Shakuntala Kulkarni: Of Bodies, Armour and Cages

I wrote this for DNA’s The Mag. You can see the works from Shakuntala’s exhibition, currently on display at Chemould Prescott Road, here.

A Body of Work

Shakuntala Kulkarni in Santacruz (W). Photo by Shivani Gupta.

Once upon a time, not very long ago, artist Shakuntala Kulkarni was walking down a street in the neighbourhood of Shivaji Park. It was the end of summer, the sun had not yet set; it was an ordinary day. Then, without warning, hot tar fell on Kulkarni. “It was like it came out of nowhere and my hair, eyelashes, everything was burning. I even had hot tar in my eye,” Kulkarni remembers.

Someone had been waterproofing their roof ahead of the monsoons, and hadn’t thought about who might be walking below. “It was so arbitrary and it made me wonder, how do I protect myself? How do I feel safe when I walk on the road?” This general sense of mild unease began to gnaw at Kulkarni painfully when she noticed the growing number of cases of violence against women and girls. “Day to day, I would be reading about infant girls raped, women molested. It felt like it was happening much more than before, and I thought, I need to address this.”

What followed were two years of Kulkarni experimenting and creating the works that are on display at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road, in a show titled ‘Of Bodies, Armour and Cages’.
Given the recent reports of crimes against women, like the murder of Pallavi Purkayastha, it’s a poignant time for a show about women’s security in urban spaces. For Kulkarni, however, it’s a theme she’s returned to repeatedly. Women, their body image, and protection against violence have informed Kulkarni’s work over the past decade. “This is a subject that, as a woman, I know,” she said, talking about harassment faced by women in public places. “My neighbour’s daughter, my daughter’s friend, the list of people who face it is endless. I’m not able to deal with this, but it’s alive for me.” While in the past, the anxieties have occasionally overwhelmed her work, in ‘Of Bodies, Armour and Cages’, there’s an almost playful quality that balances the seriousness of Kulkarni’s concerns without diluting them.

The photographs show Kulkarni wearing the sculptures, which are carefully-wrought “armour” designed by Kulkarni and built using cane and weaving. Along with the armour, there are also accessories like rings. Kulkarni is the first to agree she looks a little ridiculous, fitted out in her cane armour and striking a pose on Juhu Beach or the steps of the Asiatic Library. She doesn’t mind if you giggle a little, but hopes her work will also make you think about vulnerability. Kulkarni is on “a number of campaigns” as she puts it. The locations she has chosen are all under threat, much like a woman in the city. The lack of open public spaces concerns Kulkarni, which is why Juhu Beach is one of her picks.

Another is Ashok Towers, an area that makes Kulkarni “very uncomfortable” because the new construction obliterates the history of workers’ resistance in that locality. “Costumed up, I stand in all these places like public statues,” she says. “How small those statues look even though the people they’re depicting were larger than life! There they are, as though the statues are trying to protect the area, while having to suffer the indignity of bird poop, doggie piddle and whatever. That’s like me in the photos.”

As vulnerable as these neighbourhoods is the woman, who must don an armour made of cane, a flexible yet delicate material. The ensembles Kulkarni has created draw upon a variety of historical references. Much like actual armour or the elaborate costumes worn in performances (like the firmly-constructed frames of skirts worn by Kathakali and Manipuri dancers), the outfits Kulkarni has created are regal and intricate but the figure in them is rendered a little clumsy. “I wanted to explore what happens when you have a costume as protection… There’s a freedom you experience when you’re in armour, but at the same time, some part of your body is caught. You’re trapped but you’re also secure. That to me is interesting.”

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