Looking through Shanthi Swaroopini’s new works on paper made during the pandemic of 2020, gives one the overwhelming impact and feeling of the preciousness of fragments of time pieced together through intense flashes of startling imagery. Her enormous skill in translating her clarity of the experienced moment into visual simplicity speaks volumes for the maturity of her vision and her intuitive alignment with the very basic materials available to her in the confines of Covid isolation. It brings one back to the essential elements of art making of personal expression of the everyday- Shanthi’s is a unique voice which resonates with the essence of humanity’s experience. For women artists working in isolation, the reality is often an investigation into an examination of social realities and cultural myths. Changes made in the art production itself encourages the viewer to emancipate themselves and recognise they share the same repressions in a sensual solidarity of a communal response.
Shanthi’s early sculptural works was an explosion which reinserted and sought to valorise women’s personal experience into art practice. Her central core imagery was that of pride in the female body and spirit- a celebration of the body’s rhythms and pains- of female knowledge and experience. Shanthi’s sculptures of the feminine spirit used the body as the site of archetypal symbols of life and death. Nature and woman were as interlinked as the waxing and waning of cycles of earth and moon. Shanthi found a voice for women that was separate from the patriarchal and reclaimed the image of woman from the representation of others as pure gender or as an object for the male gaze. She disrupts the conventions by which the gaze structures the female body as an object of desire and has moved the debate to a consideration of feminist art practice as an agency of intervention. Over her three decade-long career, Shanthi has made sculptures of body parts, wire tapestries of entangled lines depicting stretched elongated shredded skins and steel undergarments. Her sculptures and drawings of women—a strange confluence of the corporeal and the fantastic, with distinct feminist undertones- are exhibited in installations that respond to space and material which both contradict and create a tension in their articulation. The sculptures rawness and vulnerability make for a reflective viewing experience. Shanthi opted to represent life in a way that transcended the binary and was also creating small sculptures in terracotta and bronze as well as drawings creating not just images of bodily fluids and organs, but entire feminine communities. Sans clothing or intricate detailing, the figures look less contemporary than archetypal: part of a mythological brood of feminine spirits that includes characters both fantastical and earthbound. I was first introduced to Shanthi’s oevre through a Khoj residency in 2009 where using text and fragmented images to appropriate and deconstruct the dominant language of mass media and advertising, she believed that the tools of criticism of tradition should employ those very tools.
This joy of disrupting or going beyond established meaning into another realm is what is actualised in her new water colour works with tea wash exhibited by Threshold Gallery in 2021. Shanthi found a new avenue of expression in the minimal availability of basic materials of painting as a means of exploring the new reality of herself in lockdown. This dissolved into a duality, the exterior reality based on images from social media of people in the lockdown combined with her interior perceptions. There is a feared loss of independence in her series of crows where Shanthi uses the metaphor of the crow as the outcast in a social construction. She describes the identification to the bird’s plight as herself when she was a Covid patient and was not allowed to touch or be in the same room with others. Turning to her inner intuitive sources for images and expressing them through gestural language necessitated confronting fears and anxieties inherent in being in a small bubble without social interaction. According to Shanthi, “all the things that you thought are so dear to you, you are not looking at or touching and what remains is only the memories”. Her practice also investigates a more specific visuality of the oppressiveness of the lockdown on women and exposes the position of vulnerability that haunts them in relationships of dominance/subservience.
Fears of the very elements that one takes for granted like air is immortalised in her series based on the gas tragedy in her hometown of Visakhapatnam. “The drawing has come as an outlet, you study them later and then there is a connection.” Art provided her a much-needed anchor for embodiment—a manifestation of human touch, of recognizable effects of human endeavor—during a time that could be largely characterized as an age of disembodiment, a time when many of us were disconnected from the vast amounts of information to which we are normally privy, the very information that, from a distance, informs our world.
The plight of the urban migrants walking to a distant home invites us again into a world of pain and despair. Shanthi’s art occupies a frontier of experience and understanding; what Sartre describes as ‘an indeterminate and constantly shifting zone between the real and the imagined.’She describes feeling the impermanency of the time- and the lesson that has stayed with her was the learning to let go. As Shanthi recounts her experiences of the past year, she delineates the importance of learning to look closely at the world around her and feel the preciousness of the moment. “Because of the pandemic, I am finding that every day counts.”
It is this fragile ephemeral quality of the water colours that is so compelling. It offers not just a personal memoir but a visual representation allowing connections on several levels that bring together the historical and the personal. This body of works fills a gap in the telling of women’s experiences of the pandemic and looks to inspire us all to think carefully about our own histories, stories and their place in the future.
Life, particularly human life and experiences has been the main focus in my work. i use my work as a medium to express and reveal the way i feel and respond to personal, socio- political conditions that affect me . i have used my work as a platform to address my concerns . As a visual artist i respond to and use materials and media that excite and challenge my ideas and possibilities. In the process of expressing there was always a tendency to hide and preserve the self. My method has been to say metaphorical in terms of issues and in terms of the use of the material. i am interested in using elements that not only compliment each other but also contradict and create a kind of tension in its articulation.