A lady wearing an intrinsically created cane cage that makes her look like a warrior from ages gone by, standing on the steps of Asiatic Library, almost guarding the monument with her presence. This isn’t a plot from some supernatural thriller based in Mumbai but the latest work of artist Shakuntala Kulkarni, titled Of Bodies, Armour and Cages.
“Once, while walking near Dadar’s Shivaji Park, suddenly out of nowhere, hot tar fell on me. It burnt and stuck to my hair, and my eyelashes. This incident got me thinking about the concept of protection in the city,” says Kulkarni.
She feels the protection of the physical self works for different areas — be it global warming or gender issues. “Newspapers these days are filled with horror stories of crime against women such as a six-year-old getting raped, honour killing and more. How does a woman in this country protect herself? I wanted to address these issues,” asserts Kulkarni.
The artist, who loves armour started researching on different kinds of armour and experimenting with different mediums for creating armour such as metal, plastic and textile. Finally, she zeroed in on cane which was organic and also because she wanted to create something that was feminine at the same time. The result was a dramatic cage-like armour, which the artist wore and got photographed at different locations, representing different subtexts of her project, across the city. “The armour is a metaphor, a symbol for protection and for someone who protects, ‘Kalpanik’,” says Kulkarni.
Colonial costumes, Kathakali and Manipuri dance outfits have inspired the designs of the armour and the headgear: “They are visually similar, though culturally different forms, especially the flaring skirts. It represented blurring the lines between culture which is also what is happening today.”
Kulkarni has also added a bit of Bollywood to it with bouffant style-headgear inspired by yesteryear actress Asha Parekh and Helen. Though the cane armour looks war-like and imposing, it was difficult to move in it. “We live in a patriarchal society. We might have progressed and had women as doctors and prime ministers, but women are still bound by the limits set by the society. The discomfort of my armour represents these limits,” says Kulkarni.
The next stage of her project involved taking photographs wearing these outfits at different locations across the city, carefully chosen by the artist, “The photograph captured at Juhu beach represents the condition of public spaces in the city.
On the steps of the Asiatic Library, it’s the disregard for heritage structures, in the mill area of Parel, the ugly unplanned urbanisation and re-development of the city. All the locations like the armour are a metaphor for different issues plaguing the city.” Kulkarni created the armour with the help of Dinesh Pardeshi, a cane worker from the city and Tonkeshwar and Dhun Barik; who make jewellery from cane threads in Assam.
Kulkarni filmed the process of taking her photographs at public places; the documentary will be screened at the gallery along with the works. “While shooting at Juhu beach people initially thought we were shooting for a Bollywood movie, and stars would be present. Gradually, after questioning the crew they went away. Whereas at Asiatic Library I have had buses and trucks stopping mid way,” says Kulkarni. She has also kept the head gears at the gallery for people to wear and understand and take pictures with.