Re-Imaging Indian Womanhood: The Multiple Mythologies of Phoolan Devi
Heer, Sarita K.
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This dissertation examines the work of three artists, Rekha Rodwittiya, Chitra Ganesh and Sangeeta Sandrasegar, and their images of Phoolan Devi, India’s Bandit Queen. By contextualizing each object within the artists’ oeuvres and through careful analysis of individual images, this dissertation reveals how Phoolan Devi becomes a new model of Indian womanhood in late twentieth-century India. Additionally, mythologization is reconsidered by examining how the meaning of the term has shifted in the context of late twentieth-century India. Mythology becomes a brand symbol that projects a seamless image of a modern and traditional India. The artworks, by addressing power relationships and the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, reveal how each work disrupts the illusion of a stable brand for the nation, thus constructing a new, more complex model of Indian womanhood that challenges the fixed meaning of a brand symbol. Rekha Rodwittiya’s print, Untitled (Phoolan Devi), 2001, reveals themes explored in the artist’s body of work: violence against women, domesticity, a sisterhood of all women and woman-as-goddess. This imaging of Phoolan Devi’s life comments on these themes and the tension between modernity and tradition. Chitra Ganesh’s paintings, Phoolan Devi’s Other Life, 1998, alongside the masking theories of Joan Riviere, Homi K. Bhabha and Frantz Fanon, reveal how the use of masking can disrupt societal status quo and shifts power relations from the dominant to the oppressed group. This masking of Phoolan Devi presents late twentieth-century Indian womanhood to be an unstable sign that can be read in multiple manners. Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s series, Goddess of Flowers, 2003, is a multi-media installation that addresses the tension between opposites. By taking into consideration the domestic craft materials, the violent and unstable subject of Phoolan Devi, and modernity and tradition, the works reveal the complex and shifting sign of Indian womanhood in late twentieth-century India. This project contributes to the discourse on late twentieth-century South Asian women artists as they are situated within debates on modernity in postcolonial contexts, allowing for a new, critical reading of the representation of Indian womanhood.