NALINI MALANI at Arario Gallery, New York, 2008. Photo by Christopher Eugene Starbody for ArtAsiaPacific.

Her Cassandra Complex

Nalini Malani


Mumbai-based Nalini Malani began painting in the 1960s and has remained at the cutting edge of contemporary art throughout her long career, expanding her practice in the 1990s to include theater collaborations, video installations and shadow plays—installations of rotating painted acrylic drums that cast moving shadows onto gallery walls. The centerpiece of a recent exhibition at New York’s Arario Gallery was Listening to the Shades (2008), a suite of 42 paintings weaving together images of war, protests, human anatomy and deities, inspired by the ancient Greek story of the Trojan princess-prophetess Cassandra and German literary critic Christa Wolf’s writings about the Trojan War. ArtAsiaPacific contributor Murtaza Vali caught up with Malani in September after the show opened to discuss her latest body of work.


You are a pioneer of video art in India. What inspired you to explore video, shadow plays and multimedia performance?
The exigencies of certain societal conditions make you search for alternatives. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu extremists in 1992 and the riots that followed, many women artists in India felt a need to embrace new forms. Women documentary filmmakers, who were working with community-based NGOs and using their films as consciousness-raising tools, were very generous with their footage, equipment and their expertise. They recognized that as artists we would have a different take on the material and could address a larger public. And so I started to use video. I had made 16mm films in the 1970s but consciously shifted to video after Babri Masjid.

In retrospect, my approach was anti-Brechtian in one sense: to
 use the device of seduction, not alienation. I’m forced to, because 
the general public in India will not enter galleries. Even if they are free, art galleries are daunting for the middle class, who feel that they are elite spaces. But video is seductive and draws people in. The shadow plays are similar. They are mesmerizing; you can watch the different images—painted, projected, shadows—overlap and combine. However, once I draw people in, I want to tell my own stories.

Much of your work is inspired by stories and myths, both Western and Indian. What attracts you to these grand narratives?  

Mythology is a universal language; it forms a link to the viewer. Many myths are still widely known. Whether I refer to Vishnu or Shiva or Cassandra or Medea, people know the stories. And then, hopefully, like looking up annotations in a novel, people will seek out the additional references in my works.

In India, the political stakes around interpretations of myth and history are very high. Do you actively challenge the traditional, conventional interpretations? 
Yes. Not traditional but conventional histories. People often make up their minds about what Hinduism is and should be without reading the original texts. Hinduism is actually a very freewheeling culture; there are fantastical stories in the Bhagavata Purana that many Hindus refuse to acknowledge. For example, the story of Vishnu, a man, taking the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, and seducing Shiva, another man, is a coupling that results in a child named Ayyappan. There are shrines to Ayyappan 
all over Karnataka. However, the conventional take is that Ayyappan was born from the coupling of Parvati, a woman, and Shiva.

Your protagonists are often female. How do you pick your heroines? 
Some of the characters I am drawn to are considered deviants; they act
in a quirky manner, challenging societal norms. Although they are shunned by society, they are also pioneers. Akka Mahadevi, the subject 
of the triptych Talking about Akka (2007), was a defiant girl who protested child marriage in the 11th century. Barely 12 years old at the
time, she was to be married to a rich merchant. In protest, she proclaimed herself already married to Shiva, walked out of her house naked with only her hair covering her, and roamed the countryside for ten years singing Shiva’s praises, finally dying at the age of 21. Such characters appeal to me. The feminist revolution remains unfinished; we are still suffering.

Do you identify as feminist? 
I don’t like, or work from, ideologies. Femininity and masculinity are abstract ideas, devoid of ideology; what matters is how you activate these tendencies. Both operate in everyone, with the balance constantly shifting. Both women and men suffer from misogyny. Take the cliché that men shouldn’t cry. Freed of this pejorative connotation, men would have an avenue for catharsis.

Would you explain your interest in Cassandra? 
Like Hamlet and Medea, Cassandra as seer has become an archetype. There is a Cassandra in all of us; we have insights, instincts, we know what is right and what is wrong. But how many of us speak out? Scores of people die in Iraq everyday. Considering our technological progress, such loss of life is insane. We hear things, but we don’t listen. We 
know things are wrong, like depleting the earth’s resources, but we continue to do them. And that is Cassandra; she warned her father about the Trojan horse and they thought she was nuts.


Listening to the Shades resembles a film’s storyboard. Was that your approach? 
Not exactly. There is a continuous narrative, but the paintings were conceived as pages of a book. I like time-based work, and one frustrating aspect of painting is that a single image is too small a receptacle to contain such a vast subject. My tendency is to go beyond, into multiples or videos and performances. Cassandra doesn’t end with these pictures. I have already started work on a theater project with actor-director Alaknanda Samarth.

Does she, like your other female protagonists, reflect a specifically feminist position?  Following feminist philosophers like Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler, I believe that the intuitive part of the mind is coded as female. But this is not a female prerogative; it exists in all of us. Why don’t we listen to that? After all, in the aftermath of war or violence it’s women who take care of the wounded and mourn for the dead. Maybe if men performed these roles, there would be fewer deaths.

So Cassandra is a call to acknowledge the power of the feminine, of intuition?
Yes, that’s right.