Womanhood and India’s Bandit Queen in Contemporary Art


A review of Re-Imaging Indian Womanhood: The Multiple Mythologies of Phoolan Devi, by Sarita K. Heer.

Much has been written about the life and persona of Phoolan Devi in both the popular and academic press, but Sarita K. Heer’s dissertation ambitiously expands this body of knowledge by considering how representations of the famous bandit queen function within the circuits of contemporary art. In looking to the work of Rekha Rodwittiya, Chitra Ganesh and Sangeeta Sandrasegar, Heer explores how artistic engagements with the image of Phoolan Devi create a space in which the staid boundaries of tradition are negotiated, transgressed, or dynamically reconfigured into potentially new models of Indian womanhood.

Chapter 1 offers a broad historical inventory of the positions ascribed to Indian women from the colonial period up to the 1980s. Over this span of more than 100 years, women were variously enlisted as passive standard bearers of an increasingly politicized South Asian tradition (writ large). Heer states that James Mill (History of British India, Volume 1. London: J. Madden, 1840) instigated the debate on Indian womanhood by rhetorically evoking the status of Indian women as a yardstick with which to measure India’s civilization. Heer draws on the work of Shobna Nijhawan (“‘The Touchstone of a Nation’s Greatness is the Status of its Women’:  Responses to Colonial Discourses on Indian Womanhood.” South Asia Research, 28:(73), Feb 2008) to underscore how the burgeoning nationalist movement countered British criticism by revivifying the traditional past and retooling Indian womanhood into a deified marker of resistance to colonialism. While the activation of a “spiritual realm” expressed a uniquely Indian counterpoint to the material rationalism of the west, Heer observes that women were still confined and defined by their care-giving function be it within the home or within a newly sanctified nation, in the form of Bharat Mata. Though the early twentieth century witnessed the rise of new avatar of Indian womanhood vis-à-vis the activism of Mahatma Gandhi, women were still largely relegated to the domestic realm, and were thus conceptually denied an active role in the world.

In the postcolonial moment the established template of women as caregivers of the nation or as pacific goddesses of the spiritual realm takes on a different gloss. Heer draws on Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay’s work on Bombay cinema (“Representation and Reflection of Self and Society in the Bombay Cinema.” Contemporary South Asia, 5:(3), Nov 1996) to segue into a discussion of Shekhar Kapur’s well known bio-pic of Phoolan Devi Bandit Queen. Nuancing the concept of myth put forth by Roland Barthes (Mythologies. Annette Lavers, trans. New York: Noonday Press, 1972) and Eric Capso (Theories of Mythology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) Heer suggests that the figure of Phoolan Devi activates a new form of mythology that is inextricably linked to the concept of ideological branding. Heer pushes the limits of branding as a function of commerce to suggest that the work of the three artists under discussion in the thesis critique rather than endorse a stabilized popular brand of womanhood. To this end she argues that the works of Rekha Rodwittiya, Chitra Ganesh and Sangeeta Sandrasegar operate in a space beyond the reach of normative social values and, as artistic interventions, they offer new ways of considering Indian womanhood.

Chapter 2 is a case study of Rekha Rodwittiya’s visual engagement with the iconic figure of Phoolan Devi. The focus of the chapter rests on a carefully nuanced visual analysis of the Baroda-based artist’s Untitled (Phoolan Devi), 2001, in which the artist embellishes an appropriated mass media image of Devi taken when she surrendered to authorities in 1983.  Heer weaves her discussion through a historical analysis of the discrete motifs (such as the cowry shell and the handprint) found in the image to argue that Rodwittiya’s iconic representation of Devi serves as a critical “re-thinking of Indian womanhood and what is considered to be an appropriate model” for the present day (p. 69). While the cowry shell is taken as a literal marker of the feminine, it is Heer’s reading of the handprint as a reference to the iconography of Sati stones and the abhayamudra that is most insightful. The iconographic programs of these memorial stones assert the married status of the sati through the inclusion of bangles on an upraised arm; however, Heer observes that Rodwittiya’s handprints in the Untitled (Phoolan Devi) are bereft of bangles. While the artist may reference the tradition of feminine sacrifice, Heer argues that the deliberate omission of bangles creates a zone to venerate modern women who do not sacrifice themselves for patriarchy (p. 52). This point harmonizes with her broader contention that images of Phoolan Devi cut across the boundaries of the traditional and the modern in a way that reflects the multiplicity of roles women play in neoliberal cultural climate.

Chapter 3 shifts away from Rodwittiya’s localized and India-bound engagements with the image of Phoolan Devi to consider Chitra Ganesh’s series Phoolan Devi’s Other Life, 1998.  The Brooklyn-based Ganesh offers a different take on the iconic Devi, using her as a departure point for the creation of a visual meta-narrative that explores the typologies of womanhood across a number of different cultural and art historical registers.  Heer’s analysis draws upon the frames of postcolonial theory and the early psychoanalytic theories of Joan Riviere (“Womanliness as a Masquerade,” Formations of Fantasy. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, eds., New York: Routledge, 1986, pp. 35-44) in an effort to tease out how the artist’s paintings align with the concept of masking or masquerade. Heer contends that Ganesh’s various recastings of Devi as a hapless woman in need of rescuing or as Judith Slaying Holofernes nuance the accepted perceptions of the bandit queen, in a way that creates a dialogic interstice through which to rethink normative gender roles. Heer further extends the idea of masquerade by employing Homi Bhabha’s (The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge Classics, 2008) concept of mimicry and the postcolonial engagements of Franz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1967) to argue that in drawing on a vast array of art historical references, Ganesh visually underscores how “masking can be a way for those who are not in power to have a voice in a system in which they are ignored.” (p. 150).

Chapter 4 also focuses on visual engagements with Phoolan Devi levied from outside of India through an analysis of Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s sculptural series Goddess of Flowers, 2003. It is worth noting that the Australia-based artist’s engagements with Phoolan Devi represent a shift in representational tactics, and serve as an interesting foil to the engagements of Rodwittiya and Ganesh.  Within Sandrasegar’s paper cutouts, references to the bandit queen are coded and can be seen as an artistic turn toward the abstract idea rather than the palpable form of Devi. Heer notes that Sandrasegar’s use of a foot in the series not only distinctly marks Devi’s own transition from “Mallah to politician” (p.160) but also productively allude to the “journey of Indian women as they move from, and between, the traditional to the modern and into a third space” found in the literal shadow play of the cutouts (p. 160). Heer argues that Sandrasegar’s Goddess of Flowers, in recalling the templates used for henna design, aligns with the work of Anita Dube to articulate the tacit tensions between fine art and craft traditions, and between the homey gendered spaces of domesticity and the conceits of worldly professions. Heer points out that the patterns found in the cutouts are not decorative but rather address the continued violence perpetuated against women in the name of tradition.  Drawing upon the ideas put forth in Sandrasegar’s PhD dissertation (Modern Hearts and Broken Starts: Navigating the Shadowlands of Sexuality. PhD dissertation. University of Melbourne, Victoria College School of the Arts & The Australian Centre, 2004) Heer maps the artist’s references to the topical and the mythological to pick up the themes of sati, and expressions of feminine resistance explored in the previous chapters. She crafts her narrative in a way that suggests that Sandrasegar’s work exemplifies the notion that women occupy a space that can not be successfully bifurcated along the lines of the traditional or the modern.

As a capstone to her study, Heer briefly introduces the photographic engagements of Pushmapala N. to remind readers that Indian womanhood is a polyvalent concept, which has been consistently reconfigured to suit the needs of various stakeholders. Sarita K. Heer’s dissertation represents a discursively expansive investigation into the artistic engagements with the canonical dacoit Phoolan Devi and will be of interest to a broad readership.

Kathleen L. Wyma
Department of Fine Arts
University of Hong Kong

Primary Sources
Mills, James. History of British India, Volume 1. London: J. Madden, 1840.
Farrell, Stephen. “Masked Gunmen Kill ‘Bandit Queen’: Political Rivals Blamed in Death of Outlaw-Turned-MP.” Times of London,  (26 July, 2001): 8A.
Ganesh, Chitra. “My Eight.” Art AsiaPacific,  71  (November/December, 2010).
“Goddess of Flowers.” Blog entry by Sangeeta Sandrasegar. December 11, 2008.
Frichot, Hélène. “Sangeeta Sandrasegar.”  New04. Southbank, Australia: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2004.
Email correspondence with artists.

Dissertation Information
University of Illinois, Chicago. 2014. 219pp. Primary Advisor: Catherine Becker.

Image: Photograph by author.

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