MEDIEVAL LEGEND Sheikh’s Shamiana.
One of the medieval legends of India is the tale of the star-crossed lovers Sohni, the daughter of a potter, and Mahiwal, a traveling trader. They fell in love when he met her while passing through her town. To be close to her, he even became a servant to her family. But her family married her off to another man. Still she continued secretly meeting with Mahiwal, who now lived as a hermit across a river. When an injury made him unable to swim to her, Sohni used a pot to help her float across the currents. But her sister-in-law discovered her infidelity, and switched her baked pot for an unbaked one. When Sohni tried to cross the river again, she drowned and, they say, Mahiwal dove in after her and drowned as well.
Nilima Sheikh takes the legend as one of the subjects of Shamiana (1996), in the exhibit "Tradition, Trauma, Transformation" at Brown's Bell Gallery (64 College Street, Providence, through May 29). Sheikh paints six banners front and back with loose, lyrical scenes of Sohni holding a round pot and floating in a green sea among alligators, snakes, and fish. Elsewhere women give birth or dance; a couple has sex in a bed floating in stars; a bearded man kneels in prayer; a woman cradles a child in her arms as women with wings or on fire float around in clouds. The banners hang in the center of the gallery, marking off a sort of room (the piece includes a canopy which is not shown here), in a style meant to bring to mind traditional royal ceremonial tents called shamiana of the Mughal and Rajput eras, temporary quarters of nomads and refugees, and the tents commonly used for outdoor parties, like weddings.
AN IMAGE FROM Malani’s Memory: Record/Erase.
Here curators Jo-Ann Conklin, the director of the Bell Gallery, and Mallica Kumbera Landrus, a RISD art history professor, bring together the work of three women artists of Indian descent — Sheikh (born 1945) and Nalini Malani (born 1946), who are based in India, and American artist Chitra Ganesh (born 1975) — to mull the place of women in Indian culture today. They note that women in contemporary India have paradoxically achieved the highest offices of the state (prime minister and president; the current president of the ruling Congress Party is Sonia Gandhi) while continuing to be subject to traditional patriarchical hierarchies that result in subservient roles for women, lesser pay, and sexual harassment. Sheikh speaks to this point with her riff on Sohni, a woman frustrated from pursing her heart's desire.
Malani, who was barely a year old when India was partitioned and her family left newly-created Pakistan for India, projects her seven-minute video, Unity in Diversity (2003), inside a gold picture frame in red room with two red upholstered chairs and a wall of framed photos of Gandhi and Nehru. The title comes from the national motto after India gained independence from Britain in 1947. The video appears to show a 19th-century Indian painting of women musicians from across India — interpreted as an allegory of unity in diversity — projected atop live video of women today. The live women seem to undermine the painting's fantasy. The video speaks of rebel fighters and recent religious riots, with footage of surgery and an image of women soldiers.
FANTASIA Ganesh’s Melancolia: The Thick of Time.
Ganesh, who was born in Brooklyn to Indian immigrants and studied at Brown and Columbia, mixes images from the Indian comic book Amar Chitra Katha, which is seen to teach traditional Indian social customs, and her own okay drawings to create riot grrrl feminist fantasias of flying saucers, topless women with exploding heads, a woman laying on the tongue of a disembodied lady's mouth, and a woman pulling open her belly to reveal stars.