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Museum with a mission

A museum dedicated to women in the arts? This was the focus of an all-woman camp held at DakshinaChitra



A WOMAN'S POINT OF VIEW Works by Neeta Gajam and Sajitha Ravishankar

Artists don't go to work, they live their work. Particularly, if they are women. This and a lot more were experienced, discussed and debated at a 10-day art camp titled "Fluid Signs: Perceptions and Identity."

Camps exclusively for women are different but not such a bad idea after all, said M. Shanthamani, one of the participants from Bangalore, "Even at 11.30 in the evenings, every participant was back at work. There was no gossip, no intellectual debates instead we discussed how each artist dealt with their family structure, worked out their lives."

Organised in the idyllic atmosphere of DakshinaChitra, the residency ended with an exhibition of the artists' paintings and installations. Geeta Doctor, writer, journalist and critic, gave a fascinating speech, weaving the story of the Japanese artist from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel "An artist of the Floating World" with questions and comments about the place of art in society. Does an egg-smeared wall become high art because the Guggenheim decides to buy it? Does the artist's perspective help change the world? These were significant questions to raise. Because this was not just another camp, it was a small part of a larger mission.

Seven of the paintings, one by each artist (M. Shanthamani, Sajitha R.Shankar, Neeta Gajam, Roopashri, Cynthia Prabhakar, Benitha Perciyal and Shubhra Nag) will go to the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This museum, yet to come up, is dedicated to women in the arts (visual arts, performing arts, theatre, photography, cinema, literature, design and museum quality craft) and is the only one of its kind in Asia. The sister museum of the prestigious National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, was born when designer and architect Sunita Kohli met the patron-in-chief and founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay.The museum came into being when Holladay, an art collector herself, realised she could not mark the value of a painting she had acquired simply because there was just no information on women Renaissance artists. Or for that matter, on women artists down the ages. Thus was born a museum whose collection includes Frida Kahlos and Georgia O'Keeffes, with an extensive library and international chapters around the world, and most important, a mission.

With a board full of women (Dr. Gowher Rizvi, former representative of the Ford Foundation in India being the only exception), the National Museum of Women in the Arts, India hopes to do the same, that is redefine traditional histories of the arts. Why just women? "Why not. There are so many things that only men do. It's not a gender or feminist thing. These are exceptionally capable women who, for lack of a better term, are high achievers in their own field," says Kohli. The age group ranges from the twenties to the fifties because, as Kohli points out, it's an institution for the future. She's talking about Anuradha Mahindra, Priya and Priti Paul, Malavika Sangghvi, Malavika Sarukkai and Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan of the Madras Craft Foundation.

With DakshinaChitra as their southern partners, the museum should be able to stick to their aim of not distinguishing between artworks from urban, rural and tribal areas. The other great thing about the museum is its focus on documentation, research and dissemination of knowledge. Malavika Sarukkai is already working on video documentation of the classical Indian dance forms.


The NMWA, India which is not a chapter but an independent sister-museum will also have a virtual address.

Land has been identified outside Delhi, and the building should be up in three years' time. But the women are not sitting back, there's an exhibition of works by women artists planned for early 2007, a retrospective of actress Smita Patil's works, book launches and lectures on Amrita Shergil. "A museum without walls" as the organisers like to describe themselves is already out there.

MEERA MOHANTY

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