after it has broken down. While cars afford women an independent lifestyle in the metropolis, no one comes forward to help. In a third the portly woman makes a reappearance dancing across the canvas, her wild hair flowing across the canvas. There are also a few close studies of the hands of women fixing an exotic flower in her hair, a woman holding a golden egg and a woman playing with dandelion flowers.

The section of this series also includes a tribute to the rescued cats that form part of Kamath’s extended family. Tender yet entertaining the portrait of cats, seated all around the house constitute these works. Cats are regal creatures, that are fiercely independent. The relationships formed with cats often resonates with this ability to love and let go.

Much in the manner of Impressionist artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt whose paintings arose from their domestic world, the social and private lives of women, Kamath delineates the world in her own quirky style. Unlike her male counterpart who also accesses the outer world, Kamath draws you into to her inner circle through these intimate and delicately rendered works, that are technically skilled without losing any of its feminine softness, a softness that often translates into quiet strength.