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Women Artists And Their Climb To The Upper Rung

Contemporary Indian art hasn't fallen into the gender trap and is unbiased towards women

Is there a glass ceiling in art? A glass ceiling that women artists have not been able to break through in centuries? According to Oxford-based Tejvan Pettinger, the Top 10 Artists of all times are Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Raphael, August Renoir, Jan Vermeer and Paul Cezanne. One may not agree with all the names on Pettinger’s list, or have a different rank-order in mind, but one stark fact that stands out for sure: they are all male. It takes quite a bit of effort to piece together a similar list of the world’s Top 10 women painters … Mary Beale, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Thompson, Frida Kahlo, Artemisia Gentileschi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sonia Delaunay, Helen Frankenthaler, Sigrid Hjerten … It is quite possible that most art lovers, even critics, may not have heard of  all these women artists. They achieved eminence in their domain but never really hit the upper circuit of global fame and acclaim. So, one is bound to ask, what has this been an issue of? Talent? Exposure? Education? Opportunity? Visibility? Patronage? Quality?

A similar exercise in India would yield almost identical results. The Progressive Artists Group and other luminaries including F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade, S.K.Bakre, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta ... were all males. So were all the stalwarts of Santiniketan: Rabindranath Tagore, Abindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Bihari Mukherjee. Not a single woman among them all. The only woman artist, who could make national rankings, if there were one, would perhaps be Amrita Sher-Gil. As per global art authority, Artprice, Sher-Gil’s global ranking was a commendable No. 231 in 2015, and No. 612 in 2016. In comparison, for 2016, V.S. Gaitonde was at No.  116, Akbar Padamsee at No. 163, Francis Newton Souza at No. 177, Maqbool Fida Husain at No. 203, Syed Haider Raza was at No. 210 and Tyeb Mehta at No. 393. In fact, Sher-Gil was ranked ahead of  Ram Kumar at No. 674 and Krishen Khanna at No. 696.
Among contemporary Indian women artists, Nasreen Mohammedi (No. 1,094), B. Prabha (No. 2,044), Anjolie Ela Menon (No. 2,247) and Bharti Kher (No. 2,596) are the only ones that seem to count globally. Zarina Hashmi (No. 5,106), Nalini Malini (No. 5,854), Hema Upadhyay (No. 8,121), Shilpa Gupta (No. 10,048), Rekha Rodwittiya (No. 15,030), Jayashree Chakravarty (No. 19,744), Reena Saini Kallat (No. 23,284) and Madhvi Parekh (No. 41,162) trail far behind.

Unfortunately, Artprice does not rank other famous women artists like Jayasri Burman, Shipra Bhattacharya, and Seema Kohli, perhaps because they did not have lots on offer at relevant global auctions.

Just for the record, Subodh Gupta is ranked globally at No. 1,268, Sakti Burman at No. 1,731, Manu Parekh at No. 5,981; Paresh Maity makes the cut only at No. 7,231, Jitish Kallat at No. 11,207 and Sunil Das at a distant No. 16,569.

The above rankings thankfully show a mixed bag. A Nasreen Mohammedi and B. Prabha compete well with Subodh Gupta and Sakti Burman. But maybe the rankings do not fully tell the story of male dominance in Indian art. As per market feedback, 86 per cent of all Indian art sold, by value, is from just 10 top artists. All male. Mumbaibased artist Brinda Miller, former Festival Director of the iconic Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, however, says, “I don’t think (art) buyers are gender discerning. They buy whatever they like — they buy because they like the work. It is surprising though why women artists are fewer than male ones, but then that is the case in most fields.”

Rekha Rao, daughter of celebrated painter K.K. Hebbar, and an artist of renown in her own right, has much the same sentiments to echo. “An enlightened buyer looks for content in art, which is meaningful and strikes a chord. Response to a work of art is often triggered by one’s own likes and dislikes.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that if one were to dig a little deeper into history, antiquity onwards, women artists fought a tough, most times a losing battle in claiming their rightful place in a masculine / male-dominated field the world over… so much so that it is said that British artist Mary Beale, a well known portraitist of the late 1600s was denied much of her success as it was instead attributed to her husband who from all accounts ran their common studio and was heaped all the credit for experimenting with newer painting methods, which she employed in her works! The case of the abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner, even in the mid-20th century was no different. Paying a ‘compliment’ to her, artist Hans Hoffmann said, “This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.”

The situation in contemporary Indian art is far more optimistic. It is difficult to find any great price variations between male and female artists on Saffronart, India’s premier online auction portal. The body of work being outputted by female artists is also quite impressive.

Seventy-five-year-old Gogi Saroj Pal, has had a celebrated career spanning over five decades. Gogi has held 30 solo shows, and has exhibited in Yugoslavia, Germany, France, Cuba and Japan among others. Her work, mostly women-centric, has long been about the indomitable female spirit. She specialises in transforming ancient figures into contemporary forms. She also defiantly depicts all of her women as sensuous nudes who are powerful and independent. No wonder, Gogi says her works fetch prices no less or any bit inferior to her male colleagues. And, that surely has nothing to do with her themes.

Delhi-based artist Seema Kohli’s paintings bear an altered concept of feminine sexuality. Her works bring into focus a woman’s physical attributes, her intellect, her thoughts, her dreams and her realities. Seema uses mythological imagery juxtaposed with modern realism to define the modern Indian woman who lives life anchored in tradition but aspires for a better tomorrow. Despite so much of feminism in her works, a confident Kohli  says, “As an artist, I don’t see myself as gender but above it.” Neither her being a woman, nor her portrayal of women seems to negatively impact her market demand nor pricing.

Mumbai-based and NID-trained artist Milburn Cherian says, she has “not encountered any such thing (as a glass ceiling) except when I just started. Later on and now, it does not bother me since painting has become my passion and not (a source of) name, fame or fortune”. With teachers like Somnath Hore and K.G. Subramanyam, Rini Dhumal’s versatility across media is amazing. She produces unique renditions across not just paint and canvas, but also through etchings, woodcuts and prints. Glass ceiling? Dhumal seems never to have heard of it!

Breaking boundaries and stereotypes, going against convention, emerging successful in an overwhelmingly male dominant society, the works of many of these female artists have helped create parity and equality to a great extent in Indian art.

Despite much global evidence to the contrary, and despite much history stacked against women artists, the current scenario in India is visibly unbiased towards them. Women artists are at par with their male counterparts in at least visibility and pricing. The glass ceiling, if ever there was one, at least for now does not exist in India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Women Artists Fine Arts magazine 16 September 2017

Carol Goyal

Carol is pursuing her Masters at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London

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