The Woman-Painter’s ‘Discretion and Restraint’
An autobiographical Interview with Sajitha R shankhar
by Dr. J. Devika,
(An Historian and Gender studies scholar at Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Kerala)
Kerala is often celebrated as the land where boys and girls have equal access to education. However, we have very few women who work steadily and over long periods in art, film, and other such fields. Often, art is little over what one acquires as an embellishment in childhood – and it ends there, for both boys and girls, but especially for girls. Could you tell me something of your childhood?
Sajitha: I grew up in a village close to the town of Kottayam in Kerala. I remember being caught up with the enticing natural beauty of the place – the grassy slope called the Pullarikkunnu, and the wide green fields. I used to spend long hours sitting below the tamarind tree in front of our house, trying to sketch Pullarikkunnu, and sometimes, trying to write about it. But no one at home, including myself, thought of this as ‘aesthetic’ activity – it wasn’t read as ‘art’ or as the harbinger of an artistic sensibility. I was a solitary creature at home, a bit wild. Therefore I had to endure a lot of scolding. Not that my family was unloving; they just didn’t have a clue about how to handle my excessive energy.
They also probably sensed that this excess energy was detrimental to ‘womanly’ callings. So they did their best to discipline me. It was sometimes so stifling that once I decided to end my life before a speeding train. But when the train finally came, I ran away; its whistle was too scary!
But I did have a number of opportunities to escape my family’s disciplining. We used to sell milk from our cows, and I used to deliver the milk to our customers’ homes. That was a job I loved. It was really good fun to be walking alone, indulging my eyes, touching leaves and plants and flowers… My favourite was the little pearl-like droplets of dew that formed at the tip of grass-blades when it was really wet. I would try to wet my eyes with those, and milk would reach our customers late! That always brought me a scolding at home!
Could you tell me a bit more of the ‘excessive energy’ you just mentioned?
That was something that would not submit to my family efforts to discipline me. Those days, I’d wander off to sacred groves to daydream, and immerse myself in the sights there – sights like that of the little ants scurrying about collecting fallen flowers. They entered my imagination vigorously – returning in dreams at night. I used to be fascinated by snakes, ant-hills, the Paala tree, said to be the abode of the Yakshi… My first sculptures were shaped from the soil of the ant-hills. I had a private world more intense than that of other kids. Something that would not fold up through disciplining. Some of my relatives did notice this. I started my first diary at six – little notes about Nature around me, and about my friends.
Later, I was able to channel the energy generated from my deep private reflections into art. My father didn’t want that, really. I was a good student at school, and he would’ve rather liked me to become an engineer or a doctor. My father was a nursing assistant at the Kottayam Medical College – someone who knew little about art. I too didn’t really care about the future. But by the time I reached the seventh standard, my tastes were beginning to form: they were definitely literary and artistic. I used to take part in several competitions, without my father’s knowledge, at school. Used to win prizes too, but didn’t dare to tell my family. Once my father spotted a prize I had won – and that brought me a scolding for having participated in a contest without the family’s knowledge. But the nuns, who taught me at school talked with him, told him that I was a talented child. That made him very happy – and his attitude changed.
At school, my ‘artistic inclinations’ were discovered utterly by chance, by a woman teacher. In fact I learnt that what I had scribbled was poetry, only when Cecily Teacher told me so! After that, I won prizes in drawing contests at the District and the State levels, and that convinced my father completely of my abilities. But he was still concerned about me finding a living through art. It was a brave decision that he took, to let me study in the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram. Many people told Father that the place was crawling with drug addicts; so he was quite worried. The first few days, he used to accompany me to college. I, however, wasn’t scared at all…
Really? A young rural girl, going into a nearly all-male institution for the first time, and not nervous at all?
That’s true. I wasn’t nervous. Even the little misgivings I may have had, even those appeared negligible because I was truly fired by a burning desire to do art. The other reason was that I had an element in me that did not bend before the disciplining imposed by the norms of femininity. Most of my classmates were boys, and we were all good friends.
In short, Sajitha turned herself into a ‘boy’, right?
Certainly not! I was able to get a hold upon the actual dimensions of gender only when I closely interacted with the boys in college. Men appear before us wearing the mask of the Masculine. Usually, women fall in love with this mask. This is a trap which leads us into slavery – it freezes us, makes us immobile. I was, however, able to see beyond the masculine mask donned by my male peers. Behind this visor, men share many positively humane qualities with women. Male chauvinists are born when men refuse to acknowledge this humane side of their natures, which they share with women. In the initial stages, men interact with us only from behind these masks. We have to ignore them, relentlessly dismiss their claims, and in fact, mercilessly reject those men who continue to hide behind masculine facades. We must insist on responding only to the feminine virtues that these facades hide. If we persist in this for a sufficiently long while, many would find the courage to strip off their masks before us. I have always cared to respond only to the non-masculine aspects of my male friends. That has helped me to find good friendships.
There’s an incident that comes to my mind now. This was when John Abraham, the celebrated Malayalee film maker, visited our campus. We’d all gathered, and John kept on making prurient jokes – they never touched me, and for that reason, I didn’t get angry or embarrassed, I kept smiling. In the end, John was so pissed off, he asked, “Are you really a woman?”
Good friendships don’t even need our bodies. I had very warm pen-friendships when I was in college. Friends I never saw, friends I saw just once. The death of one of these friends was a major shock I endured in my life. I overcame it by consciously turning myself towards others.
Many people haven’t a clue about what Woman is – very few have tried to even find out. Most people tend to treat Woman as an object in the beginning. We must find the strength to overcome that level. With that we would’ve overcome the male ego. Women need good friendships for artistic and intellectual activity, of all kinds. Only those women who successfully build such relationships will be able to make their space in these fields.
Have you felt that the field of painting is unfriendly to women? Has it ever disappointed you?
I’m someone who got out of Kerala as soon as I finished my studies. I couldn’t even think of going back to a domestic setting after being for so long in an artistic environment. I married a painter, and into a family that was deeply involved in art. I was filled with the intense longing to be an artist. Ravi’s family was immersed in art, and I reckoned that this would make my journey easier. Leaving Kerala at the age of twenty was very beneficial, I think Cholamandal, too, didn’t rise up to my expectations. That place is also filled with a lot of unhealthy competition and hatred. I suffered a lot; my confidence was shaken. In fact, after two years, I began to wonder whether I could be an artist at all. I decided to return home for good after I became pregnant (with my daughter). That changed later. Passing through some unspeakable sorrows, I think, steeled me. That determination lifted me up from an abyss of frustration; I was determined to prove myself before everyone who had beaten me down. Ravi Shankar [father of my daughter], too, sharpened my determination to work better and more persistently. My migration to Chennai made it possible for me to work on the Sculpture, Graphics and Painting sections of the Madras Regional Centre Studio. In 1990, we shifted to Cholamandal; we stayed there till 2005. In 1992, I won the Kendra Lalit Kala Akademi’s scholarship, and several scholarships followed… I studied in England in 1995; I got the Charles Wallace Award from the British Council. That was a turning point. My determined resistance had paid off. Before I turned thirty, I had already won recognition; I had travelled plenty abroad, and had major exhibitions. People who put us down usually manage to win by raising the flag of sexual morality. They try to destroy our courage by repeatedly telling us that sexuality is bad. As if no other kind of relationship with men is possible!! This misconception comes out of the faulty idea that female bodies are just like male ones.
People don’t see that if women have truly fulfilling creative lives, then sex becomes secondary. To get ahead, women should forge strong mental armour capable of protecting them from such vile gossip.
But, certainly, this is not the only hurdle? In a society that places the larger share of childcare and domesticity upon the woman, where is the time and energy for art or other intellectual pursuits?
Yes, this is a major hurdle, indeed. One can overcome it only through persistent effort. If a woman has indeed the passion for art, she will find the time and the energy for it, no matter how taxing domestic work and childcare may be. This isn’t easy, but art has a driving force of its own. It keeps pushing us, irrespective of how burdened we may be. It is nothing less than a possession that drives us to work and work. My own hand, for instance, I feel, has often been the instrument of a greater force working through me. It drives us to work furiously whenever the child is asleep, or when she’s gone to school.
And besides, this activity raises us above the problems that affect domestic life. The quarrels and accusations that we inevitably face at home will not really touch us any more. I have created images imbibing the full heat of such experiences. In general, I do draw a lot, and when faced with such troubles I created even more. My autobiographical work mostly came out of those times. The great sorrows I had to bear left their imprint on my work (though I never tried to depict them consciously). Many recognized that extraordinary intensity in those creations. My paintings began to attract buyers; people began to find artistic value in my work. My determination to overcome did work, in the end.
You have mentioned two kinds of femininity. The first is the femininity that is imposed by society, which you perceive to be an ideology, and reject. But the second sort of femininity you’ve been hinting at – as a force resistant to disciplining – could you elaborate on that?
The femininity I wanted to assert here – that is certainly not a social construction. If you wish, you may call it a natural force. It is something that we recognize. But this is not a force easy to describe. I have often sensed it in my inner world as the presence of my late grandmother. It is a protective cover, armour. Armour which protects me from the monotony of everyday life, and from the pushing and pulling of power games within it.
May be it’s easier to specify what it is not. There are two points here. First, there is the light that floods our inner worlds once we free ourselves from androcentric values. That light reveals to us many things that were invisible earlier. Thus femininity is the ability to see afresh. Secondly, while it may be impossible to provide an exact description of its form or essence, there can be no doubt that it is energy. It is the energy that prompts us to remain with dignity in a hostile society, once we have rejected precisely the ‘feminine values’ that have the blessings of the dominant. Femininity is a form of power. But it is not authority; it can never be. It does not prepare us to dominate or subdue anyone. It is but the energy that allows us to claim spaced, and live dignified lives in utterly unfriendly social climates. In reality, this is a force that is very useful to men. Women who are truly feminine are alone able to pierce the masks of masculine domination, and recognize the uniqueness of individuals who hide behind them.
Art is of utmost importance here; the rejection of ugly gender values brings light, which strengthens our art. New forms and modes of expression begin to appear spontaneously in our work. They may not be palatable to society. But these, and the processes through which they are shaped, are welcome indeed.
In order to recognize this femininity, introspection – the persistent eye directed at the inner world – is necessary. This is not the withdrawal into a private realm; indeed, it is the reverse; it is to get out of oneself and gaze back. But today, this is not easily achieved for most women, who carry many burdens. Most often, women look outward, not inward – at the needs of the family, at relatives. And the inward gaze is not really encouraged for women, either. I myself was often labelled as lacking in modesty, as quarrelsome, adamant, and rebellious – a wild one.
Like in any other mind-centred activity, is not the role of teachers and mentors important in the field of art as well? How does this affect women who try to create new and unfamiliar images? What is your experience?
I was lucky to study under gifted teachers who had confidence in my talents, and offered plenty of encouragement. This is not a minor matter as far as a woman artist is concerned. For example, it was the well known sculptor, Kanayi Kunhuraman, who told me first that I had the ability to create sculptures. In painting, I found my teacher in Spain – Rafa Carralero, of the Salamanca Faculty of Fine Arts. I have had the fortune to meet several celebrated artists in my travels; I have learned much from them. They woke me up to the possibility of developing art into therapy; they unveiled before me the aesthetic possibilities of wood carving.
Of course we have very many talented teachers here (most of them are men), but there are serious hurdles in the way of girl students who approach them, mostly arising from the skewed way in which we tend to conceive of relationships between men and women. This is not anybody’s individual failing; rather, social norms are such. Besides, in this society, there are other formidable barriers, such as that of age. This, for instance, is not a major barrier with teachers abroad. The absence of these barriers drastically changes the nature of the student-teacher relationship there.
Also, abroad – in Europe – artists enjoy social respect. That changes the nature of human interaction within the field of art; the relatively lower levels of insecurity lessen the ill-effects of competition. I remember, particularly, visiting an artists-writers meeting point called ‘Words and Lines’ in Germany, a place visited by artists who are renowned and with long experience. The discussion and the drawing there are intense, and often last all night. I was asked to speak of an artist from Kerala. Since my linguistic ability was strictly limited, I offered to draw. I produced a charcoal series on the work of Kerala’s celebrated filmmaker and writer John Abraham. How well they communicated! The artists there identified in John a figure close to Passolini! I was about 27 years old at that time; these were all people much richer than me in age, maturity and experience. Yet, they could treat me as an equal! My age or my gender was never a hurdle there.
But when a woman receives such a honour as this here, what are the common responses? “She’s a woman, that’s why”, will be the most common response. But all my opportunities came from my work. I was invited by people who’d seen only my work, and not me.
Lastly, the teacher’s role is important, but strictly limited. It involves imparting basic skills, recognizing the student’s strengths and directing them into fruitful channels, sincere and constructive criticism, and encouraging serious thought and discussion. Beyond that, the student must take all responsibility. Very few are able to devote all their time to artistic pursuits. That, if achieved, is a great attainment.
How important are acceptance by the mainstream, and success in the market, especially for a woman artist? As an artist who has won recognition within the mainstream, what do you have to say about this?
I have never run after money or recognition. Both these, however, have come to me. I was fired by the desire to do something new in art. There were times in which even money to buy art materials was hard to find. But I’ve never created anything just for money. I was lucky to receive fellowships almost continuously, and so I was able to keep on working without break, and learn new things as well.
If you ask about acceptance by the mainstream, I think that is still distant. I’ve gained acceptance internationally, but not nationally. This applies to women artists from the south. Secondly, there are not very many women in staterun institutions like the academies and colleges. There are at least a few who are jealous and hostile, and deliberately try to keep them out. But women artists who aren’t so persistent, who don’t look like much of a threat to male artists often find plenty of sympathy within these institutions! Women who are full-time artists, who have been recognized beyond the national level, are often denied this sympathy.
But winning such recognition is certainly not a bad thing, irrespective of whether the woman works full-time in art or not. That’s because those people and spaces that regard recognition by the state institutions with suspicion are not really less androcentric in any significant sense. So we have a very difficult balancing act to perform – which requires us to inhabit both the spaces offered by the state, and the oppositional spaces, without allowing ourselves to be overcome by the patriarchal norms that rule both of these more or less alike. We have to learn to retain our oppositional energies in either of these. As long as the anti-state, anti-mainstream art scene remains largely androcentric, women cannot afford to simply reject the state’s or the mainstream’s recognition. And vice-versa.
Lastly, let me put before you something I have understood from this conversation. Sajitha’s words make clear the foolishness of the common belief that the woman artist is devoid of ‘discretion and restraint’. In fact, your experiences do reveal that the woman artist does need a non-patriarchal sort of ‘discretion and restraint’ in order to carve for herself a space within the field of art….
That’s true. Art needs the ability to persist at work; it requires constant practice, observation and alertness. This is, however, not the mechanical ‘modesty’ or ‘discretion’ we usually find in women. In the normal case, such discretion is a quality produced within a bounded space which is imposed on women, in which they are confined. Such ‘discretion’ is characterized by a certain withdrawal, certain limits. This is not the ‘discretion’ I’ve talked about. It does not trigger withdrawal; rather, it endows us with an understanding eye that enables intense empathy towards other women. It is not limiting; on the contrary, it is growth, and the ability to foresee and forestall danger. This is not just a matter of surviving; it is our very birthright as women.
‘Restraint’ is not submission either. It refers to strategy. In this field, direct hostile encounter often proves costly for the woman. It takes away the energies necessary for artistic pursuits. Therefore, at times, silence does not mean cowardice; it merely means strategic avoidance. It not only helps us to conserve energy, but also to measure our words carefully and use them effectively.
One often encounters the common idea that the woman artist is ‘ready for anything’. This is true and false at the same time. The woman artist gives shape to new images by gaining a degree of distance from established norms. But there is persistence practice and constant effort in her work. One can never think of a situation in which there are no rules at all. When established rules are upturned, we do not reach a situation in which there are no rules; indeed what we usually have is a new set of rules and limits. The internal strength to resist and overcome these new rules and limits if they prove to be obstacles in the way of artistic creation is an indispensable element in the kind of persistence necessary for a life of art. The simple binary of discipline/indiscipline does not apply to the persistence and practice required of the artist. That can be earned only through allowing the one’s self to blossom and grow. This does not mean that one should allow selfishness to grow – rather the reverse. The self must grow outward; it must reach out, not grow narrowly towards one. This is achieved through a whole range of efforts, ranging from strengthening one’ self to ensuring one’s economic independence. My studio and house at Kallar were the fruits of my artistic labour; it is my greatest personal achievement, which I secured through my economic independence. And it does represent, in some ways, a return to Nature!