Spending time with Rekha Rodwittiya is always fulfilling; you feel her passion, her involvement, and her determination to get her point across. This depth of emotion is reflected in her show at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery at the Chhtarapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. Songs From The Blood Of The Weary captures the moods, the feelings, the actions of women who look strong and confident, self-aware and knowing.
These are not her new works, but date back to a very special occasion: an exhibition featuring sixty artists from all over the world, held as part of the celebrations of the 50th birthday of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1995. After the show was over, Rodwittiya’s 12 works were brought back to India and shown at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai, where Jehangir Nicholson acquired them for his collection. Joined by 12 other pieces by the artist dating back to 1985, from the collection of the Sakshi Gallery, the current exposition has two parts. The Painted Room or “little house, smaller than one bhk!”, as one young viewer remarked loudly to his friends, while he took a selfie posed against an inside corner – said to be one of the earliest installations by the contemporary Indian artist, was originally done on the inner surfaces of the walls of a portable wooden cabin set in the garden of the UN estate. It radiates a certain warmth– the myriad shades of red, yellow, orange punctuated by less fiery hues telling stories of women and their lives. They are larger than life, their piercing eyes and immaculate brows watching the world as it drifts by, illuminated by a lack of comprehension and the occasional flash of a smartphone camera. One woman lolls in a garment that seems to look outwards through a multitude of eyes, each compelling those who walk past to look at her, to look inward, and to look at life with a more keen gaze. Around her, the mundane necessities of modern world fade in importance, the fan whirs overhead, the bed is bare and the chairs are set higgeldy-piggeldy. Others around the room go about their everyday business of dealing with the fish that has been caught, doing household chores, wielding instruments that could be weapons – sickles, scissors and more – but always strongly bound to each other through their womanhood and shared concerns. And these can be anywhere in the world – just look up to the top edge and the map of the world shall lure you to travel without borders, with no limitations, with nothing but a need to know more. The sky above – a new addition, since the original was lost – is another invitation, one that urges you to explore outside your own little realm, and to go where no other has been before. The painted room is a nest, almost a womb, cocooning, sheltering, confining. It urges anyone within it to take a good look at themselves, even as they look around the small space, being watched by the very women they are watching. Outside the room stands guard a veritable army of women triumphant in their existence. Memories of Gauguin and early Picasso swirl with images of the Mother Goddess and the coquettish sideways glances of a houri. The shades of red could be sunshine or blood, as in Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruits, a naked woman smeared with the pain of death or the triumph of winning the battle she had fought. The Debris includes elements of a life strewn around a house, from a picture in a frame to kitchen and farm implements. Strange dreams of a journey by plane, maybe, or the change of seasons – seemingly haunt a sleeper in Who Dictates the Sleep of Reason, while The Other Pieta is shadowed by the wide-eyed and silent grief overlaid with a fierce, unspoken anger of a woman trying to understand loss and pain. More emotion pours out of Which Way will the Winds of Change Blow, as if the panting has been forged by fire, coloured by smoke, and painted in brilliant light. As you stand encased in the power that is conjured up by the vivid canvases, lighting up the room, the senses are ignited to react, to think, to want absurdly, to raise a fist to the sky in praise of the feminine, you are distracted by the troika of young women who ask you to “Aunty, please click our photo,” handing you a cellphone and striking Bollywoodian poses against the backdrop of Songs from the Blood of the Weary. There is a strange irony in that!
Rekha Rodwittiya, ‘Songs from the Blood of the Weary’, 19 April – 19 August 2018, Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Mumbai.
All images courtesy: Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Mumbai.