Catch up Shakuntala Kulkarni's work at the on-going exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road Gallery. Human bodies take on peculiar forms in Shakuntala Kulkarni's drawings. Costumes and armour become fused with the body giving them bizarre appearances, and when unclothed, the figures assume convoluted and awkward postures. The images are mostly of women, for the overarching preoccupation of Kulkarni’s art has been the life of women in our society. In this exhibition, the seven series of drawings combine emblematic images of pain, violence, defeat, and also resistance and overcoming. The sense of dread is accentuated by the dominant black pigment visible in many works, and in others, a free and animated line delineates the body contour.
Though the artist's focus on the life of women has been a constant investigation, the forms she has explored to express these themes have been varied. Her practice has included sculpture, installation, video and performance, in addition to painting and drawing. Drawing has however taken center stage in Kulkarni’s practice: entering her studio is like entering a cave with drawings all around you. There are drawings on walls, on boards, and on pieces of paper pinned on doors. It is apparent that all the ideas for her cane armour sculptures and dresses, installations and videos have taken shape through countless drawings. Drawing being so pervasively at the heart of her varied practice, it is befitting that she is here presenting a full exhibition of only drawings.
‘Fallen warrior’, “Shattered’, ‘Antaheen’ - the series' titles add to the dark moods of these works. We see helpless migrants trudging along as if in a trance, and bodies desperately trying to maintain balance. We see fallen, defeated warriors, their armour now transformed into a burden rather than a shield of protection. There are wrecked bodies in convoluted positions, and mothers mourning a battered child. In the series of large works “Stuck in the shadow”, strange bodies are caught in moments where they are about to topple: almost falling out of their own shadows, only to be saved by their sense of balance.
The exhibition highlights the ambivalent and circular relation between safety and the loss of freedom, between sanctuary and prison. In their strange inward silence, they suggest that only woman herself can be her own savior. In the series 'Swaha' we see a procession of twenty-one women of firm bearing walking forward, holding their headgear above their heads as if preparing to crown themselves sovereign, or maybe to make a final offering of their burden and become free.
In the words of Shiren Gandhy, Director Chemuold Art Gallery -
Confined within her home, discovering large handmade paper and charcoal pencils in her studio, these materials were a (surprise) gift for Shakuntala Kulkarni between 2020 and 2021. Previously there was never a definitive plan for what she would use these materials for. In the months of lockdown, there was a new purpose in them.
She started by pinning these large sheets and began to make rough forms. She began by drawing the bodies of women who had passed their prime - bodies that made new shapes: sagging breasts, stomachs swelled – the charcoal along with the space the large white sheets provided, allowed for voluminous forms!
This is when those forms invited her to dress them up! For a long time Kulkarni would be looking at the work of the well known Japanese designers, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, she loved the clothes of Alexander McQueen. She went back to several of Rei and Yohji's early collaborations. In one of their Paris shows, she was stunned by their use of black. Sharp forms, sometimes bulging, sometimes ballooned - they felt as if floating in space. The black charcoal came to instant rescue aiding the costumes that her women began to dress in – with their dark, dense, and heavy shapes, creating an opacity that felt unexpected and joyful in their 'non-colour'. They began to take their own forms, sometimes butterflies, sometimes bats, or other times ducks and swans. Like clouds, one has the freedom to let one's imagination fly in making one's own shapes with these women in their erstwhile designer clothes!
She then began to look at hairstyles –from Freida Kahlo, hairdos from old Biblical images, ancient Roman, Greek to the woman on the street that she saw daily who’s unwashed hair created its own matted style that haute couture models would find hard to imitate: hair became an imperative statement in Shakuntala's parade.
About the same time as she was making these forms, Kulkarni was addicted to watching a Chinese ice-skater who won the 2014 competition. She watched with fascination her swirls and twists and turns; Shakuntala was onto a new kind of movement, a distinct new energy that she began to give her aging-women forms.
There was something joyous happening in the process. If the artist was constricted within her home/studio, these women she drew, felt freed, uncased, uncaged, ready to fly - here the women feel emancipated, unperturbed in their confidence, and commanding a new body language which they clearly began to own. There are moments if they are about to topple - almost falling out of their own shadows only to be saved by their immense sense of balance.
When things fell apart in that collective period that the world encountered, the artist felt rescued by her imagination - it felt as if for that brief moment, Shakuntala Kulkarni was emerging out of her own previous body of work - ‘Of Bodies, Armor, and Cages,’