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Two leading female artists of different generations in limelight
Both are not necessarily feminists, but concerns related to gender identity often form a strong element of their oeuvre. Both enjoy considerable international attention and exposure. Both are ranked among India’s highest selling artists, and both are currently in spotlight. If senior artist Anjolie Ela Menon is in news for a milestone event on her illustrious artistic journey, a new record-breaking price benchmark has firmly put the focus on Bharti Kher. ‘The Skin Speaks A Language Not Its Own’, a scintillating sculpture that took her almost 10 months to make, fetched $1,493,947 (993,250 GBP; around Rs7 crore) in London - a record price achieved by a contemporary female artist from India.

The 15 ft fibreglass sleeping elephant installation - adorned with countless of bindis - stirred as much expectation as the whopping estimate at the recent Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction. Celebrating the moment, The Guardian arts correspondent Mark Brown mentioned: “The life-size elephant, which represents the best of recent Indian art, can be seen as a metaphor for the country itself: is it slumped, exhausted, under the weight of its history or rising, renewed - ready to become a powerhouse yet again?” The UK Telegraph writer Colin Gleadell lauded ‘the young and talented artist for her unique art, ridden with cultural references to India.’

One of the leading artists of her generation - born in London and trained in Newcastle - Bharti Kher moved to India almost two decades ago. Her ethnographic observations of contemporary life raise questions of her own identity and explore concerns that form the core of her artistic search. For example, ‘The Skin Speaks’ sums up the Indian identity (crisis) in all its glorious complexities. In this powerfully emotive sculpture, she combines two known symbols of Indian culture – the bindi and the elephant – asking whether this is a vision of India on the upswing or one exhausted by its own fast-paced modernization. She personifies this creature as the archetype of Indian culture, history and civilization to juxtapose it with another identifying mark of Indian ethnicity.

The artist was attracted to the white, serpentine dot used in this stunning work for its spermatozoa form and its oxymoronic relationship to the female accessory, leading to deeper associations of traditionally gender roles and set definitions of femininity in modern India. An accompanying catalogue essay elaborates: “The social roles, traditional rituals, gender relationships and popular culture of India past and present are all scrutinized from her unique trans-national vantage point. Confronting us with this sculpture laden with symbolism, ultimately she leaves it open to our interpretation.” It remains a beacon of the country’s avant-garde scene in the 21st century.

Even as Bharti Kher is drawing the global art world’s attention, a veteran artist from India is in news back home. New Delhi based Vadehra Art Gallery is hosting a show of works by Anjolie Ela Menon, entitled ‘Through the Patina’, along with a book on her life and art by critic Isana Murti. Applauding her achievements, an accompanying note states, “Often associated with the haunting female nude, her oeuvre over the last six decades is vast and spans many genres. It has undergone a metamorphosis with every phase of her life. At a time when artists - both in India and the West - adored modernist abstraction, her works were rigorously figurative, sensual and romantic. They took a different trajectory from the strict rationality of modernism. Her very individualistic style has defied classification.”

The beautifully illustrated volume presents the various facets of her oeuvre that displays an extraordinary sensibility - profoundly individual in perception albeit diverse in its sympathies. It traces her evolution as an artist. For example, she initially incorporated priests, prophets and brooding nudes in her early work that showcased the brilliance of Byzantine palette. In the next decade or so, her work exuded an allegorical quality wherein the mythical, animal-like characters became the chief protagonists. Innovative experimentation like the computer aided images and photography lent a new dimension to her work. An exhibit of household items painted with images appropriated from the artist’s own paintings aimed to ‘remove art from its pedestal’. Since her debut exhibit in 1958, her mixed-media works and oil on masonite paintings have continued to intrigue and enthrall art lovers.

The event in order to mark her 70th birthday features both retrospective and recent works that highlight the significant phases of artist Anjolie Ela Menon’s fulfilling journey, which has ensured her a distinctive niche in contemporary Indian art.