What Does The Woman in The Panel Want?

Richa Kaul Padte
Grist Media
Brooklyn-based artist Chitra Ganesh. Photo courtesy Lakeeren.

In 1967, a quiz that aired on Doordarshan asked several questions about Greek and Roman mythology. Popularized even then by illustrated books or simplified into English literature textbooks, contestants confidently gave answers that recreated the worlds of Zeus and Athena; of Dionysus and Hades. But when the same quiz asked participants who Ram’s mother in the Ramayana was, not one was able to answer.

This story has been oft-cited by Anant Pai, the man credited with developing the Amar Chitra Comics series: a collection of over 700 titles that recreate the fantastical worlds of Hindu mythology and have populated Indian middle class homes for the last 50 or so years. Reacting to the trend demonstrated by the quiz, Pai told author Nilanjana Roy, “It was not [their] fault. We were reading Enid Blyton, children couldn’t be expected to read the scriptures, and where were our own stories?”

The world of mythology lends itself perfectly to the genre of comic books. Where text is complex, images act as substitutes. Where dialogue is too lengthy, a narrator can speak from her rectangular box without interfering with the flow of action. And far from being restricted to ‘Uncle Pai’s’ illustrated Ramayana, the myth-meets-comics genre has been adapted by graphic novelists world over.

Enter Chitra Ganesh.

The 39-year-old Brooklyn-based painter-writer (my descriptors, not hers) uses, amongst other forms, the structure of the comic book panel to create what she calls a ‘dreamscape’. Think disembodied arms, legs and heads – typically of brown-skinned women – emerging from trees and lotuses. Think mythology meets sex meets adventure meets female subjectivity. Think speech bubbles that grow out of toes or rivers, thought bubbles with images inside, and an omniscient third-person narrator that speaks in part to the image, and in part to something quite otherworldly.

This month, Ganesh’s solo show titled ‘Drawing From The Present’ officially opened to the public at the south Mumbai gallery Lakeeren. Before the show began, I went to meet her.

In the three weeks running up to the show, Ganesh has been living in a small upstairs loft room above the gallery that serves as both office and bedroom. In the daytime, and particularly in the “shaant[peace] of the early mornings,” she is busy painting every last inch of the walls of the large exhibition room below. The run-up to the show is not closed off, and visitors are free to wander around and watch Ganesh at work – or at least, they’re not prevented from walking in.

When I enter, running late for our appointment and shaking rainwater out of my hair as discreetly as possible, the gallery is a whirl of activity and warmth. Ladders of varying length and scattered sheaths of coloured paper form the backdrop to interns, office boys and assistants working around the clock to put the show together. Ganesh sinks into the chair opposite me. Dressed in a worn but attractive yellow kurta and loose fitting black pants with her long hair casually tied up, Ganesh fits the image of an ‘artist’, whichever way you look at it. And though her attention is in several different places – not least on her assistant perched atop a ladder painting between the contours of a complicated outline – she is ready to begin.

Ganesh tells me in a typically half-desi half-Amrikan accent, “I was always the kind of kid who was doodling in my book when I was bored in class, or when I was on the phone – yeah, especially on the phone…Stream of consciousness, you know?” I smile to myself as I recall the pages of ‘rough’ paper my parents used to leave on the window seat where the phone lived in the heydays of ‘landlines’. I would fill up these white sheets during lengthy conversations, and then do my best to remove or hide them in case my own stream of consciousness had spilled out my precious, 14-year-old secrets. Rather than being relegated to the wastepaper basket, however, Ganesh’s text fragments find their way into her complex, vibrant art.

“There are no artists in my family,” she volunteers, without my having to ask. “They’re all bankers and teachers, and a few engineers here and there.” Born to immigrant parents from Calcutta’s Tamil community – who were the first in their very large families to immigrate – Ganesh grew up an only child in the diaspora of the mid-1970s. This was a time when cultural exchange and connections across oceans were fairly limited. None of Ganesh’s relatives back in India had telephones, and it wasn’t until she was nearly 18 that her cousins began to travel to America for various educational and professional pursuits. Despite her family’s more conventional vocations, Ganesh was supported, if not entirely encouraged, in her love for drawing and painting by parents who “respected creativity over wealth”. As a child she took several classes, ranging from art to music, and began developing her own visual dreamscape at a young age.

A voracious reader, Ganesh’s early imagination was deeply influenced by the summer holidays she spent in her parents’ hometown in India. She recalls, “Our chutti (vacation time)only really began by July, so by the time we got to India my cousins would all be back in school. So I’d spend the days sitting around and reading whatever was [there], which included all of the most iconic, typical reading that you would find in a middle-class household. So stuff like Readers’ Digest, PG Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, Archie, Amar Chitra Katha [and so on].”

For Ganesh, who loved all things visual, it was the comic books she fervently read on those long summer afternoons that really stood out. Back in Brooklyn, she was able to reconnect with them. In the late 70s and early 80s, most Indian shops in New York carried stacks of the all-American but truly desi-loved comics on redhead Archie Andrews, as well as a variety of Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book tales of mythology and heroism.

“[Later] as a teenager, I was drawn to the more alternative comics,” Ganesh tells me, such as Neil Gaiman’s revival of DC Comics’ series The Sandman, British punk-influenced comic Tank Girl, and Love and Rockets, a comic series by the Hernandez brothers.

Today, comic strip panels are central to Ganesh’s work, and a quick perusal of her website demonstrates just how creatively she has adopted the form. Each piece tends to be contained within a single panel (panels are the boxes through which comics tell their stories), though some spill over into 2 or even rarely, 3 panels. These difficult-to-summarize works tend to be overflowing with several elements, from many-armed female goddesses to eyes that replace nipples on breasts.

However, no matter how fantastical its components, the form of the comic panel naturally lends itself to almost universal accessibility: we all know, for example, what a speech bubble, a thought bubble, or an omniscient narrative text looks like. Ganesh tells me, “The wonderful thing about something like comics is that we are all equipped with the semiotic language to understand it… I think it’s so lovely that people come with that equipment, with that ability to read it.”

Using this common language, Ganesh then plays with the “rules”. Trees think. Speech bubbles contain objects, not words. The omniscient narrator speaks in fragments of poetry. In this way, her works are a playful, dreamlike combination of imagery that most of us have seen variations of somewhere: though when we encounter these representations translated into the landscape of Ganesh’s work, we forget exactly where they originate from.

In his short text ‘The Task of the Translator’, critical theorist Walter Benjamin writes, “a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language.” For Ganesh, a student of semiotics in art as well as literature in translation, her role as an artist is that of Benjamin’s translator: “stitching together a thousand fragments” and breathing a new afterlife into each of the originals.

* * *

 “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

These lines from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces first introduce his idea of the “monomyth” or the “hero’s journey”. Think Prometheus the Titan who fought valiantly in the war between the Greek gods. Think George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker, the legendary Jedi warrior. Think Rama, defeating Ravana and rescuing his beloved Sita. Or think Moses, parting the Red Sea and leading his people to the Promised Land.

Ganesh – influenced deeply by myths ranging from the Ramayana to The Enneads in Latin – questions the fact that mythology by and large deals with the hero’s journey, “and the hero is always a man.” By contrast, Ganesh’s work is overflowing with women: women’s breasts, women’s eyes, women’s hair, women’s thoughts. And where Amar Chitra Katha’s women are pale-skinned, passive beauties, Ganesh’s women are dark, fierce, and proud. Each of the artist’s complex pieces passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors: women speak to each other, they caress each other, they do battle alongside one another. Ganesh explains: “I’m interested in women as protagonists in multiple ways, and what it looks like for a woman to be a protagonist outside chasing a man or a marriage, like we [typically] see in fairy tales or folk tales.”Though she offers this pithy comment, in reality Ganesh feels that having to explain the presence of women in her work is itself a reflection of a misogynistic (art) culture. She tells me: “Men would never get asked the question. No one asks Atul Dodiya why there are so many men in his work…[This] really reflects broader patterns of representation [in the art world].”

Be that as it may, Ganesh’s complex representations of women as simultaneously fragmented (into several body parts) and extended (into, perhaps, larger versions of themselves) are deeply alluring to those of us gasping for a breath of fresh air amongst perfectly painted portraits of nudes, pinup models, or more recently, high end fashion photography. In these popular representations, women’s bodies are typically on display, rather than lived in.

As an eye with lashes on its underside meets a brown firm arm adorned with gold jewellery; or a snaking tongue from a woman’s mouth transforms into a devil’s tail, Ganesh’s women are as real as they are fantastical, which is perhaps how myth is made.

* * *

 Today, Ganesh’s Mumbai show has her being described as a “hotshot artist" and her works have sold for up to $30,000 (over Rs 18 lakh) at international auctions. At ‘Drawing from the Present’, potential buyers can ask for the piece they want to be replicated in their own homes or spaces for anywhere between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 9 lakh (but happily offsetting these high-end prices are a series of 70 collage canvases, on sale for Rs 15,000 each). Ganesh has exhibited in a range of countries, including the US, India, England, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, and China. She is, by all measures, a successful artist world over. But as I talk to her on this rainy Wednesday afternoon, it’s all too clear that the journey has been a struggle that carries on.

“It’s important for artists to know how to support themselves outside the [art] market,” Ganesh tells me. “I mean, if you want to be an artist and you’re not middle class, then you better figure out how [you’re going] to do that.” For Ganesh, figuring this out has meant cobbling together a livelihood from a range of jobs. From admin work, proof-reading audiobooks and working at a pregnancy prevention program to an assortment of teaching jobs including adult painting at a community center and the graduate classes she continues to occasionally teach today, Ganesh’s rise to fame tells us what we perhaps already knew: the artist’s journey, like the hero(ine)’s, is no cake walk.

Even Ganesh’s first exhibition had less to do with mercies bestowed on her by a ruthless art market than it did with a home grown initiative: a group called the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, which was basically a “bunch of desi chicks who [came] together and said, ‘We don’t ever see anybody like us exhibiting anywhere, so let’s get together and make some exhibits.’” Painting against a landscape of the ‘horrifically’ funded arts, Ganesh began focussing solely on art only in her 30s, and was able to do so through a careful combination of fellowships, grants and teaching opportunities. Having become increasingly well-known over the last decade, it’s only now that Ganesh is able to comfortably take her work off canvases and onto galleries’ walls, and work on a larger scale using diverse media including video, sculpture and animation.

But no matter how famous she’s gotten, thoughtless comments and responses to her work still have the power to hurt, or at least, disturb her. Pigeonholed under the heading ‘Indian Art’ when she is America (the sort of category created by the art market that all artists of color consistently have to reckon with, she tells me), and in India being subjected to comments like “Haan, you’re the one with the violently sexual content in your work” – as one man attending the Mumbai gallery’s open night the previous week said to her – , Ganesh recognizes that there is a deep vulnerability in being an artist, which is a profession that comes with “enormous personal sacrifices”, including being able to maintain steady earnings, relationships and homes. Ganesh, who lives with her partner in Brooklyn, tells me, “I have stable housing and relationships, but that’s not possible [for everyone]. If you’re expected to get married at 22 and have 3 kids, well…” She trails off, but the rest is not hard to imagine.

Another constant struggle for Ganesh is that she feels there’s a disconnect between her work and the people who are able to buy it. She says, “On the one hand, I’m creating this sort of work, but [on the other] it’s going into these middle-class homes where I can’t imagine what it looks like [or what] they think of it.” In a sense, the potential ruptures created by unconventional – even revolutionary – art will always be somewhat sewn back up by the privilege that houses it. For Ganesh, whose experiences have been deeply framed by the “dissonance between the interior space and the exterior space” of living in the diaspora, where her art lands up is beyond her control, but not below her concern.

As far as Indian buyers of Ganesh’s work go, however, the picture is not as worrying. The artist tells me that buyers here tend to be ‘young, cutting edge collectors’ who are often involved in supporting wider art initiatives. Indian buyers have included ‘art collecting couple’ Rajiv and Nadia Samdani and Mumbai gallery Jhaveri Contemporary’s owner Amrita Jhaveri. Most importantly to Chitra, these are the sorts of people who are interested in the continuing development of both artist and artwork, and who, I imagine, won’t be shying away from the pieces’ bold content.

As we sit chatting over steaming cups of chai, our conversation takes brief hiatuses at several moments: a ringing phone, a too-loud conversation in the next room that Ganesh fears will be recorded along with the interview, her assistant’s wobbling ladder. I use these moments to look around at the walls, painted in what starts off as a light shade of grey and moves, bottom-up, into a pale pink and finally an almost-white at the very top. Bright yellow ceiling lights illuminate the walls, which contain outlines of the show’s main pieces. The Rajabai clock tower. A circular, complex image that I learn has been inspired by HG Wells’ The Time Machine. A large, reclining woman, whose gaze directly meets mine, staring back in seeming defiance (it turns out this is Ganesh’s adaptation of a photograph of a sex worker from West Bengal in the 19th century).

Doesn’t she feel sad, I ask, at the impermanence of the show? That in three weeks it will be gone, white paint will cover the gallery’s walls, and it will be as if it never existed at all?

“I had a professor who used to say that half of making the work is looking at it,” Ganesh replies. “Here, I get to spend so much time with the work…There’s a playfulness and a joy, because as an artist, the more you work, the more you have to keep track of: you’re constantly archiving yourself. [Now], there’s something so lovely about the intimacy; that it’s ephemeral; it’s about how you experience it now.”

Then the interview is over, Ganesh is back to work, and life resumes its chaotic pace. As I sit quietly for a few moments, taking in the space around me, the works-in-progress seem even more like a palimpsest than they did before. Amar Chitra Katha on top of a Brooklyn diaspora on top of loving relationships on top of a distinctive feminism. Layers upon layers, distilled into monochromatic outlines on a wall.

And in this moment, I realise that that the impermanence of the show is much like the countless narratives that form the basis for Ganesh’s art. The tale is told, the voice recedes, but the story lives on in those of us listening.

Richa Kaul Padte is a writer, researcher and bass-music lover. She tweets @hirishitalkies and writes at richakaulpadte.com