I Don’t Need Your Help: Manmeet Devgun Hits at the Male World
By Johny ML
Loud and clear, Manmeet Devgun speaks to the male world about her views on it through her first solo show at the Abadi Art Space, New Delhi. JohnyML traces the trajectory of Manmeet’s works so far.
When a single mother says, ‘I don’t need your help,’ we should heed it with respect. We should listen to it with respect especially when it does not come from a woman who belongs to a very affluent class. It shows the courage to be alone, the courage to rear up a child ‘without’ a father and above all to have sex with whoever she wants to or choose not to have sex with anyone. Sex cannot be avoided from the discourse of ‘single mother’ as this is one marker that upholds her virtue as a ‘devoted’ or a ‘wanton’ single mother. If her body is not claimed, or if she does not allow her body to be laid, then she is a great mother and if she does, she is a woman of loose morals.
Hence, our sexual morality is what drives us towards defining and judging the women who take the courage to be alone, to mother a child all by herself and to have sex with anybody she wants. Manmeet Devgun in her first solo show at the Abadi Art Space, New Delhi literally screams to the world that she does not need anybody’s help’. The show is titled I Don’t Need Your Help. This exhibition has Manmeet’s photography works, videos and a performance.
Interpreting a set of works of art through the authorial intentions and autobiographical references could be debilitating as far as the works’ intrinsic ability to transcend times and stay as aesthetic objects. Against this we could also say that a work of art or an aesthetic form of expression becomes relevant only when the authorial intentions are addressed as a part of the readerly interpretations. Therefore, it would be always good to approach this new body of Manmeet’s works independently as well as through her auto/biographical references.
Hailing from Chandigarh, Manmeet came to Delhi in the late 1990s to study fine arts and she graduated in painting from the Jamia Millia Islamia. Though trained in painting, perhaps, Manmeet is one of those women artists who abandoned the trained field completely with no regret almost a decade back. She moved around in Delhi with friends and helped them in documenting their works and independently did photography as she had the access to a camera.
Manmeet partnered with Shantanu Lodh, initially in art and later in life. They together did a few wonderful projects. Considering the fundamentalist censorship on personal freedom prevalent in a post-Ayodhya scenario in India, Shantanu and Manmeet took it up as a pivotal issue in their performance and photography series. In 2003 they made a bold attempt by distributing large posters of them kissing in public. By that time Shantanu had assumed a different artistic personality. He called himself ‘Art Maharaj’ and distributed scooter step-in covers inscribed with Art Maharaj. Also he did a series of performances with Inder Salim Tikku. Manmeet, by then had assumed an artistic identity and she started calling herself as ‘Mrs. Manmeet’.
Manmeet also did two independent projects in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The first one was a series of objects for masturbation and their digital prints which she exhibited in a group show titled Closet/Closets curated by Mrinal Kulkarni. In 2003, when Mrinal and myself curated a show titled Heat, addressing gender and sexuality in visual arts, Manmeet created a series of photographs in which she enhanced her body parts with inflated balloons. Manmeet was one of the most written about artists of that time. Later in 2005, Shantanu and Manmeet did the boldest of performances ever in Indian art scene at Khoj International. The project was called Hamam Mein Hum Sab Nange Hai (We are all nude in Public Bath),
and in this both of them stripped themselves into nudes and let their bodies to be inscribed by others.
Perhaps, this is one project that faced both internal and external censorship directly in Indian art scene. The documents of this project are still available at the Khoj International. But it is not released, thanks to certain very sensitive reasons. It is sure that this performance will be hailed as one of the pivotal performances of India when the proper history of performance art is written.
In due course of time Manmeet got married to Shantanu, a beautiful daughter was born to them. She was named ‘Brushti’. Relationships can sour if people get too much professionally involved. It is always better to work separately. Even Marina Abormovic and Ulay separated after doing a series of path breaking performances. Slowly Shantanu and Manmeet also moved apart.
I Don’t Need Your Help, the solo show could be read against this backdrop. But as time passes, no one is going to recount the personal trips and traps that the artist had undergone. In that case, we could also read the works away from this biographical background.
Most of the works in this project are done after Manmeet’s separation from Shantanu. The haziness and the troubles that she has been going through during the post-separation days are quite palpable and Manmeet is successful in bringing all those elements in her photographic works. Inside the decorated interiors of a drawing room, well arranged kitchen and bedroom Manmeet makes movements and caught in slow shutter speed they look like apparitions. There is a feeling of non-belongingness and even in her own domestic space where she has spent her time as a ‘family’ unit, now she feels herself like an apparition.
I am sure that this series is the outcome of a passing phase. The non-belongingness is not going to prevail as Manmeet has the courage to say that she does not need anybody’s help. These hazy photographs could develop themselves into separate aesthetic projects with different aesthetic and philosophical reasons soon. In another set of photographs Manmeet shows herself as a mutilated person. She portrays herself as an ugly creature with displaced organs grown all over her face. This series must have come out of the scepticism that she has felt after the separation; scepticism about her beauty, appearance, demand, desire and recognition.
In another brooding set of photographs, arranged as if they together created a narrative story, Manmeet is seen sitting with her daughter, now her world and focus of attention. She is totally absorbed into her thoughts while the child does her own things unaware of her mother’s internal turmoil. The world that is and that would be for sometime is caught well in the scribbles that Manmeet’s daughter has made on the walls with colour pastels. Also the scattered tiffin boxes and pencil boxes tell the story of the child’s growing up. In a lighter mode, Manmeet portrays herself as a beautiful and ‘available’ (marriageable) woman in traditional saree attire. Interestingly her towering presence is kept against the ‘Groom Wanted’ columns in the newspapers. In one, Manmeet is seen with two fire extinguishers for her crown/horn suggesting that as a bride she could do ‘fire fighting’ jobs at home and in the second portrait she is seen as a multi-tasking woman with multiple hands and multiple utensils, tools and implements in them. The grooms’ expectations are fulfilled in one go. The sexual potency of her own self is shown in her red silk saree and the (menacingly) inviting smile.
The video I Don’t Need Your Help starts with a close shot of Manmeet uttering expletives and hurling abusive words. In the beginning they are inaudible but from her lip movements one could make out the words. And like in a musical symphony, these words reach a crescendo and she screams ‘I don’t need your help’. One of the most interesting videos that Manmeet has done in this project is a 2002 unreleased video. In this small projection on the wall we see a Lucian Freud painting that almost look like Shantanu lying nude, smeared with some clay like substance and sleeping unaware of someone’s gaze. Here Manmeet sees the painting/him through a pair of magnifying glasses. Each and every part of his body is scrutinized and the genitals are observed clinically. This work should be treated as one of the best counter gazes ever that any Indian woman artist has produced so far.
Manmeet has also added a performance element to this project. In a furry red rug placed in a corner of the gallery, she cuts several of her portraits and stitches them together to create a creature who resembles her but with a displaced and distorted appearance. Perhaps, this shows the current mental situation of the artist. And if we read it out of the personal context it could also suggest that often (single) women are viewed in this way, as cut and pasted body parts.
One element that repeatedly appears in Manmeet’s project is that of screaming. Except for one video Manmeet does not literally scream out in any of her works including the performance. The performance is one of the most silent acts in the whole show. But the screaming is quite palpable.
Screaming is a way that a child uses to get attention from its mother. To read it inversely, screaming is the first step towards demanding recognition and identity. Here Manmeet by screaming that ‘I don’t need your help’, literally sears herself away from the past as ‘wife’ of someone, the partner of somebody and so on, and she demands recognition not only from the man whom she has left behind but also from the world that has so far seen her as the wife and partner of someone. There is an element of attachment and detachment to this aspect of screaming. The child wants the mother to listen to this screaming at the same time it wants to move away and start everything independently. The distortions that Manmeet gives to her portraits must also be seen similar to those distortions that often the children make. Manmeet becomes a child once again for her rebellion and all the indications are there that she would grow into an independent woman and artist without any confusion in the nearest future.