“Not after you’ve done it once. It’s okay for others to see your imperfections,” ceramic artist Priya Sundaravalli replies when asked about the discomfort, if any, in exposing one’s body to others. She has been describing Native American ‘sweat lodge’ rituals in New Mexico and Michigan, US, involving an underground chamber, the kiva: You enter and come out wet, sweaty and slimy, akin to a rebirthing from a womb. “It’s the physicality of experience that frees our mind,” says Sundaravalli, “You feel reborn, rejuvenated. It’s a catharsis.” The concept of a ‘spiritual sauna’ recurs in the many conversations with women artists who bring the body into art.


Big and small: Priya Sundaravalli explores the microcosm of bodies in Morula dreams


Historically, society’s perception of male and female bodies has been shaped by the male gaze. Most often the subject of sexual and erotic art, the body under the gaze of four Indian women artists is revealed in an altogether new light. Much like entering a kiva, these artists venture inside bodies, baring themselves, exposing imperfections, bringing people to emotively experience the awe of this interior landscape.

Undoing, provoking, becoming

Mithu Sen, known for her ardent practice of deconstructing, says, “I do believe that we can host many kinds of imagery to see where boundaries are blurred, to where they are unmade.” In 2015, Sen made an 80-ft-long sculpture for her solo show Border Unseen at the Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University: Visceral, gross, pink and fleshy, ‘the great wall of teeth’ made with dentures and dental polymer challenged the audience’s understanding of their bodies.


Reality bites: Mithu Sen’s Border Unseen — an 80-ft-long installation at the Broad Museum, Michigan State University in 2015 — is made of false teeth and dental polymer


“As such, I have been drawn to the building blocks of the body, like teeth and hair, for example, that are associated with desires and fears, pain and satisfaction, sexuality and violence alike. These images and materials are a generative gateway to our inner body in relation to an outer world.”

Sen’s multimedia works typically come alive with conflicting sensations. She found that when biological images of the body are placed in settings that evoke emotion, scientific representation gets destabilised, and their accuracy comes into question. In her 2010 show Black Candy (iforgotmypenisathome) at Mumbai’s Gallery Chemould, visitors sucked on candy and listened to soundscapes while viewing her intricate drawings of reconstructed body biology, such as her diptych You owe me! , where a sectional of an adult male body reveals a foetus.

For 23-year-old textile artist Sarah Naqvi, it’s been a journey of undoing everything that was taught. “We carry our burdens around most of the time, not even knowing what is causing them,” says Naqvi. She found her voice in textile art at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, under the mentoring of her teacher Nitish Mohanty, who said to her, “You seem to have many unresolved questions. Why don’t you use your art to come to terms with them?”

The women in Naqvi’s family would come together to do embroidery, which afforded them a space to talk about issues that was otherwise not possible. Subconsciously, Naqvi turned to her childhood roots. At her first show in 2018, titled Bashaoor/Guided by Conscience in the Conflictorium (Museum of Conflict, Ahmedabad), she embroidered panties with flares of scarlet to depict menstruation. It brought giggles from a group of schoolgirls. It also got them to open up. “Surprisingly, people were willing to talk about it. It is easier to accept the image... you do not feel as intimidated.”

That seems to be at the crux of what these 21st-century women artists are doing — getting people to talk about things we tend to shelve away. Take ceramicist Ashwini Bhat, currently settled in Petaluma, California, who is invested in highly textural and tactile forms. A poet and a dancer before she turned to ceramics, she captures the fleeting beauty of the ‘gesture’. She is interested in the intimacy of the fold of a knee, the crook of an elbow, making us recognise something familiar yet not available in entirety, posing enigmas.


Other animals and I: Ashwini Bhat used folds of clay slabs to create a skin-like texture for the strange-looking organisms in her Alive series


Recent works from Bhat’s Alive and Origin of Species series are like strange organisms, breathing sequestered lives. “I started working with clay slabs, folding them, retaining a skin-like texture. I was interested in getting into the body of other creatures and becoming them.” At her show in La Coste/Keane Gallery in Massachusetts in April, these appeared to visitors like animals who may jump on them, creepy but beautiful. “They look like puffed-up jelly fish on display. Just like how the body contracts and opens up in breathing. Visitors who came to my show would say, ‘What the hell is that?’ and ‘I want to put my finger in this but I’m scared it will bite me!’... ‘This looks like skin — can I touch it?’ They all felt connected to their own body.”

Overturning the norm

Delhi-based Sen wants to question the social norms that confine and stereotype male and female behaviour. Over two decades, her arts practice has been “excited by bodies, human or non-human, organic or inorganic, morbid or humorous, metaphysical, physical, emotional and subconscious”. Sen provokes her audience by depicting bodies in ways considered taboo; she also plays with irony, like collaging her head over a muscular man’s body, throwing viewers off-balance. “With an active forbidden sexual body, I try to satirise a socially accepted model of looking at the body. Hence, a constant ambiguous journey through the self and other is important,” she says, referring to how she recasts herself through many bodies.

Pointing out that society attributes so much value to a female body only to gain control over it, Naqvi says her interest in anatomy lies in translating these values. She looks back to how the depiction of body was filtered to suit mass appeal and appropriateness. “Aphrodite is shown as shy, covering herself,” she says, referring to the famed statue by Praxiteles in which Aphrodite has a hand over her pubic region. “For the work to be strong, make a statement, be political — it actually has to defy the norm.” Her suspended human carcasses made of fibre are sites of unbridled gore and turmoil, depicting the violence within our species.

The pink, the feminine

A woman’s relationship with her body is complicated, concerned with appearance, beauty, moods, emotions, sexuality and reproduction. She becomes aware of being looked at, as a child, and through the time she matures as a sexual being. The menstrual cycle, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause — each of these stages reveals a changing relationship with her body. Sundaravalli, who recently returned from a residency in China, says, “Right at the heart of embryonic development, are the concepts of blastula and morula — a collection of cells multiplying from a solid ball to a hollow sphere of cells in the process of differentiation. I made this humongous two-dimensional egg, two and a half feet in diameter, of tiny cells multiplying.” She glazed it in pink, a colour that is commonly associated with femininity.

Naqvi was moved to retell her family’s story from a time before she was born, during the 1993 Mumbai riots, that she’d heard from her parents. Hers was the only Muslim family in their Dombivli apartment. Her mother was pregnant with her elder sister during this traumatic period.

“The medium and technique I chose resonates with the mata ni pachedi evolved by a nomadic community in Gujarat. They were not allowed to enter the temple to worship the Mother Goddess, so they painted the goddess’s image on a piece of fabric and carried it with them. The cloth becomes the temple. This is the sacred textile of a marginalised community.”

The time-consuming Kalamkari work for Naqvi’s three-piece set took a month and a half to make. “My work depicts my mother carrying the foetus, holding her heart in her hand. The (floating) eyes are the silent spectators or people who bring solidarity and spaces of comfort. The changing phases of the moon signify time, how this happened over many moons.”

Going to the source

Her preoccupation with the body, Bhat says, is not for catharsis, nor is she bothered about rebellion or resolutions. She is completely fascinated with life, its throbbing biology of forms and surfaces — a 2,000-year-old Sequoia tree, the tumescence of a turmeric root being born in her backyard and the sea creatures in the northern beaches of California where she lives. Through her ‘imagined bodies’, she wishes to call out the interrelatedness of all life. Noting that humans share more than 50 per cent of their genome with the first animal, she says, “...the genetic pool emphasises how much we have in common, blowfish and ballerinas, gila monsters and gurus”.

“Body-based materiality in my art evokes the fundamental unit that unites me with others as humans. These physical materials — hair, blood, and teeth — marginalise any kind of differences,” says Mithu Sen. “In unseen aspects of the human body, masculinity and femininity collapsed, and an emotional body emerged irrespective of their outer differences. Erotica appeals, no matter which sexual body they have.”

Sundaravalli, who previously studied medicine, says, “Because of this exposure to the microscopic world, cells and parts, knowledge I was soaking in for 5-6 years, my art takes from organic forms, their minutiae.” She produced 36 works at her retreat in China’s historic porcelain city Jingdezhen. “My preoccupation was with the feminine. I was fascinated with breasts and made this platter with nipples. I think, for me, it is about connecting back to this mother source which nurtures us.”

At the end, says Naqvi, art puts forbidden issues on the table. “Common to all humanity is — you do not want to feel alone. You want to be part of something bigger. Take that away and you feel so isolated.”

Sujatha Shankar Kumar is a writer and visualiser based in Chennai