The Extreme Occasions Of the Prosthetic Self

A Reflection on Shakuntala Kulkarni’s ‘Of bodies, armour and cages’
by Ranjit Hoskote

The body of the citizen, especially the female citizen, faces pervasive threat as we navigate through an epoch of escalating terror and violence across the globe. No longer confined to declared warfronts and demarcated zones of conflict, the forces of terror and violence have leaked across a wide range of social and political situations; they have infiltrated both public and intimate spaces, poisoned civic as well as domestic contexts. While the physical fact of embodiment gives the individual subjectivity, as well as the mobilised community, the power to articulate itself, the bodied self is always an entity at risk. It may well be the premier vehicle of thought, sensation, reason, affect, passion, idealism and action; but, unfortunately, it can at any moment be stopped in its tracks, injured, or incapacitated. The bodied self can be insulted, subjugated or incarcerated; it can be deprived of the rights of mobility and expression; it can be curbed by religious decree, shackled at dictatorial whim or stigmatised by popular sentiment.

In India, despite—or perhaps, paradoxically, as a result of—many decades of committed reforms dedicated to establishing equality of rights and opportunities for women, the female bodied self is particularly at risk from the brutal structural violence of a patriarchy whose cherished traditional norms of gender behaviour have been challenged and thrown into disarray by several generations of newly articulate and politically vigilant women. Women in India—across class, caste, ethnic and regional locations—today experience an overwhelming sense of risk and vulnerability, and a threat of violation. Public awareness that violent crime against women in India has grown to epidemic proportions peaked in December 2012, with the horrendous gang rape of a young woman in a moving bus in New Delhi, and the unprecedented furore and public mobilisation that it provoked.

 
 
 


And so, it appears, thebodied self in need of protection must resort to armour: that is, either to an outer skin that cannot easily be dented or pierced, or to a set of skills that form an invisible shield around its exposed limbs. An armoured body is a prosthetic self. It can extend its capabilities through the mailed fist, the spiked helmet, the radiation-proof bodysuit, or through the cultivation of heightened fight/ flight reflexes.But, eventually, the body finds that it must pay for this protection with its freedom. It becomes immured, besieged, trapped within the devices that are meant to hold it inviolate, secure from the hostile attentions of the world. The armour becomes a cage. The self is protected by, yet trapped within, an exoskeleton. Thus simultaneously emancipated yet inhibited, the individual self must craft a fresh series of responses to the environment as a prosthetic self. The muscles must create new memories; the nerves must generate new synapses.

Shakuntala Kulkarni addresses herself to this paradox in her project, ‘Of bodies, armour and cages’ (2012), which unfolds across a number of practices including the interdisciplinary laboratory, drawing, photography, the research archive, sculpture, and performance. A major outcome of this project, in the form of objects that can be shown in the gallery and presented in performance, is a set of sculptures made in cane. Comprising eleven ‘costumes’ and eight examples of headgear, these are supplemented by a suite of performance photographs showing the artist wearing these elements in various private and public situation. Indeed, Kulkarni refers to these works as ‘wearable sculptures’. They assume the form of combat gear, ornamented yet forbidding: props for volatile fantasy, prompts for a yogic body-origami. Kulkarni draws on an eclectic array of sources for these works. Through her extensive research—conducted in museums, while reading through books and periodicals, and over the internet—she has pulled into her productions, variously, mediaeval coats of mail, Tudor-period costumes culled from Hollywood historical, punk Gothic outfits, the bouffant hairstyles and outrageous gowns of 1970s popular Hindi cinema, the grunge chic element in contemporary fashion, the costumes used in classical Indian dance, and the futuristic gear favoured by the protagonists of science-fiction cult classics.

Another, equally major outcome of Kulkarni’s project might remain largely invisible to a viewership that is attuned to regarding art as a corpus of products rather than as the precipitate of social and cultural processes. That outcome is the dynamic collegiality, amounting to a mutual education, whichdeveloped as Kulkarni worked together with a group of colleagues to produce these sculptures between 2009 and 2011. Among these colleagues were Tonkeshwar and DhunBarik, specialists in the making of exquisite cane ornaments from Assam, and Dinesh, an accomplished craftsperson from the Gangetic heartland who originally made chairs, baskets and lampshades for an urban clientele in Bombay. The artist met the Bariks while travelling in north-eastern India, and Dinesh in her own neighbourhood in Bombay.

In the course of working together, under Kulkarni’s direction, this informal group developed new relationships of production: the specialists began to express a mutual curiosity about one another’s working methods and vocabularies, and gradually stepped beyond their purpose-driven technology to respond creatively to the artist’s prompts and design problems. Kulkarni gained, from this process of collaboration and cooperation, a renewed attentiveness to the palpability and mystery of materials. Various resources and bodies of skill, inherited as well as improvised, were brought into play; at the same time, the workshop became a venue for the formulation of new modes of communication among the colleagues, ranging from animated discussion to sketching and drawing to the prototyping of forms.

Kulkarni arrived at cane as the material of choice after experimenting with various options, including canvas, recycled plastic, and aluminium. The propulsive force for the works in ‘Of bodies, armour and cages’ came from the artist’s overwhelming desire to produce an array of urban self-defence devices, combining seriousness of purpose with a degree of playfulness appropriate to a situation that is not without its bizarre aspects. In the metropolis of Bombay, where she lives and works, the simple act of crossing a street is fraught with lethal danger. This is not a dramatic overstatement in a city of twenty million denizens, where hundreds of migrants arrive every day from the hinterlands of South Asia, where the traffic is not only dense but also wilfully oblivious to civic order, and the ingrained habit of scoring short-term, semi-legal private gains at the cost of others detracts from the possibility of establishing that mutuality that must serve the citizenry of any city as a common basis of peaceful and productive coexistence. A constellation of small, everyday events that took place some years ago forced Kulkarni to confront this haywire existential situation. One of these events was an accident: she was splashed with molten tar by artisans waterproofing a roof in a busy public place; in the characteristic ‘Devil take the hindmost’ spirit of Bombay, they had not bothered to set up a warning sign and were oblivious to the safety of any pedestrians who happened to be passing below.

*At first sight, Kulkarni’s sculptures, sumptuous in their austerity, appear to demonstrate a melancholy psychological truth: that the various forms of armour we create for ourselves do not save us from vulnerability, so much as they dramatise the human predicament of being always and utterly vulnerable. Insecure both in nature and society, we are ever condemned to being Lear’s ‘poor, bare, forked animals’, exposed to the unpredictable forces of destiny in the storm, on the heath, always at bay, on the hazard. These works also appear to acknowledge the dilemmatic condition of the armoured self; almost as though taking note of a literary conceit, we write the word a(r)mour and observe that a single letter marks the difference between love, the releasement of the self towards the other, and defensiveness, the shutting out of the other by the self. Our use of the internal parenthesis to split a word in two renders visible the radiating lines of affect and responsiveness that link the individual subjectivity to others: the modes of the erotic and of collegiality, of curiosity, mutuality and solidarity, all of which may be cut off when one conceals oneself in armour, becomes militarised, robotic, mechanised in one’s responses, isolated.

And yet, if these sculptures at first suggest measures of defence against peril and hazard, the performance photographs make it clear that the artist has no intention of remaining content with such a reactive attitude; instead, she goes flamboyantly on the offensive. Slipping into her sculptures, Kulkarni becomes a prosthetic self and courts extreme occasions. She crosses against the traffic lights, daring the vehicles on a busy Bombay street to run her over. She stands poised as though about to dive from a rooftop in her cane regalia, against a backdrop that combines the desolate smokestacks of Bombay’s ruined textile mills and the brash new skyscrapers that have usurped their space. Latter-day Greek invader or legionary from an Orwellian future, she stands defiantly on the steps of Bombay’s venerable Asiatic Society, with the Doric columns of its porch behind her. As she assumes a variety of poses—against Bombay’s polluted shoreline and its skyline of highrises, inside a workshop, or in her parents’ elegantly old-world apartment—she adopts, variously, the personae of the ninja and the samurai, the Black Prince, Darth Vader, and the Kathakali dancer.

As we look at these photographs, we become privy to a startling transfiguration: the body itself becomes the studio, and we, as viewers, become participants in a theatre of disruption and remaking. Kulkarni’s combination of sculpture and performance invites us into a compelling space of interactive encounter, questioning, probing and recognition. Importantly, this is the point at which to observe that we refer to Kulkarni’s persona in performance as a female body only because we ascribe the artist’s being a woman to the roles she essays through this project. In actuality, the figure in the ‘wearable sculptures’ contravenes conventional gender ascriptions, transforms its apparatus of protection into a hyperbolic statement, dissolving the entrenched but facile dichotomies of male/ female, belligerent/ nurturing, assertive/ reticent. Indeed, Kulkarni’s deployment of hyperbole is a crucial and constitutive strategy: she deploys it to obstruct, break down, baffle the conscriptive codes of patriarchy. The act of wearing these suits of cane armour not only permits the artist to try on a variety of personae; it also imparts to her the force of a versatile presence that refuses to be neatly classified within prevailing definitions of age, gender or temporality.

Kulkarni’s photographs document specific moments of performance and also register various thresholds in the cartography of her reclamation of locations that are of personal or historical importance. Her project allows her to annotate the city in particular, and particularising, ways, whether she addresses a street, a terrace, a residential complex, a locality, or a single apartment. We find here, for instance, the social weave of the Juhu neighbourhood that has been home to her for several decades, as well as the South Bombay neighbourhood associated with her birth community, the ChitrapurSaraswat Brahmin micro-minority.In each case, the intervention of Kulkarni’s social sculpture, her performance as a quixotic and transgressive figure, throws into relief the sedimented psycho-sociality of place. Her radical Otherness in performance serves to defamiliarise the received mythologies of domesticity and urban renewal, and to disclose the more disquieting narratives of Bombay’s new guarded and gated communities (the towers in the former mill lands), the gap between academic activity and public life (the vacant steps of the Asiatic Society), and the contradiction between the city’s real estate boom and the devastation of its natural environment (the shoreline).

*At an immediate level, Kulkarni’s ‘wearable sculptures’ demonstrate the individual agency of the female self, its ability to craft choices for itself within a hostile or indifferent social and political environment. ‘Of bodies, armour and cages’ constitutes a courageous experiment in public consciousness: it essays the critique of a public culture overinscribed by patriarchal norms and misogynist assumptions. In such a social, cultural and political context, ‘woman’ is a conscriptive, compulsory identity produced and maintained through the mechanisms of sanction, conditioning, socialisation, prescription and proscription. As the artist, writer and cultural activist ShuddhabrataSengupta wrote in ‘To the Young Women and Men of Delhi: Thinking about Rape from India Gate’, his post of 23 December 2012 on Kafila.org: “Let us think about patriarchy together. Patriarchy is what makes you ashamed, not delighted when you have a period, because your traditions teach you that a menstruating body is a polluting body. Patriarchy is what tells you that there are things you cannot or should not do because of the way your body or your desires are shaped. Patriarchy is the secret to your nightmares, the reason for your deepest, most personal fears and anxieties. It seeks control of your body, your mind, your speech, your behaviour, even the ways in which you raise and lower your eyes. Behind this lies a clear identification between property and the sexual body that patriarchy tries to perpetuate at any cost.” [1]

Today, women seek a new degree and level of agency—not by recourse to tradition, but by reference to law and a discourse of rights. Reclaiming public space is an important part of this initiative. Given the escalation in the occurrence of crimes against women, including rape, domestic violence, assault in public places, and other appalling outrages, Kulkarni’s experiment in public consciousness acquires an urgent saliency. The artist confronts patriarchy in its operations as a cultural system enforced through a set of regulatory codes and institutions that determine what a woman can/ cannot be, can/ cannot do, can/ cannot say. She assumes roles anomalous to those customarily assigned to women, discloses the naturalisation of patriarchy and exposes it to critique. In effect, Kulkarni places herself in zones of anxiety and trauma—the crossing, the precipice, the border between elements—and mobilises allegories that allow her to confront and come to terms with these conditions.

A productive queering takes place in these works, an acting out of dissident impulses against the grain of a consensual normality. If I may be forgiven another internal parenthesis, I would point out that the performative derives its compelling power from the fact that it cradles, within itself, the formative. The key move that ‘Of bodies, armour and cages’ accomplishes is the heroic production of a new rhetorical and performative subjectivity: Kulkarni’s (per)formative contribution marks a rupture with both patriarchal as well as counter-patriarchal essentialism, their templates of conditioning and modes of interpellation. Indeed, it is an invitation to displace the socially sanctioned performance of the construct of ‘woman’ and to consider alternative subjectivities beyond it. In this context, I am reminded strongly of the philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler’s key questions, in the Preface to her Gender Trouble: “Does being female constitute a ‘natural fact’ or a cultural performance, or is ‘naturalness’ constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex?” [2] Later in the book, Butler, citing Simone de Beauvoir, argues that “gendered bodies are so many ‘styles of the flesh’ ”[3] and further observes that gender “ought not to be constructed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylised repetition of acts… a constituted social temporality…. a constructed identity… which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” [4]

ShakuntalaKulkarni’s current body of work possesses both conceptual precision and aesthetic amplitude. Balancing adroitly between its strategies as a device of affirmation and its critical engagement with context and process, it takes its place in the artist’s long-term refinement and articulation of a nuanced feminist position. Vitally, ‘Of bodies, armour and cages’ performs the political, rather than merely signalling it: these works point us in the direction of new horizons of justice, freedom and dignity.

From the series Of bodies, armour and cages (2012) by Shakuntala Kulkarni

(Bombay, 7 May 2012 – Utrecht, 10 May 2013)

Notes

  1. ShuddhabrataSengupta, ‘To the Young Women and Men of Delhi: Thinking about Rape from India Gate’ (http://kafila.org/2012/12/23/to-the-young-women-and-men-of-delhi-thinking-about-rape-in-delhi/, accessed 24 December 2012)
  2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York & London: Routledge Classics, 1990; rpt. 2008), p. xxxi.
  3. Ibid., p. 190.
  4. Ibid., p. 191-192.

*Reprinted by courtesy of the author and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

**All images copyright Shakuntala Kulkarni

Ranjit Hoskote is a leading Anglophone Indian poet, and has also been acclaimed as a seminal contributor to Indian art criticism.He is the author of 30 books, including Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005 (Penguin 2006),Central Time (Penguin/ Viking 2014), and Jonahwhale(Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton 2018); and the monographs Zinny & Maidagan: Compartment/ Das Abteil (Museum fürModerneKunst, Frankfurt/ Walther König 2010) and AtulDodiya (Prestel 2014). He has translated the 14th-century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded’s poetry as I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Penguin Classics 2011). He curated India’s first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2011).

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