REVIEW: Pushpamala N.

7th May 2004

"Photography and filmmaking arrived in India immediately after
their invention in Europe, which is one reason South Asia has such a
long history of sophisticated work in both media. Pushpamala N., a
contemporary artist working in Bangalore, takes account of that
history and makes it her own in a strong New York solo debut.
The four photographic series in the show have links to South Asian cinematic
conventions. ''Phantom Lady, or Kismet'' (1996-98) is a takeoff on Indian pop films
about the exploits of a superheroine named Nadia, who here wears Zorro-esque attire to
rescue a vampy younger sister from underworld embroilment. Shot mostly in nighttime
Mumbai, the series has a rich, film-noir atmosphere and a surreal, Bollywood-style
narrative structure that can be reshuffled for different showings.
As in all her work, Pushpamala N. is chief actor as well as director, and she is a
charismatic on-camera presence. She plays both sisters in ''Phantom Lady'' with
aplomb, and brings the same qualities to ''Golden Dreams'' (1998), a kind of womanhaving-a-nervous-breakdown
tale of romance and entrapment that concludes with the
heroine holding an invisible opponent at gunpoint. Here the original black-and-white
prints have been hand colored, giving them a slightly antique look, as is true of the 10
pictures in ''The Anguished Heart'' (2002), a story of lost love that might have come
straight from Satyajit Ray.
The melancholic tone of this last series is also distilled in a single portrait of
Pushpamala N., one of a group shot by J. H. Thakker, famed for his studio photographs
of Indian film stars of the 1950's and 60's. In this group of photos she represents the
seven moods traditionally associated with women in northern Indian poetry and
painting -- sad, erotic, happy, angry and so on -- and plays each role with a
confounding mix of self-consciousness and conviction.
It is precisely this mix that sets her work apart from other implicitly feminist artists like
Cindy Sherman and Eleanor Antin. They make their distance from their cinematic
models clear; she, selectively and daringly, keeps the connection alive."


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