Mumbai’s iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) is celebrating its centenary this year. To celebrate the event along with the 75th year of Independence, an exhibition titled Woman is as Woman Does, featuring 27 Indian women artists, opened at the museum on August 13 (August 13-October 16). Curated by art critic Nancy Adajania and showing at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation and Premchand Roychand Gallery of the museum, the exhibition is an immersive experience where the images reveal as much about India’s feminist movement as the texts accompanying them.
The artworks, created using several types of media, narrate the story of the feminist movement, marking its milestones. Featuring artists across five generations, the exhibition can be said to be a definitive documentation of the postcolonial women’s movement. During a walkthrough, Adajania says: “I wanted to show feminism in India from an Indian perspective. I kept the selection simple and direct, not ornate. While describing milestones, I felt it needed something direct and declamatory; senior artists in the same neighbourhood as Gen X or Gen Z. It is important to have a diverse conversation.”
Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director, CSMVS, said at the inauguration: “The exhibition is our tribute to women’s power, which highlights transformative changes in varied sociocultural, political, and economic spheres.” The power is expressed through not just mounted paintings but also black-and-white photographs, placed in such a way as to throw a shadow over a particular painting; a television screen that projects a film; installations, objects, magazines, mixed media and music.
The works are in distinctly different styles, with contemporary art mixed with traditional tribal designs. By highlighting subjects such as dowry, atrocities on Dalits, marginalisation of tribal people, the show asks the viewer to go back in time and see the present through the lens of the past and also look ahead to the future of the feminist movement in India.
Nilima Sheikh’s acclaimed series, When Champa Grew Up (1984), serves as an introduction. This anti-dowry art was accompanied by protest songs in Gujarati when it was first exhibited: one of the songs is displayed here, stressing the continuing afterlife of the still-relevant work. Sheba Chhachhi’s photo placards capture the moments in the 1980s when women activists protested rape, dowry deaths, and female infanticide. Chhachhi was a founder-member of the women’s group Jagori, along with pioneering activists Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya. Her work on feminist theatre activism is placed in close proximity to Nilima Sheikh’s anti-dowry song, with each lending resonance to the other.
One of Baaraan Ijlal and Moonis Ijlal’s carved wooden sculptures shows a march of people, whom Adajania interprets as a “servile army” or “a group of refugees.” She says of the work: “Keep walking, they seem to say. Keep defying the order of the tyrants.” Young artist Ita Mehrotra uses a dark scroll to etch the account of Sudesha, a leader of the Chipko movement. For too long, says Adajania, Chipko was associated with men. “We hear Sudesha’s voice honest and wise—channelled through the imagination of a younger-generation feminist.”