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Pushpamala N. was born in Bangalore. Her work has been described as performance photography, as she frequently uses herself as model in her own work. She uses elements of popular culture in her art to explore place, gender and history. Amit Mukhopadhyay in conversation with Pushpamala N.

You've been trained as a sculptor. Why have you moved on to video/photographs etc? Have you completely given up sculpture?

PN. I find photography and video more interesting to work with, with more possibilities. I have not exactly given up sculpture; I did a work recently in an art camp. Each work has grown out of the last; I don't really plan a course. By the way, I did my first live performance last month in Bangalore, a collaboration with Kannada poet Mamta Sagar called Motherland, where we explored the figure of Mother India through the work of an early Kannada nationalist woman writer Nanjangud Thirumalamba. It had elaborate sets and costumes and was more like a theatrical monologue.

A.M. You keep going back to traditional/classical/religious/mythological visual motifs and projecting yourself in such casts? Why do that?

PN. I am actually doing a huge range of characters, creating almost an archive or encyclopaedia of women's images. To actually list all of them in chronological order from 1996- a masked Zorro-like adventurer, a mafia Don's moll, a housewife, a night club dancer, a Muslim woman in a doomed contemporary love story, three portraits of a Hindu, Muslim and Christian woman, nine different characters playing out the navarasas including an animal trainer, dacoit, tanpura player, Draupadi, modern woman in love, woman afraid, knife-wielding woman and mother. The main characters in the Native Women of South India project were a stunt queen, a village woman with a pot, Lakshmi, a flirtatious young girl, a Toda tribal, a criminal, Ravi Varma's Lady in Moonlight, the 16c Yogini, a circus performer, and Mother Mary, besides a nun, an angel, a politician, model, scooter rider etc. I am now doing a series of portraits taken in photo studios of different countries, and have posed as a Thai, an Iranian, an Arab. In my videos I have played a pregnant woman from the 1960s and myself today, as a character. There are several other works in progress like the Mother India series. My work tries to look at and describe/ define contemporary life, and the idea of the nation by using a range of references and quotations to layer the work. There is a whole world of vibrant visual culture around us, defining our lives, from our art history to our streets, and it is great material for an artist. I want to get in everything into my work.

A.M. You seem to be taking artistic liberties with masterpieces like Abanindranath's Bharatmata, for instance. What are your ideas that work behind/motivate you to do this?

PN. I think it is important to examine these icons in the light of the contemporary. This image is part of a large project I am working on looking at the history of the Mother India images from the late 19c onward. I don't know what you mean using phrases like 'artistic liberty' and 'masterpiece'. I find it comic. Nothing remains static and all meaning must be made afresh, if the image has to have a life. I think it is a compliment to the power of the image that I am spending so much time doing research and production work, thinking about it, rather than treating it as a sacred and untouchable object.

A.M. Some years back, you had done a series on the vamps of Indian cinema. From that genre of the popular to this classical genre, why this transformation? More importantly, how do you situate yourself between these two genres?

PN. I have never done a series on vamps!! And frankly I don't find much difference between popular and high art. Ravi Varma who has permeated all popular imagery is considered the most classical painter among the public, while the Bengal school has most strongly influenced the most sentimental calendar art and greeting card pictures, rather than high art.

A.M. Many artists are working in the digital medium today. What do you think is the appeal/popularity of this medium?

PN. If you mean digital photography or video- it is much cheaper, for one thing, and they are easily accessible. The digital technologies are also replacing celluloid, so it is difficult to get dark room materials and paper, while excellent archival inks, papers and machines are available for inkjet printing for instance. Which is one of the reasons why an artist can make large size prints. On the other hand, digital technologies like the cameras, papers and chemicals which were very crude some years ago are getting more and more sophisticated, so even purists are getting attracted to them. Even in the case of celluloid feature films, the film is first digitized for editing and then the final cut is made on the film to save money. Anybody can get hold of a video camera and shoot and edit by themselves on a computer and have a small experimental film or a video installation ready today.



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