Kanchana Gupta Deconstructs the Representation of the Female Body in Indian Cinema

Kanchana Gupta, Production of Desire – Take #002, The Code of Seduction (video still), 2020, single channel video installation,8’00” mins loop. Image courtesy of the artist.
Kanchana Gupta, Production of Desire – Take #001, The Code of Seduction (video still), 2020, single channel video installation,10’00” mins loop. Image courtesy of the artist.
Kanchana Gupta, Production of Desire – Take #002, The Code of Seduction (video still), 2020, single channel video installation,8’00” mins loop. Image courtesy of the artist.
Installaton view of Kanchana Gupta’s “458.32 Square Meters” at Sullivan + Strumpf, Singapore, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf.
Kanchana Gupta, Compressed and Cut _006, 2019, compressed oil paint skins burnt and stripped off tarpaulin surfaces and cut manually, 30 x 20 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
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The 2021 Sovereign Asian Art Prize

One of the trademarks of Indian cinema has been its song and dance sequences. Kanchana Gupta explores, confronts and subverts the female stereotype within them in her latest series of works.

 

TEXT: Durriya Dohadwala
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

Kanchana Gupta’s art practice is an exploration of materiality and process. The materials she uses range from vermillion powder, henna, and sandalwood, to oil paint and canvas, and to construction materials such as jute and tarpaulin. Each brings its own particular social symbology and characteristics which she manipulates using a combination of repetitive layering and tearing, stacking, compressing and shaping that result in final products that are irreversibly altered from their original state.

Born in 1974 in India, Gupta’s art training and practice began in Singapore where she has lived since 2005. She earned both her Diploma and Master in Fine Arts from the LASALLE College of the Arts, and was the recipient of the Winston Oh Travel Award in 2015 which allows recipients to travel overseas to develop their art practice. Gupta chose Mumbai, and investigated how certain key events such as the parallel rise of the underworld and Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), and the sectarian divide between Muslims and Hindus during the 1970s and 1980s shaped the current state of the city. She has exhibited widely in numerous group and solo exhibitions in Singapore and internationally, and her artworks are in institutional as well as private collections across Southeast Asia, Japan, Hong Kong and the United States.

Gupta’s “The Production of Desire” series began in June 2019 as a result of her own contemplation of the relationship between the image of a desirable woman (as portrayed in Indian cinema) and herself as she moved through the various phases of her life from teenage to mid-life.

 

Kanchana Gupta, Production of Desire – Take #002, The Code of Seduction (video still), 2020, single channel video installation,8’00” mins loop. Image courtesy of the artist.
Kanchana Gupta, Production of Desire – Take #001, The Code of Seduction (video still), 2020, single channel video installation,10’00” mins loop. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Ask any Indian cinema goer of the late 20th century and it is highly probable that they will clearly remember song sequences—often completely unrelated to the movie’s storyline—where the heroine would be gyrating in a red, yellow or blue chiffon sari. The sequence would include an unexpected shower of rain or a waterfall where the clinging wet sari would show off the actor’s silhouette and enough strategic close-ups to entice the male protagonist (and audience). Because of the wide appeal of cinema, these scenes came to not only dictate fashion but also a one-dimensional view of what was considered attractive and sexy.

Gupta explains that “The Production of Desire” is deeply personal not only because she uses her own body to perform but also because in her formative years growing up in India, her own perception of beauty was informed by these signifiers of attractiveness and desirability of the feminine. With short hair and no interest in donning saris and traditional jewellery, she felt inadequate. Even though as an educated and professional woman she consciously denounced this characterisation and acknowledged that it belonged to a different group of women, Gupta recognises that she still felt burdened by this image. By exploring these anxieties and contradictions, and determining that this image was a clinical construct, she confronted and reclaimed her body image for herself through the very medium that codified it. Gupta initially intended to begin this exploration by assembling a series of clips from Indian movies that illustrated this process of manufacture. However, she felt that it alone did not really capture the essence of what she was trying to represent and therefore decided to put herself in front of the camera.

In February 2020, she was one of the recipients of the Objectifs Artist Studio Residency in Singapore and in November 2020 she was invited to take part in the Women in Film & Photography Artists-in-Residence programme, again at Objectifs, to continue her earlier exploration. Both of these platforms offered Gupta the opportunity to further deepen her investigation into the construct of an overtly-sexualised representation of the female body in Indian cinema and how this informed the preconception of female identity in Indian society in general. The camera’s gaze, the manufacturing of sensuality and desirability of the female body through song and dance sequences and how these paradigms become perceived as authentic are some of the tropes that Gupta examines and deconstructs through her performance-based series of video works.

In the first video titled Take #001 – The Code of Seduction (2020), Gupta is dressed in a red chiffon sari, traditional jewellery and a long hair wig. As she imitates the seductive sequences of an iconic Bollywood song from the 1985 film Saagar, the background sounds of the film crew and Gupta’s comments show clearly how the entire process of seduction is manufactured. From the close-ups of selected body parts to the clever omissions and edits of certain movements, Gupta illustrates how manipulative the creation of the object of desire actually is.

 

Kanchana Gupta, Production of Desire – Take #002, The Code of Seduction (video still), 2020, single channel video installation,8’00” mins loop. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Her second video titled Take #002 – The Code of Seduction (2020) is her re-enactment of another iconic Bollywood song, this time from the 1994 movie Mohra. Again, Gupta is wearing a chiffon sari but only without an important component of the seduction; the long hair. This absence of an archetypal Indian symbol of youth and beauty seems to empower Gupta. The shaved head, which in Indian mythology and culture is connected to widowhood and a rejection of beauty and appeal, seems to enable Gupta to return the camera’s (male) gaze with her own defiant one and subvert a stock trope of Indian cinema.

“By presenting my body in an exaggeratedly fetishised mode, constructed by employing artifices and visual codes of Indian cinema—for example, costume, rain, make up, jewellery, suggestive gestures, camera angles and a focus on specific body parts—I attempt to decode what it means to confront, subvert and finally reclaim the constructed image while simultaneously questioning socially defined frameworks of femininity,” shares Gupta.

Both videos are accompanied with follow-up videos that portray the artist removing her jewellery and makeup in ritualistic silence. Titled The Burden of the Image (2020/2021), these videos capture the artist releasing herself of the image that she has taken on and returning to her original self. Gupta says this meditative practice allows her to contemplate the duality of the situation. While she frees herself from one role she reverts to her other roles of wife, mother, friend and the myriad other ones that accompany her existence and which are always defined in relation to one another rather than independently.

Active participation in the process of making her art is always integral to the work that Gupta has done whether it is in painting, sculpture or video. Her recent solo exhibition at Sullivan + Strumpf in Singapore in October 2019 was titled “458.32 Square Meters”. The artworks were produced through a laborious process where she layered oil paint on an approximate area of 60 square metres of tarpaulin and jute over many weeks. Once dry, the layers of paint were ripped off using a combination of tools such as knives and heat emitting devices. Repeating this process of layering and tearing yielded the 458.32 square metres of oil paint skin that the series is titled after. These layers were then compressed through an industrial process into block sculptures which Gupta cleaved manually to expose the layers. Her heaviest work in the exhibition weighed 40 kilograms and each piece took between 30–40 hours to hew open due to its extremely dense compression. Both the processes of layering and tearing are meditative for Gupta. She works without a predetermined image of the end result, the only exception being the colour scheme.

 

Installaton view of Kanchana Gupta’s “458.32 Square Meters” at Sullivan + Strumpf, Singapore, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf.
Kanchana Gupta, Compressed and Cut _006, 2019, compressed oil paint skins burnt and stripped off tarpaulin surfaces and cut manually, 30 x 20 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

The layering and compression of materials in her work is a metaphor for the spatial, mental and emotional compression in the urban environment that Gupta has lived in for more than 25 years. Tarpaulin is a common construction material in both Singapore and India. Similarly, jute is often used to dry cement pillars in India and later when it is discarded, it is taken up by construction workers for their makeshift dwellings. In Gupta’s work both materials leave a presence on the layers of oil paint which are further transformed into compacted sculptures through the various processes they undergo. The artist likens this change in the materiality of oil paint to our own experiences whether physical or emotional. Each compression reveals a new and altered form.

This ability to look in at the culture and practices of one country while living in another and at times addressing issues common to both is one of the hallmarks of transnational artists who live and work outside of their countries of origin. Often these artists fall in between the defined lines of nationality and belonging when it comes to institutional exhibiting or collecting. For Gupta, who spent her formative years in India growing up with the cultural and societal norms of a patriarchal society, her own lived experiences and circumstances are what have allowed her to rebel against these norms. Carrying these understandings with her, Gupta’s art education and practice in Singapore has allowed her to absorb and resist, acknowledge and reinterpret, explore and re-present cultures and notions of society in her unique artworks and performances.

 

 

 
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