It is a universally unacknowledged secret that Amrita Sher-Gil struggled with facial hair — a characteristic potentially revealing of her Punjabi genes, despite her half-Hungarian matrilineal ancestry. In the postscript of her 1934 letter to her parents announcing her desire to return to India from France, primarily in the interest of her artistic development, she rants about her hairy woes. “My beard is growing and increasing hopelessly and it looks horrible and I am plucking at it all day long.”

Sher-Gil’s first call of action upon her return would be to pay a visit to the cousin or sister of a certain Mrs Fodor, who specialised in hair removal. “Ask her how much time it would take, how much it would cost and would she be able to do it without any after-effects,” Sher-Gil, who often signed off her letters as Amri, commanded her mother.

Undoubtedly, it is vanity that provoked this obsession with looking more feminine. But her explicit motive for wanting to be perceived as beautiful was far more pressing than she initially lets on. It has everything to do with the fact that she has chosen to return to India after having studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, having flourished, intellectually, in the relatively non-conservative French artistic milieu. “And it is my firm plan to earn my living and for that I shall have to depend to a great extent on my own charms (as in India the interest and understanding of art is at a low premium), I must arm myself on a war footing,” said Sher-Gil, whose self-styling has frequently drawn parallels to the Mexican feminist icon Frida Kahlo. Sher-Gil was fully conscious that despite her upper-class privileges, as a woman, an aspiring outsider of mixed origin, the odds were stacked against her. It was not enough for her to be received as a promising artist. She had to use all the ammunition at her disposal, from her solid grounding in aesthetics to her self-conscious charm, to ensure a legacy.

Sher-Gil died mysteriously seven years later. She was barely 29, but left behind around 200 paintings, including the celebrated 1934 ‘Self-Portrait as Tahitian’, which was part of documenta14, a quinquennial art exhibition held in Kassel, Germany. However, her plan to complement her aesthetic acumen with feminine guile didn’t prove too successful. “She was so outspoken that she antagonised many,” wrote Richard Bartholomew in his 1974 review of her two-part retrospective in the Capital. “Her contemporaries considered her a curiosity, a kind of hothouse flower of mixed culture. She was isolated and she pined for warmth, understanding, and friendship. In March 1938, she wrote to critic Karl Khandalavala, ‘Please, please come. I am starving for appreciation, literally famished.’”

In her essay ‘An Indian Critic and the Bard’s Puzzle’, a critical ode to Bartholomew, Geeta Kapur — long-time spouse of artist Vivan Sundaram, Sher-Gil’s nephew — laments the absence of women as contributors when describing the beginnings of the modernist movement in India. “Not surprisingly but of course disappointingly, all the players are male,” she writes. “Amrita Sher-Gil would have led the charge, so to speak, but having lived and died before her time — the right time for a declarative stance on modernity — there is no female presence at the turn of the 1940s when these male artists appear on the horizon with a modernist credo.” Not just the artists, even the gatekeepers such as the instructors at art schools, critics and art dealers were predominantly male.

When Akbar Padamsee ran his Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW) — a multidisciplinary initiative involving artists, filmmakers and a psychoanalyst — in 1969-72 at his Napean Sea Road apartment in Mumbai, Nalini Malani, then in her 20s, was the only female member. It was at VIEW that “she realized that technology extends the way one perceives the work”, according to the brief biography in You Can’t Keep Acid In A Paper Bag , a tome featuring a collection of essays alongside images of artworks made over almost five decades, which was published in 2014 by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) to accompany a three-part retrospective of the artist. It was an idea that Malani discussed at length with fellow female artist Nasreen Mohamedi when the latter visited the workshop. Malani had demonstrated her camera-less photography work in the darkroom, which prompted Mohamedi to share her knowledge of burning and dodging tools while enlarging from her negatives.

“During a month-long stay in 1973, at her home in Baroda, for the first time Nasreen shows all her photographs to Malani,” continues the note listed under the year 1969. Malani urged Mohamedi to exhibit these images, “but she never thought they were good enough for showing. Also, nobody encouraged her to show them either,” she said in a 2014 interview with Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South Asian art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which formed part 3 of his series ‘Building On A Prehistory: Artists’ Film and New Media in India’. “You must try to understand that period: it was as if women had swallowed the concept that we are incapable,” Malani added. “It was so much the case that even if I talked to the wives of artists who were there, I was told to back off because I was trying to convert these women to a feminist ideology. It was almost as if doors were shut. It was a very, very strange situation because there was no openness on the part of the men. None.” Was the attitude patronising, or did they view her with some sort of suspicion, Jhaveri asks. “Neither. They simply ignored me.”

One significant consequence of the absence of women as active participants in the modernist history of Indian art is that the very perception of what qualified as art came to be defined by men. So, in 1978, when Mrinalini Mukherjee was awarded the British Council scholarship for culture, which afforded her the opportunity to study at West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, UK, her continued success with experimentation with dyed hemp as a medium invited the suspicion of her male peers because she was daring to straddle art and craft. “They think that if you are not working with stone or bronze you’re not macho enough,” Mukherjee said in an interview with Anshul Avijit in December 2000. “It’s not that I have a problem with those mediums; it’s just that I like my work to be additive, organic, something that keeps growing.” The only daughter of artists Benode Behari and Leela Mukherjee, she was hospitalised two days after the opening of her long-overdue retrospective at NGMA Delhi, and died a week later, on February 2, 2015. She was 66.

Two details stand out from Madhvi Parekh’s timeline, printed along the length of a wall at the Delhi Art Gallery, as part of her recently concluded retrospective, ‘The Curious Seeker’, spanning five decades of her artistic practice and featuring nearly 70 paintings — ‘1988: Watercolour Group Show with Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani and Nilima Sheikh, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal’; and ‘1989,97: Through the Looking Glass, Watercolors by Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani and Nilima’. In the accompanying eponymous publication, curator and critic Gayatri Sinha dates this sisterhood alliance to 1985. “Their choice of watercolours as the chosen medium led her [Parekh] to learn the medium before participating in the Four Women Artists show at Bharat Bhavan,” Sinha observed.

In KNMA’s publication on Malani, too, these two events appear in the biography along with a photograph of the four artists, three of whom are sari-clad. Arpita Singh smiles directly at the camera, as does Parekh. Sheikh looks away languorously while Malani, dressed in a button-down shirt and denims, also looks sideways. Malani’s biography fixes the group’s inception to 1986. The choice of watercolours, one learns, had everything to do with lack of sponsorship. The medium was more travel-friendly. The inspiration for an exhibition premised on its artists being women came from Malani’s visit to the female artist-run AIR in New York, where she was supposed to exhibit but couldn’t for lack of funding. She dreamed of creating a similar feminist space back home. “This women’s exhibition is not appreciated and heavily critiqued within the art scene,” reads a biographical note in the KNMA publication on Malani’s practice

Thirty years on, one wonders if there is greater parity in the Indian art world, considering it now boasts many more female participants who include gallerists, dealers, critics, and artists themselves.

Today, many artists question the relevance of the very category “women artists” and quite a few, like photographer Dayanita Singh, have actively avoided it. Unlike Sher-Gil, women artists are not as famished for appreciation. Singh, for instance, recently won the Aperture/Paris Photo 2017 book of the year for her photo book Museum Bhawan , a throwback to her iconic seven-volume boxed Sent a Letter , produced in 2007. Earlier this year, photographer and artist Sheba Chhachhi was awarded the 25,000-Swiss-franc Prix Thun for Art and Ethics award.

Another satisfying indicator of how significantly things have changed is the sheer number of shows by women artists in the last few years in India and abroad. Most curators and gallerists won’t admit to either a positive or negative bias when it comes to their programming, just like collectors. That it may be unintentional that certain galleries have had back-to-back solo shows of women artists is certainly assuring. Case in point is Nature Morte, run by founding director Peter Nagy and Aparajita Jain, who opened 32-year-old Tanya Goel’s solo, ‘This, the Sublime and its Double’, on November 25. “Her works are notable for their exploration of a rigorous abstraction that is deeply invested in the process of their creation,” reads the press release.

Goel’s show followed ‘My Play Zero’, veteran artist Mona Rai’s third solo with the gallery featuring works that are the result of an abstraction “that flirts with geometry and the organic, the gestural and the programmatic”. Goel’s show will be followed by a solo of Gauri Gill, from January 20 to February 27, 2018. This will presumably include work from her 2015-ongoing new series, ‘Acts of Appearance’, in collaboration with Adivasi mask-makers in Jawhar district, Maharashtra. Gill approached the acclaimed brothers Subhas and Bhagavan Dharan Kadi, their families and local volunteers to create a set of masks different from the usual mythological stories of gods and demons, and closer to current reality and self-portraits — what she calls “symbolic representation of experiential reality, across dreaming and waking states”.

From March 17, 2018, Nilima Sheikh’s ‘Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind’ — created for documenta14 and currently on view in Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road till December 9 — will be on display at Delhi’s Gallery Espace until April 14. The installation consists of a single body of work — an eight-panel retro verso, Casein tempera painting, enclosing an octagonal space inscribed with stories from folklore and contemporary reality.

Preceding Sheikh’s show at Gallery Espace will be an important solo of the New York-based artist who goes by the first name Zarina, while Vadehra Art Gallery and Bikaner House in the Capital will showcase works by Anju Dodiya. Meanwhile, in Paris, part one of Malani’s international retrospective show ‘The Rebellion Of The Dead’ is on view till January 8 at the prestigious Centre Pompidou, marking a seminal moment not just in the 71-year-old artist’s career, but also the cause of feminist Indian art. Part two will be unveiled at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, from March 27 till July 22, 2018.

Is the art world still patriarchal? Bharti Kher believes it is, because the world as we know it is still patriarchal, and the art world is but a microcosm of that larger reality. (Kher’s critically acclaimed solo of the drawings and sketches she made as an artist-in-residence at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum is on view at the Fenway Gallery till September 10, 2018.) Asked if this would change, she said in an interview to Shahnaz Siganporia, “Yes, because women artists are going to change it.” Judging from the quality and surge in quantity of shows by women artists and the greater presence of women as critics, dealers, appraisers, and curators, both in the country and outside, one can’t help share her conviction.

Rosalyn D’Mello is a Delhi-based art writer and author of A Handbook For My Lover