The popular notion that the culture of Kerala is widely matriarchal have oft been repudiated in the last decades by repeated reminders of the fictionality of its presumed progressiveness. There have been a good number of writers, mostly women and mostly with roots in the south Indian state, who have pointed out that the prominence of women in Keralan society had been limited to merely matters of inheritance, where male heirs were selected through matrilineal lines, and not independence as is often presumed across its borders. It must be said that this system did ensure a certain degree of female autonomy in the past, especially with regard to familial economics, but the structural changes brought about by Western modernization has long since pushed such claims into the realm of distant memory.
There is an insidious violence to such mnemonic residue as it allows for misogyny to take cover under an apparent tradition of equity and it is this patriarchal self-assurance that Devi Seetharaman confronts in “Brothers, Fathers and Uncles”. Shadowy figures with their lower bodies draped in white fabric impose their presence on her canvases against indigenous symbols of femininity, in a manner that is simultaneously indicative of the prominence of the male gaze in public life across the state and the subsequent self-fetishism this encourages amongst native women. These bodies that almost blend seamlessly into the greyish backgrounds assert a sense of dominance akin to the easy voyeurism of the vayinokki, a term used to describe roadside oglers in Malayalam, in whose presence the feminine flinches into invisibility. Conversely, the stringent moralism of Keralan families doubly affirms the need for such cloistering in an atmosphere wry with patriarchal justifications that subvert conversation around eve-teasing and sexual abuse.
Without corporeality, the feminine in this series become apparently symbolic, appearing in different paintings in the forms of leftover tender coconut shells, fallen jasmine buds and coralwood seeds amongst other locally recognisable idioms. Their existence is made peripheral by the men who seem to treat them with a certain disposability, with no regard for their being beyond prescribed ritual or sensual functionalities. Our attention is held by the traditional garments worn by Seetharam’s men whose white shades rests in stark contrast to their tenebrous environment. The mundu has serially appeared in Indian art-history before, adorning the bodies of Ravi Varma’s aristocratic models who inhabit their compositions with a confidence not dissimilar to these men. The obvious differences in the representational modes utilised by these two artists may be symptomatic of how time and gender have made different their perceptions of the opposite sex.
“Brothers, Fathers and Uncles” is a series representing a people and the absence of female human figures within Seetharam’s frames poignantly brings her viewers to the question at hand, that of gender-based exclusivity in public spaces. Indeed, their absence might seem to further expand this exclusivity even into the realm of representation but one should remember how the dominance of male artists in the artworld have long kept the bodies of men from any form of objectification. These imposing men with night black skin, who are unrecognisable but disconcertingly familiar, become vignettes of an intrinsically feminine way of looking at an othering presence. Further, by being symbolically rendered, the objects that allude to the feminine take on a life that is made rich by the strength of its associated folklore despite their evident abjection.
While the allegorisation of the female form has had a history of creating super-sacral narratives around women’s place in society that have effectively hindered their mobility, their metonymic mutation might pose a glaring counterpoint to this persuasion by hinting at the hypocrisies of such normative sensibilities. In her positioning of the feminine, Seetharam treads a path where the sacred meets the profane by contextualising parts of the local flora that are sanctified by their signified associations within paradigms of disuse, refuse and dysfunctionality. She lays bare a point where fundamentalist idealisms diverge from their resultant realities. In this act, she creates images of a dystopia that reveals itself through motifs these ominous male figures, whose presence often extends out of these paintings and into her viewership, hold dear.
- Jones John (Curator/Writer)