Touching the Intangible

The Contemporary Indian Experience in the Eyes of Bharti Kher, Zarina Hashmi, and Hema Upadhyay

Responding to the rapidly growing globalisation of the country, Indian artists utilise their work as a means to engage with increasingly prominent issues of locality, the concept of home and origin, displacement and the meaning of identity. These three artists - Bharti Kher, Hema Upadhyay and Zarina Hashmi - each explore, criticise and celebrate various aspects of their culture, revealing how art can be and has been a successful way in which to analyse the various levels of political, social, and cultural experiences. Each artist imbues in their work a specifically feminine view on many of these issues, engaging with the country’s gender disparities and how it impacts these themes, their personal experiences and those of Indian women in general.

Bharti Kher (1969 - )

Kher, born in London, relocated to India in 1993 where she continues to live and work today. Her career is expansive, spanning across nearly three decades and mediums including painting, installations, sculpture and readymades. Through these modes, she explores the idea of personal identity, of ‘the self’ and how it takes shape through interactions with human relationships, objects, animals and places.

Her work is recognised for its incorporation of the traditional bindi. The bindi itself, the word deriving from the Sanskrit ‘Bindu’ meaning dot or point, is a dot applied to the forehead, becoming a liberalisation of the spiritual third eye. Combatting the tradition’s transformation into a popular mass-produced ‘accessory’ Kher pushes the bindi back to its roots of sacred feminine ritual whilst also using it as a symbol through which to question traditional associations of marital status and religion. Her most well-known sculpture The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006) captures this in the fibreglass life-size Indian elephant lying on the ground. Merely sleeping or potentially the victim of hunting, the animal is adorned with serpent-like bindis, combining the two symbols commonly associated with India and the Hindu religion. The haunting image of the passive elephant, it’s massive form emphasizing its lifelessness, appears as though it has been attacked by the bindi (which takes on a particularly sperm-like appearance here). It would not be unreasonable to read this sculpture as a depiction of the crushing, even life-draining result of the cultural pressures and restraints placed upon Indian women.

This idea is repeated in her 2007 work An Absence of Assignable Cause which again is a life-size sculpture this time, however, of a blue sperm whale which again is covered with a highly colourful spattering of bindis. The same themes are implied through the masculine association with the animal and the isolated heart shown removed from the body, a life-giving organ stopped in its tracks. Like in The Skin Speaks this work reveals the societal expectations of the feminine experience and the devastating effects that it can have. However, this could also be read as a reminder of the fundamental elements of Indian culture, the bindi being shown not only close to but intrinsically printed upon the heart. This suggests that the symbols traditions of the country remain precious and an unwavering part of the Indian identity.

Kher engages with these paradoxes in her work, imbuing it with multiple potential interpretations that are designed to be understood alongside each other rather than one cancelling out the other. She reveals the complexities that inevitably exist within such a long-existing culture, showing that identity is not made through simply being born in a certain place but is rather absorbed through experience and is therefore subject to constant question and change.

Zarina Hashmi (1937 - 2020)

Zarina Hashmi, known simply as Zarina, was a New York-based Indian-American artist, her career spanning across multiple decades and including drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. Her work relied heavily on linear, geometric forms as part of the Minimalist movement which aimed to evoke a spiritual reaction within the viewer via abstraction.

Zarina’s art was influenced by multiple aspects of her own experience - her degree in mathematics, travelling around the world, and her identity as a Muslim born woman in majority-Hindu India. Much like Kher, Zarina’s work was flooded with references to the religious tradition in its borrowing of visual elements of Islamic religious architecture and decoration, along with notions of diaspora and movement in the exploration of the meaning of identity, reflecting the religious and political tension between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. She herself identified as an individual in exile after marrying her diplomat husband in 1948 and beginning a life of displacement from her home country and language.

Particularly interesting is Zarina’s relationship with architectural forms. Much of her work contains suggestions of walls, floor plans, and barriers. In this, she confronts the idea of both protection via shelter and yet also boundaries, the idea of restricted movement. Her series Home is a Foreign Place (1999) beautifully expresses this idea of displacement and the subsequent emotional longing for the place to which one will never return and yet is intrinsically linked to. Consisting of thirty-six woodblock prints, the series is exemplary of the geometric, flat designs that Zarina imbued with personal meaning. This personal experience and reflection are captured via the Nastaliq script inscriptions that accompany the prints.

These words are translated from a list Zarina wrote and then sent to a calligrapher in Pakistan who wrote them in the script used in the artist’s native language, Urdu. The architectural forms and the accompanying words (‘distance’, ‘road’, ‘axis’ etc) work together to create a glorified notion of the lost home of the exile.

Hema Upadhyay (1972-2015)

Hema Upadhyay was an Indian artist who was recognised for her photography and sculptural installations. Like Kher and Hashmi, Upadhyay infused her work with questions and observations regarding the notion of migration, globalisation and the loss of identity as a result of mass consumerism, military action, and political/religious tensions. Again, like the other mentioned artists, Upadhyay was personally affected by these themes as she settled in Mumbai after marrying her husband in 1998.

Her work The Nymph and the Adult (2001) was shown at Artspace, Sydney and the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane in the same year. The installation consists of a huge number of realistic appearing cockroaches that cover the entire surface of the space - nearly 2000 handcrafted pieces. The work is flooding with potential meanings - the idea of infestation and encroachment, the reaction of abhorrence of the sight of the creature en mass but also fascination, the commonality of experience, a being that exists primarily in foreign climates, nature as a leveller, and the idea that cockroaches are supposed to be able to withstand a nuclear blast, referring to the influence of military action in the South Asian subcontinent at the time. Upadhyay touches on all of these ideas within the simple symbolism of the installation, making direct reference to passing down and the continuing of generations in the work’s title.

In her well known 2009 work, Where the Bees Suck, There Suck I she piled a huge number of tiny multi-colour shacks on the floor over which an excavator hangs from an adjacent wall. The work aims to confront western stereotypes of India and communicate a true reality of her native country to unfamiliar viewers. Like many of the works discussed here, this is another example of one visual being full of multiple meanings that exist simultaneously even if contradictory. Upadhyay engages here with the idea of overpopulation and also close community, urbanisation and tradition, political/economic perils and a sense of solidarity and continuation, fear of the future and finding comfort in what you know.

What each of these artists is able to achieve through their work is the ability to capture and summarise incredibly complex emotions that are both universal and also deeply personal. In their art they turn something intangible into something very much tangible, often large in size, that perfectly expresses what many cannot put into words, appealing to the viewer and conveying a sense of their own experience. Through the great variety of the works within the oeuvres of these three women, we can get a glimpse at the amazingly diverse people and art of India that certainly deserves more attention and recognition in the western art world.

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