Body – The Inner Self on the Outer Skin

Knowledge about any spatial location can be understood in multiple ways. The body, as space, can be perceived as an ultimate frontier of complexities. To merely view the body as a biological entity is to restrict its form of communication. Instead, the body should be viewed as a site of culture imbued with powerful aesthetic, which is symbolic of socio-political meaning. If one were to further elaborate on the idea of the ‘body as a cultural site’, one could perhaps say that the body is an artefact upon which humans reinforce cultural norms and hierarchies, as well as de-attach themselves from the way the body itself has been marked, fetishized, and molded in compliance with existing human ideologies.


Sonia Khurana, Bird 2000, 3’06” , Betacam SP PAL, noir et blanc, silencieux, Collection: Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (France)


When we talk about the body it also becomes important to talk about aesthetic experience, that is, how the body is a reflection of the complex interrelationship between the self and society. Furthermore, the aesthetic experience is a powerful dynamism in the development and maintenance of one’s individual as well as group identity. For example, a manipulation of the bodily aesthetic is a remodeled presentation of self, therefore the desire to change the fundamental order of one’s sense of personal identity, and how this sense of selfhood is to be viewed from the eyes of the other.

Let me also point out that when one hears the term ‘aesthetic experience’, one often tends to think of an experience associated with a museum or art gallery. However, the aesthetic experience is very much part of one’s personal life and is not simply restricted to formal spatial locations. An aesthetic experience in relation to the body marks a ritualization in which one’s sense of being/self is etched by aesthetic decisions. Any noticeable changes in the aesthetic self-presentation are often associated with the individual’s changing perception of themselves, and of their place in society.
From a contemporary feminist point of view, the aesthetic experience of the body is a topic that feminist artists are constantly engaging with. Women artists have embraced performativity in their art practice because of its ability to not be confined by the unchanging permanency of sculpture and painting. Themes such as sexuality, beauty, domesticity, are being critiqued by women artists who are re-claiming a feminist space for critical reflection.

Indian feminist artists such as Pushpmala N and Sonia Khurana, amongst others, are aiming to create a world within which women get to re-write notions of beauty and ‘feminine’ expression. Their expanding idiom of art practice is situated within the context of the feminist critique of the correlation of women to the prevailing dominant power structures and systems of representation. Their performances go beyond a language of acceptance which render females as passive, with the body always assuming an active role.

Moreover, feminist art practices not only act as mediating sites between one’s selfhood and bodily aesthetic but also as mediums through which women can reclaim their bodies and express who they are, here and now. Through their visual vocabulary, they break away from traditional notions of eternal femininity, and gravitate towards a contemporary notion of ‘femininity’. Through engaging with the body as an active, political tool, feminist artists highlight female subjectivity and identity.

So how does feminist art contribute to the aesthetic experience? Its contribution lies in its ability to provoke, disturb, and critically question the existing socio-political milieu. It is through this disturbed aesthetic that feminist art strives to affect and bring a change towards a gender-equal space. To insert the body within feminist art practice offers a new dialogue between the body and society. In other words, it aims to understand the body’s continued effort to articulate and challenge issues of domination and vulnerability within the patriarchal system.

Engaging with the body through feminist art gives way to liberation, opens up ways to reverse power dynamics, as well as aim to launch a further inquiry into the everyday aesthetic experience. It is through the site of the body that one protests, questions, and critiques existing paradigms. So what is the aesthetic experience? Simply put, to understand one’s body beyond the realm of its physicality and to use the body as a medium for understanding one’s place in the world.



Where Does The Identity Of Female Ascetics Lie In Hinduism?

The phenomenon of asceticism in Hinduism is often regarded as the essential feature of the religious doctrine. Contrary to popular belief asceticism and religion are not synonymous with each other. The ascetic tradition is an embodiment in a person rather than a doctrine. Interestingly, this embodiment is understood as a manifestation solely in males and not in females. The discourse on asceticism in Hinduism allows both sexes to follow the path to attain Moksha or liberation. However, the difference becomes obvious when a female ascetic is given the status of an ‘outsider’ and the male that of an ‘insider’.

The non-conforming, non-familial, non-normative female ascetic thus, remains an invisible being in an overwhelming masculine world of asceticism, where women fight taboos to create a space for the woman as an ascetic.


Since the beginning of the 21st century, there have been debates amongst scholars on the topic of alternative subjectivities regarding which are the notion of revolutionary identities in mainstream discourse. Female asceticism is one such ‘rebel’ identity. However, the question which may arise in many ascetics as well as non-ascetics is — ‘Can a woman be a legitimate ascetic?‘ Yes, she can, but in terms of orthodox religious doctrine, she can become an ascetic only if her renunciation of the domestic realm is accomplished.

In simpler words, Hinduism has always been focused around the upper castes, the Brahmins, and to some extent on the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The contradictory nature of Hinduism reveals its misogynous inclinations by limiting renunciation to the Dwij or the twice born man. It is important to note, that the twice born man has the freedom of choice between two modes of life — the householder, and the renouncer. But, for women, only a single mode of life has been prescribed — marital life.

Such a mechanism of exclusion in Brahmanic orthodoxy operates on the principle of menstruation — perceived as ‘impure’ and ‘sickly’ by Vedic literature. As a result, women are believed to be innately lacking the ‘natural’ tendency towards achieving Dharma(religious duty), and so they must follow a series of rituals and ceremonies in order to gravitate towards a ‘state of purity’. Such notions of purity and pollution form the foundations of gender relations in the ascetic tradition, thereby making the female ascetic invisible in society.


With so much patriarchal discrimination in the ascetic tradition, I wonder, why do women become ascetics in the first place? Or what kind of women may become ascetics? Sociology and Anthropology suggests that women adopt an ascetic lifestyle upon becoming widows, in order to escape the social stigma attached to widowhood imposed by sectarian chauvinism. Others believe asceticism is a path adopted by these women to escape the inevitable condition of beggary after the death of their immediate family members, most importantly, their husbands.

There are some young renouncers who are submitted the responsibility of the care of a group of pious women since their families cannot afford dowries. In such situations, young girls meet their gurus in ashrams, who then initiate unmarried young girls into their sect and take them under her/his service.

For a woman to become an ascetic, is to question the ascribed cultural norms laid out for them. Attempting to step outside this normative structure gives the female ascetic the status of an ‘outsider’. This is because she has not only chosen to adopt a certain way of life, a life which is primarily prescribed for males, but has also chosen to be critical of, and to question the existing social order. This ‘deviance’ in ascribed gender norms (as Brahmanical orthodoxy would call it), is perceived as a threat to the existing power structure which gives privilege to male ascetics. As a result, there is no surprise that male ascetics would protest against women being ascetics at all.

When it comes to asceticism, the initiation ceremonies mark the separation of a woman from her householder duties. These initiation rituals release women from their previous social identity, which at times can involve shedding of various identity markers that help people to identify one’s social role and status. Feminist artist and activist Sheba Chhachhi in her work ‘Ganga’s Daughters’ (1990) traces the transformation of ordinary women into ascetics as they part with their clothes, hair, name, caste, and familial relations. In search of Moksha, these women embrace their new ascetic identity. An identity, in which they are no longer anybody’s parents, sisters, or wives.


That being said, the life of a woman ascetic in Hinduism is under appreciated, and holds a complicated position. As they step out of the orthodox Brahmanical system of surveillance into newly formed identities as ascetics, women are perceived as beings who have conquered their right to be granted individual freedom. It’s almost as if women have been reincarnated into different beings after performing the last sacrifice of their prior identities.

As a result of these women’s sense of self, their new found identity can be understood as a way of creating a new space within the folds of the Hindu religious doctrine. It is truly extraordinary to see how these women courageously defy traditional gender norms, and carry a will force to raise themselves to the level of their male ascetic counterparts.

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Saviya Lopez| Menstrual Art?

Messages Image(722031428)

The year 2015 has witnessed an extraordinary focus on the menstruation of women in social media. For instance, the photo-sharing website/app – Instagram got itself tangled in a controversy of events when it decided to remove photographs of artist and poet – Rupi Kaur, who had posted images of herself lying on a bed with a period stain. This ‘censorship’ of menstruation photos has resulted in a wider process of encouraging the taboo around the word ‘period’. However, after the artist challenged the removal of the image, it was restored back on the website.

In this day and age, there is a dire need for people to transform from a more passive to an active audience. Furthermore, there is a need to demystify the aura around menstruation, and recognise the agony which is faced by women from around the globe. Artist Saviya Lopez, who is currently exhibiting her work at the Clark House initiative, a Mumbai based gallery, has targeted this mystification around the politics of menstruation. Her work, which is being displayed as a part of a larger exhibition titled ‘River with a Thousand Holes’, addresses the link between the status of women and the degradation of the environment.

In the image above, one sees that the bloodied words speak out against the discrepancy between what is real and what is being represented in the advertiser’s practice of showcasing blue instead of red on sanitary napkins. As the artist beautifully captures the parallels of dual realities of menstruation, the exhibition has strong political overtones of ecofeminism. Eco feminist epistemology forms a link between ecology and feminism. Furthermore, the approach shows how women and nature have a strong commonality, thus are united through their shared history of oppression by a patriarchal society.

However, the issues surrounding menstruation lead me to question : how should one fight for women’s rights if the category of ‘women’ is not homogenous? Unlike previous ideologies, which for the longest period of time have looked at women as a uniform category, today’s feminist ideologies go beyond homogeneity and move towards heterogeneity. There has  been a significant shift in feminist movements, which has paved the way to give enough room to acknowledge each individual’s subjective bodily experiences. Women are certainly different from men, but even more from one another. Thus, an upper caste Brahminical woman will certainly have different notions and perceptions regarding menstruation compared to a lower caste Dalit woman.

As the topic of menstruation seeps into the work of women artists, women have started to be even more vocal about confronting their subordinate status in society. Art, as I feel, is being used as a medium to convey strong ideas that have deliberately been silenced by androcentricity. After looking at a work of art, one tends to converse or write about it in order to share one’s thoughts with a wider audience…..resulting in a large encompassing process of social change, big or small.