India, from the land of the Kama Sutra to the land of sexual ignorance

This was originally posted on

“Kissing doesn’t lead to pregnancy,” said model Diandra Soares, after her exit from the reality tv show Bigg Boss, reminding many that ours was once the nation of the Kama Sutra and is now that of “sexpert” Mahinder Watsa’s column.

Soares was presumably being sarcastic, but the idea that someone would think kissing causes babies doesn’t seem entirely impossible in India. For a country whose population can barely be contained within its boundaries, it’s alarming to realise how little India knows about sex. The general assumption is that everything one needs to know about sex is genetically coded into us. The prevailing wisdom is that sex is natural and therefore requires nothing more than functioning body parts. This is the argument most commonly paraded before all those who suggest including sex education in school curricula.

If sex was so simple, then gynaecologists wouldn’t encounter the number of ‘unusual cases’ that they do. Dr Parekh* has been practising in an elite South Mumbai neighbourhood for the past 15 years. She regularly meets couples who complain they’re unable to have children despite “trying”. Upon examination and after a gently probing conversation, this is often the problem: the couple aren’t succeeding because they’re having sex, but it’s anal sex. “The first time it happened, I was really surprised because her hymen was intact but they insisted they were having sex regularly,” said Parekh. “You think people in villages will have these misconceptions, but ignorance about sex is a disease in itself.”

Has the introduction of American shows and films on television, which often contain references to sex (sex scenes are edited for Indian audiences), helped our anatomical knowledge? Parekh is of the opinion that the levels of misinformation have actually risen of late and for this she blames the internet. “Earlier, it was a lot of misdirected thrusting,” said Parekh. “But now, pornography is free for all and I have it on good authority that anal sex gets more play than vaginal sex.” So it is that the good doctor’s duties include introducing couples to the vagina.

Parekh’s experience and Soares’s comment about kissing not causing pregnancy are examples of how desperately India needs sex education. Sex surveys suggest India’s having more sex (and kinkier sex) but that’s not the entire picture. Part of the problem is that as far as India’s understanding of sex is concerned, it’s only associated with procreation. However, pregnancy is arguably the most easily-resolved problem arising out of unprotected sex.

The real danger of unprotected sex is disease and it’s not just the act of penetration that exposes you to disease. Soares is right, kissing can’t cause pregnancy, but it can transmit viruses and bacteria. This means if the person you’re tangling tongues with has a cold, you’re on top of the list of people who could be next in line for a blocked nose and sore throat. More serious infections that can be transmitted by kissing are glandular fever, herpes, bacterial meningitis and hepatitis B.

There’s also a misconception that oral sex is safer than vaginal sex. It isn’t. You can get a rash of sexually transmitted diseases from oral sex, ranging from gonorrhea to the fearsome HPV (human papillomavirus), which can be the precursor to mouth and throat cancer.

Finally, there’s HIV. According to the Unicef, India is home to the third largest number of people living with HIV in the world and the vast majority of HIV infections in India occur through sexual transmission (85.6%).

Faced with all this, you’d think that everyone who is sexually active would make sure they always have a condom in their wallet. There’s some debate about the statistics of condom usage in India, but if you ask people, there doesn’t seem to be much confusion. Condoms aren’t popular and they’re not used by too many couples. A random sample of 40 women — 15 from Mumbai, 10 from New Delhi, 10 from Bangalore the remainder from other places in India — suggested that men are reluctant to use condoms and women don’t place enough importance upon condom usage. Only one woman said that she’s “like an immovable rock” when it comes to male contraceptives.

“I’m not having sex without it and I make it very clear the moment things look like they could go anywhere near heavy,” said this 34-year-old resident of Mumbai. “I’ve had a UTI because I was stupid enough to have sex without a condom, and it was awful. Plus, that whole waiting for a period or popping i-pills is just way too traumatic for me. So yeah, no condom? No sex.” She says she’s trying to build up “the balls” to demand prospective lovers get a health check before she has sex with them. “It’s crazy to think that a virus can be harmless in one person, get sexually transmitted to the other and go ballistic,” she said. “But guys don’t take this business of getting checked up too kindly. No Indian man can deal with the thought that there may be something wrong with him.”

Aside from this one respondent out of 40, everyone else said they didn’t use condoms. “I’ve had six partners so far and none of them would wear one,” said a 28-year-old woman in Mumbai. Some, particularly women in Delhi, said that it was awkward to buy condoms as a woman so it’s difficult to keep a stock and men seem to never carry their own. Not one of these 39 women felt not having a condom was good reason to not have sex.

For at least one, however, it was reason enough for a relationship to end. “He didn’t want to use a condom and was seriously offended that I was insisting he use one,” said a 25-year-old from Kolkata. When she produced a condom, he lost his temper. “He started calling me names, saying that no woman from a good family carries condoms around,” recalled this woman who clarified that the only reason she had one was because a friend of hers works for a company that manufactures condoms. “I probably wouldn’t have insisted on him using it if he’d said at the last minute that he’s not comfortable with it,” she said. “But the way he screamed at me made me see I can’t be with a guy who reacts like this to me not agreeing with him.”

“It becomes an issue,” summed up a 24-year-old in Bengaluru, “and you start feeling foolish about being stubborn about it when he says that he’ll be careful and points out he doesn’t want you to get pregnant either. I just rely on i-pill instead.”

However, the emergency contraceptive is not an alternative to a condom, should not be used regularly and certainly doesn’t offer any protection against sexually transmitted diseases. “We don’t talk about STDs, but it’s not that women don’t know about STDs,” said Parekh. “I have patients who will come saying, there has been a smell or pain or discomfort while urinating soon after having sex. They know that it’s unprotected sex that has caused it, but there is a very strong instinct to ignore that causal effect and instead ask for a prescription.”

As far as Parekh is concerned, the silver lining is that women these days come to a gynaecologist when they feel symptoms of an UTI or any discomfort around the unmentionable vagina or labia. “When we were young, women just ignored it. You couldn’t talk about it to an outsider,” said Parekh.

“It’s slow, but steady,” said a man from Kolkata, speaking “for both Indian men and women”, as he put it. “We’re getting ok with the idea of casual sex, homosexuality, multiple partners. Give us some time. We’ll find the vagina also.”


*name changed upon request


Art: Amrita Sher-Gil and Lionel Wendt

My review of In Dialogue: Amrita Sher-Gil and Lionel Wendt is up at Mumbai Boss. 

Untitled (Torso of a Sinhalese fisherman), by Lionel Wendt
Untitled (Torso of a Sinhalese fisherman), by Lionel Wendt

We can debate how realistic these artists’ visions were and the potentially uncomfortable politics embedded in the work of two people rooted in privilege who moulded their subjects to embody a certain worldview, but that would be missing the most powerful aspect of Sher-Gil and Wendt’s art: their determination to find beauty in themselves and the world around them.

It’s in the fragments of Sher-Gil’s self-portraits that the difference between Wendt’s and her gaze becomes evident. Both used their art to work out issues of identity. Wendt’s homosexuality was an open secret in his circle and this is evident in his photographs. He clothed his subjects with a distinct sexuality, highlighting their desirability and his gaze placed his models in a limbo between being a human subject and a sexual object. Sher-Gil’s gaze, on the other hand, was more inward as she tried to establish an empathetic connection between the viewer and those whose portraits she was painting. Had In Dialogue included Sher-Gil’s nudes — of herself and other women — there could have been a fascinating comparison of how sexuality and the human body was depicted by these two artists. Unfortunately, the selection in In Dialogue doesn’t allow for that conversation. It does, however, hint at it with a sketch and self-portrait that Sher-Gil made of herself.

Art: Noise Life by Desire Machine Collective

It’s been a while since I wrote about an art show and while writing a review of DMC’s Noise Life had me tearing my hair for a bit, I have missed writing about art.

The review was first published on Mumbai Boss. Here’s an excerpt:

Beyond the sonic force field created by the projection, the video and the floor installation (made of speakers), Noise Life has two objects: a table and a cabinet. The well-used and unremarkable table emits the rhythmic clicking of a typewriter at work. From the cabinet, you hear the high-pitched squeal of a dot matrix printer from time to time. They’re objects that make noises from another time; noises that don’t match the objects but are synonymous with the idea of creating a record. That’s when it strikes you that tables and cabinets like these have filled countless offices where people with varying degrees of power have decided which story — and whose — would be heard and which wouldn’t.

Noise Life is not a show that’s easily accessible and it takes pride in being difficult. This is, after all, an artist collective and exhibition inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose hard to pronounce surnames are the first indication of how impenetrable their writings are. Fortunately, you don’t have to have read Deleuze or understand terms like “schizoanalysis” to find Noise Life thought provoking. Ultimately, Noise Life is about stories — the ones that survive in memory and sensations, as well as those contained in files and archives.

Links: Fictional Elysium and real Mumbai

Photo: Mine, with a little help from a Flickr filter.
Photo: Mine, with a little help from a Flickr filter.

Long time, no update. So here we go. These pieces are from last month.

Travelling in Mumbai, the one thing you keep seeing are hoardings and a lot of them are for fancy real estate. All these hoardings sell us one basic idea: we’ll give you an artificial world that will keep out the real one. Then I saw the trailer of Elysium. Et voila:

“People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now,” said Blomkamp in an interview to the British newspaper The Telegraph. He got the idea while on holiday at Tijuana in Mexico, where Blomkamp and a friend were arrested by the Mexican police (for drinking beer on a stretch where it’s not allowed). …
In India, if you’re rich, you create a personal Elysium and distance yourself as far as possible from the unwashed masses that make up the rest of the country. As more and more cities and small towns look to create these artificial realities, there are now different worlds that Indians inhabit depending upon their buying power. Look at the advertisements for new real estate projects, and all of them promise the buyer a contained world of artificial luxury, modelled upon a foreign ideal.  … The foreignness of the design, instead of being a problem, is what makes these homes and offices desirable. They emphasise a sense of distance between those within from those without. Walk in through the secure doors and step into the lift, and the building is intended to be a cocoon that drowns out the sounds from outside. Inside, there is the space that you don’t see outside. Here, there’s someone keeping everything clean and shiny, in contrast to the dusty jaggedness outside. From the colour palette to the very air you breathe, everything is not just different inside modern office and residential complexes; more often than not, they’re markedly alien to an Indian aesthetic, traditional, vintage or contemporary. In the 2000s, we’re doing precisely what Blomkamp has imagined for the 22nd century in Elysium. The technology to set up a space station that would be as physically comfortable as life on earth is presently beyond us, so we’re working as hard as we can to establish that kind of metaphorical distance between the wretched and the successful. Our skyscrapers are much further away from ground reality than the number of floors that they comprise. Blomkamp’s Elysium isn’t really in the future. It’s all around us right now.

You can read the entire piece here.

Last month, a young photojournalist was gang-raped in Mumbai. Like pretty much everyone who works in Indian media, I heard about the incident that night itself, a few hours after it happened. Exit sleep, enter insomnia, rage and despair:

The dictionary defines ‘victim’ as a person who has been “harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” The journalist who was gang raped yesterday has been seriously injured, but she’s no victim. She’s given the police enough details for them to be able to round up suspects. She has valour and strength and all our prayers for a complete recovery of body and spirit. She is a survivor, I am a victim. As are thousands of women who aren’t safe in a country that demands of them patriotism, sacrifices and taxes.

It might have been better if we were numbed by the constant reports of violence committed against women, but I’m not immune to the toxicity of rape yet. So I have one question: where is a woman safe in India?

Statistics tell us the largest percentage of sexual predators in India lurk within family and close friends, so homes are dangerous spaces. The streets are unsafe even when it’s light and you have company. Public transport is the least secure because curtained by crowds, sexual harassment is painfully easy. Private transport is so fraught with danger that certain car models are popularly known as ‘rape-mobiles’. So where would you have us women go?

No, I wasn’t really raped yesterday. It was someone else, but I’m making this about me not just because I’m sickened by voyeurism masquerading as debate, but also because these crimes inflict physical suffering upon one woman but are committed against all women in this city and country. It is personal. It could have been any one of us. It happened to her, yes, but a tiny fraction of her experience was felt by all of us working women in India. What would you have us do to be and feel safe?

You can read the whole thing here.

Links: On bar dancers and travelling with disabilities

These are the two non-filmy pieces I’ve done of late, which is why they’ve been clubbed together. One was a piece on the issues faced by those with physical disabilities who are travelling through Indian airports. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are ways to do security checks that don’t involve forcing a person to strip and remove their artificial limbs.

Aikara’s artificial leg, which she describes as her “lifeline”, is a sophisticated piece of equipment. “It looks a lot like my own leg from the outside,” described Aikara. Taking the prosthesis off is painstaking, both physically and emotionally. Without it, Aikara’s leg is a stump. “That is me at my most vulnerable,” said Aikara. “It’s worse than being naked.” Airport security has repeatedly reduced her to this vulnerable, exposed state in the name of security. On more than one occasion, in supposedly world-class airport terminals like New Delhi’s T3, Aikara has faced insensitive handling from airport authorities. Both junior and senior officers have ignored her disability certificate — according to those who have harassed Aikara, anyone can get such a certificate — forced her to strip, subjected her to offensive remarks, removed her prosthesis.

All this was done in the name of security. In actual fact, what they should have done is frisked her leg and done an Explosive Trace Detector scanner test, which does not require the subject to do anything more than stand still, with all their clothes and prosthesis on.

Sonia_Faleiro_Beautiful_ThingThe Supreme Court struck down the ban against dance bars, which means a number of ladies who made their living dancing in bars will have a job again. Sonia Faleiro, who wrote the wonderful Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, spoke to me about the judgment and dance bars.   

There appears to have been a carefully orchestrated campaign to portray dance bars as brothels and bar dancers as prostitutes. The media fed the stereotypes of the bar dancer as courtesan, portraying her as the natural enemy of the moral, middle class woman. Once her portrayal as a subhuman vixen was complete, it was only natural that politicians across the board would lack the spine or the common sense to defend her rights. In the war between women ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the ‘bad’ woman was doomed to fail, not just in the court of public opinion but also in the legislature. I’m proud that the highest court in the land has stood up for her.

Links: Mannequins, Muslima and Mallika

What do a virtual art exhibition and real-life mannequins have in common? Prejudice arising from preconceived notions. What do those two and Mallika Sherawat have in common? Not much, in all honesty. But they all start with M and there’s some screwed up thinking surrounding all of them.   

First up, mannequins. It’s a bit odd to think this piece got me on the BBC World Service — albeit for a mere second or two — but hey, it’s “This is the BBC. And you’re listening to BBC World Service”. If anyone had told me when I heard the World Service on the radio as a kid that I’d be on it one day, I’d have told them to go find a Barbie to decapitate.

Out of concern for her fellow women, Tawade has suggested that mannequins wearing “two-piece clothes that barely cover the body” be banned from public display. It isn’t a total ban on dressing mannequins in lingerie. Inside a shop, they’re acceptable as marketing tools.

Outside, they could cause crimes against women. Tawade’s proposal is awaiting final clearance from BMC chief, Sitaram Kunte.

Tawade has wasted no time though. She has reportedly forced some shopkeepers in her ward in Ghatkopar to change their display. “One must think of the awkwardness a woman will feel standing in front of such a mannequin,” Tawade told Indian Express. She also believes seeing these scantily-clad mannequins are indecent and therefore are “likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals”. You’ve got to wonder how dumb she thinks Indian men are. Because if they’re confusing real women with the distinctly un-human mannequins, then they’re either idiots or suffering from serious psychological issues.

This is an oddly gender-specific problem because Tawade has said nothing about the effect of male mannequins that bare their chests wearing nothing but pants or swimming trunks or underwear. For instance, there’s that nude male mannequin that’s been perched on a balcony near Kemps Corner flyover for years. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and maybe I’m just not hormonal enough, but the sight of it has never led to a tsunami of lust in me. All men in the vicinity were as they usually are in my presence: safe from any advances.

From my column, the rest of which you can read here.

Then there’s this piece I wrote on Mallika Sherawat, in which I was decidedly pedantic. But well. 

By Lalla Essaydi.

Next, an interview with author and curator Samina Ali, who has curated Muslima, an evolving exhibition that is exclusively online and explores both the reality and the fiction involved in being a Muslim woman. Ali plans to keep adding pieces and contributions over the next few months, so keep visiting the website. You’ll find some fascinating work in there. Ali took the time to do a little interview about Muslima and her long-standing campaign to ensure Muslim women are not misrepresented.

Here’s the unedited interview:

DP: Would you tell me a little bit about your own journey?
SAMINA ALI: I’ve been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. I began with writing my novel, Madras on Rainy Days, which won both U.S. and international literary prizes. It’s published around the world, including in India. Through this story, I wanted to show how Islam is misinterpreted by some Muslims and then misapplied to such a way that it limits women’s lives and contributions. There’s nothing in the faith itself that diminishes women — it’s power, politics, and sometimes a purposeful misapplication of Islamic law. I took that message to the streets when I cofounded Daughters of Hajar, a Muslim American feminist organization. Our first act was to walk into a mosque in Morgantown W. Virginia to protest the custom of asking women to enter mosques through back doors and to pray in back rooms. The group went on to organize the first woman-led prayer in NY. I’ve also been a Muslim ambassador for the State Dept. in Europe. All of this led to me curating this global exhibition on Muslim women.

DP: Have there been experiences that you have had that made you feel the need for Muslima?
SAMINA ALI: In post 9/11 society, Islamophobia remains one of the few acceptable prejudices. All to often, media, leaders, and communities project an image of Muslim women that is far from the truth. It’s a one-dimentional image that shows Muslim women as being weak, subjugated victims. That distorted, limiting image of Muslim women began soon after 9/11 and seems to have become cemented in people’s minds over the past decade. This exhibition is not only timely, it’s necessary to help reverse those stereotypes and create dialogue between different communities and peoples. At the same time, the exhibition doesn’t shy away from confronting the ways in which some Muslim-majority countries have implemented laws that directly limit women’s contributions. So the exhibition is speak to both communities.

DP: How did the idea of Muslima come about?
SAMINA ALI: This exhibition was inspired by the deeply entrenched fears and misunderstandings people have about Muslims generally, and women specifically. All too often, Muslim women are seen as weak, powerless, subjugated. And there are many misinterpretations about the veil and what it means to individual Muslim women to wear, or not wear, the veil.

We wanted to help reverse those stereotypes and the best way to do that seemed to be to present Muslim women speaking to the complex realities of their own lives-through interviews and art. In the process, they would help dispel stereotypes, curb Islamophobia and build understanding.

The International Museum of Women has always been a virtual museum and it’s a museum with a special focus on women’s issues. So this exhibition is a perfect fit. The beauty of a virtual exhibition means that anyone anywhere in the world has access, no matter language, location, culture, or economics. Someone in Mumbai can visit the online exhibition and become involved in the global dialgue as easily as someone sitting here in San Francisco where the museum is located.

DP: How do you respond to those who see a difference between a Muslim woman and a modern woman?
SAMINA ALI: I think anyone who doesn’t realize that a Muslim women is a modern woman needs to visit the exhibition and read the interviews I’ve conducted with leading women reformers from around the world. These women will challenge any last remaining ideas that anyone continues to believe: the constant media distortion that Muslim women are backward. Getting rid of these negative beliefs is the first step toward real understanding.

DP: Do you think Islamophobia is a global phenomenon? Do you find the prejudice against and misconceptions about Muslims in South Asia different from what you’ve experienced in North America?
SAMINA ALI: I was born in Hyderabad, India and I was half raised there. The tension between Hindus and Muslims is an unfortunate reality of India, with its communal riots. However, that tension has roots in India’s more recent history (since independence) and in India’s political environment that stirs up those religious tensions. Culturally, Muslims and Hindus are basically the same — we have the same 5-day long wedding, speak the same language, watch the same Bollywood movies. What’s happening in the U.S., where Muslims are immigrants to the country and where not much is known about Muslims and Islam, is very different.

DP: Muslima shows so many shades of opinion, from traditional to militant, but without succumbing to cliches. What did you look for in the works that you selected?
SAMINA ALI: I don’t think I would use the word “militant.” I don’t think any of our contributors can be described as such. I did make sure to show a diversity of voices and opinions as well as range of artistic expressions because that’s the reality of life. The Muslim community is diverse, just as the Indian community is diverse. There are so many languages and dialects in India, so many different sub-cultures and so many different ways to practice faith. My husband is from the north and his language is Punjabi. We don’t even share the same language but we’re both Indian. Like that, Muslims are so incredibly diverse. To eliminate that diversity does them a great disservice.

The reason the exhibition is called Muslima is because it’s open to everyone and that’s extremely important to me. I want to be as inclusive as possible in order to show the great diversity of Muslim women; their thoughts, attitudes, expressions, values and realities.

In the exhibition, we have voices from women who are deeply religious and those who are no longer practicing, women who cover and women who are comfortable in bikinis. We are even open to including voices from women who are not Muslim, like Helen Zughaib who speaks as a Christian about our commonalities. She’s a “muslima”. I’d love to include more like her. I’ve had a truly extraordinary experience bringing together leading women artists and reformers from around the world — from the first Muslim women to win to Nobel Peace Prize to the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English.

DP: What was the brief that you set for yourself as a curator?
SAMINA ALI: I have been working on Muslim women’s issues for over a decade. My influence can be most clearly seen in the many interviews I’ve done for the exhibition with leading reformers from around the world: Dr Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win a Nobel peace prize; Fahima Hashim, a leading women’s rights advocate in Sudan; Maria Bashir, the first female prosecutor general in Afghanistan; and I’ve just finished an interview with Fawzia Koofi, who will be running for president of Afghanistan in 2014.

All of these women are leading the movement toward justice, equality and women’s rights in their communities, systematically fighting the legal and political structures to promote lasting change. And all of them believe that this change should come about from within the Islamic framework, because Islam grants women rights that are then taken from them by politics, or power, or patriarchy, or tradition.

DP: How long did it take to put Muslima together?
SAMINA ALI: We began working on the exhibition two years ago, searching for funding. When funding came in, we began actively working on the exhibition last August. The exhibition launched in March 2013. It will remain live until the end of Dec. 2013. During this time, each day we will add new material to the exhibition. What you see today will be added to tomorrow, and so forth. Over the next few months, the exhibition will continue to grow wider, richer, deeper, and more complex. It’s exciting to have so many different voices, so many leading women on one platform.

DP: What would you like a viewer to take from the exhibition?
SAMINA ALI: I’d like everyone to be involved — no matter their faith! Come and visit. Join the dialogue. If you are an artist or writer whose work falls under one of our topics, please consider submitting your work. We just ended a global call for submission but will announce a second one in Sept. If you happen to be a Muslim woman, please submit a Muslima Story! We have incredibly diverse ones from around the world. And everyone please sign the pledge to end discrimination of women worldwide. Our Speak Up! Listen Up! campaign requires no money or commitment other than to pledge that you’ll support women worldwide who are helping to bring about a just, equitable world.

Wallpaper: On Reena Kallat’s ZegnArt installation at Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Photo: mine. Don't nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr's filters.
Photo: mine. Don’t nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr’s filters.

In the May issue of Wallpaper*, there’s a piece I’d written a while back about artist Reena Kallat and the installation that she’s put up at Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

This public art piece is actually commissioned by ZegnArt, which is the fashion brand Ermenegildo Zegna’s cultural activity arm. When I met Reena to talk about the work, she was in frantic mode. The installation was going to be rigged up on the facade of the museum in a couple of days, would they need cranes, what are the measurements, should we have noodles for lunch… the questions were endless. Somehow, in the midst of all that, Reena and I spent a few hours talking about work and art and life. To put the whole transcript here would mean a seriously massive post, so here are selected excerpts. I’ll put up the article once I’ve scanned it.

On Public, an international public art programme sponsored by ZegnArt.

ZEGNA’S PUBLIC will begin with working with one artist in India, one project in Turkey and one in Brazil. In each country, what they want to do is to help realise a work. It’s like an award instituted for each place. … What Zegna plans to do is partner with a local institution everywhere and in this case, they chose to work with Bhau Daji Lad Museum because of the contemporary art program. We don’t have another institution that’s doing an interesting program like this. But it’s also a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest.

The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the BDL, and that sort has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names. I was interested at how else one could extend this, into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city, in what manner street names define the identity of the city, do street names mean anything to people, and so on.

On public art

I always find [public] art can be a real imposition. It’s used by all kinds of public and doesn’t really announce itself or asks for any consensual, it just comes and sits there. …

It’s also such a rare opportunity to work in public space [in India]. I’ve done larger pieces at say, the Kennedy Centre [the piece she made was a massive fallen pillar out of some 30,000 rubber stamps]. But these are opportunities that don’t come often being here [in India] and I think part of the artist’s thing is to be able to imagine, to think of this large canvas field which is difficult because you can’t be floating in a dream world when you know you can’t realise them. That’s what this project just allowed me to do.

On the piece she created for Public, which is a massive spider web made of huge rubber stamps.

This web is attached to the facade of Bhau Daji Lad Museum. If you go up to the rubber stamps dangling at eye level in the lower parts of the building, you’ll see there are street names written in English and Hindi. They’re all streets whose names have been changed because the original names were considered too colonial.

One was also looking at the city and its relationship to the museum and making a place in the city and how that relationship has changed. … The building itself is just so beautiful that I couldn’t think of anything else that would look like another decorative element on it.

The rubber stamp allows me to combine text and image and physicality. It has all the metaphorical underpinnings of being a bureaucratic apparatus, the idea of the meaninglessness of the bureaucratic which a lot of the names are, in that they have no real relationship to the city. Either they’re geographic or commemorative.

There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of those colonial statues in their backyard, many of whose names the street names were based on. Those are there, you have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded. So the whole vision of the city and what it meant comes together with the installation. And of course, the motif of the rubber stamp has other connotations. You know the web contains a sense of time, of space unused.

On art school and a sense of fraternity with other artists

We survived [JJ School of Art] because of our peers. The first couple of years, there’s the academic training. You learn something about figure study, face study, object drawing and so on. Because there’s a certain discipline, it’s not just about being handed over some wonderful secrets but the rigour of doing this every day, of trying to approach it in your own way every day. Not having an example to follow meant that you had to chart your own ways of doing it. Some of it helped, to the extent you weren’t swayed totally. But we were starved for visiting faculty, for practicing artists.

We had a military colonel who was good to me because I was a first class first student every year. I was very good about submitting all my assignments in time, doing all my work, doing it with sincerity. So they didn’t stop me from doing more than what was expected. There were others went against the grain, because they didn’t think they should suffer in this environment, including Jitish [Kallat]. We had clashes because of this. That’s how we met. We came from different views. I certainly saw his frustration at being in this environment that’s completely deadening and insular. So he did provocative things. He’d put up these posters, like one that said “I’m a potato because I have eyes.”

Today, all my contemporaries form this large campus. I am talking to them, responding to them, they inspire me. They could be in Delhi, Calcutta, wherever they are. The Indian art scene has really strengthened because of the interaction of artists being so strong and robust. I feel very connected to my contemporaries. Coming from artists I hugely admire, whether it was Nalini [Malani], Vivan [Sundaram], to Nilima [Sheikh] and Ghulam [Mohammad Sheikh], all of these stalwarts. Then Bhupen [Khakhar], Gieve [Patel] and coming down to Anita [Dube]; all the younger people, Sheela [Gowda], Bharti [Kher], Subodh [Gupta], everybody who’s in it. It’s not that you think of yourself as working in isolation. There’s no way that a creative moment is in isolation from everything else. It’s a byproduct of everything else.

On being ‘a mid-career artist’, which is was one of the qualifying criteria for ZegnArt’s Public

When I was being photographed, I was thinking of all my greys. Then I thought, “It’ll look more appropriate, I’m a mid-career artist.” Of course, I’ve been around about 15 years, more actually. If I have to think about my first public viewing, that was in 1994. I was in art school but we showed at NCPA. It was from work that was made at an artists’ workshop that Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakhar were doing. It’ll be 20 years since then.

This idea of the young artist, even Atul [Dodiya] will be called a young artist and today he’s in his mid-50s, so he’s no longer that young. Or alternatively, someone will say “Oh those masters!” It’s ridiculous. You can’t be called a master. I have such an aversion to the ‘masters’ idea.

I find that you have much less pressure because you’re in a position to choose. It’s not that you’re doing it under compulsion of earning your bread and butter. You’re past that stage. I don’t see what you’re gaining when you lose your reputation.