Sajitha R. Shankhar: An Indian Artist’s Journey (Part I)

Artist Sajitha R. Shankhar with her work in Thiruvananthapuram, 2017. Photo: S MAHINSHA, The

By Gail Levin

The biography of Sajitha R. Shankhar is the story of an unlikely artist, writes professor Gail Levin, who got to know Sajitha well while doing a Fulbright in India during 2015–16. Dr. Levin is currently working on a book that examines the life and work of Shankhar, a 2017 awardee of a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant. 

Sajitha R. Shankhar, working on her “Archetype” Series, 2003. Charcoal on paper, 180 x 105 cm. These works are now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, India.

Sajitha R. Shankhar is the rare living woman artist from the South of India to have multiple works in the National Gallery of Modern Art of India. Yet there was no context for her ambition in her family or the traditional south Indian life. Though women artists everywhere struggle to attain recognition in a world where men dominate, the hurdles are much greater in India. Because of her difficult arranged marriage at the age of twenty, Sajitha had to flee an abusive husband, but could not rid herself of him until their daughter came of age. Thus, she managed to escape her situation for short intervals by taking artist residencies and having exhibitions across Europe, especially in Germany, Britain, Spain, and France. Journalists and critics have both praised the autobiographical strain in Sajitha’s art and argued that her work goes beyond her own story.

Amrita Sher-Gil, 1936. Photographer unknown.

We can contrast Sajitha’s struggle with the experience of a woman painter dubbed “twentieth-century India’s first art star.” Of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941), acclaimed writer Sunil Khilnani explains, “As usual in India, her gift was enabled by privilege.” Though most often true for women artists who gain recognition in India today, it is not the case for Sajitha. Her father supported the family by working in a hospital as a medical technician. The family augmented his income by selling milk from its cow and goats, which Sajitha helped to deliver each morning before she left for school.

Sajitha’s saga of cultural and interpersonal conflict begins with the diametrically opposed traditions of two neighboring states in Southern India. Sajitha grew up in Kerala on the Southwest coast, where Sree Narayana Guru (ca. 1856–1928), was an influential social reformer who, rejecting castes, promoted new values of social equality. Then the first democratically elected Communist government (1957–2011) encouraged secularism and tempered patriarchal piety.

Sri Narayana Guru, an early 20th century social reformer in Karala. Photographer unknown.

Talented and ambitious in art school, Sajitha, at the age of twenty, figured that it was to her advantage to marry into a family of artists when one such fellow from the state of Tamil Nadu, on the Southeast coast, presented himself. She discovered too late that only the men in that family could become artists, because they were traditional Hindus, who practiced strict ritual and lived in patriarchal households, where women have no careers and no lives outside the home.

Within two months of a brief meeting, she was living with a stranger and his parents as his wife. Sajitha was in shock. It was another state, another language that she did not speak (her Mayalalam to his Tamil), another much hotter climate, another culture, a conservative Hindu life unlike anything she had known at home. Hearing her in-laws’ attitudes, Sajitha recalled, “After two years, I began to wonder if I could be an artist at all.” Then the birth of a daughter made her loath to leave her troubled marriage — until escape became necessary for her survival.

In 1989, after she gave birth, Sajitha convinced her husband to move to the historic Chalamandal Artists’ Village in Madras, which offered not only a local community of professional artists, but also the opportunity to meet many international visitors. Both her talent and her outgoing personality contributed to developing friendships that soon led to national and international exhibition opportunities. Despite daunting challenges, this determined young artist began building what has turned into a stellar record of national and international shows and awards. As her career success grew, her relationship with her husband continued to deteriorate. She kept her diary in Malayalam so that he could not read it. She complained of having to hear him tell her repeatedly that she should go and commit suicide.

“No,” she replied to his morbid wish, “I want to paint.”

Sajitha Shankhar, from the “Alterbodies” Series, 2010

Growing up in the village of Kumaranelloor, in the town of Kottayam in the South Indian state of Kerala, Sajitha R. Shankhar, by the age of ten, was writing and illustrating short stories. When her father, a laparoscopic technician in the local government hospital, became aware of her creative work, he told her to stop and sent her to St. Marcellinas, a local Catholic Convent School for girls.[1] He paid for extra classes outside of school in English, math, and science. He might have approved if his daughter had pursued medicine or engineering, but he did not condone wasting time drawing or writing poetry. Sajitha recalls that “no one at home, including myself, thought of this as ‘aesthetic’ activity—it wasn’t read as ‘art’ or as the harbinger of an artistic sensibility.”[2]

Instruction was in her native Malayalam, but the school also taught English. The Indian nuns or sisters, who were most of Sajitha’s teachers, adored her. They encouraged her to participate in art competitions. Sajitha won awards at the district and state levels. She kept these at school, hidden from her parents. Once, however, when instead of the usual prizes of small religious statues, she won the consolation prize, she had to take home balloons and chocolates, provoking her father, who demanded to know how she got these. She refused to tell him, saying that someone gave them to her. He shouted, “No, no. You have stolen money from me.” Then he started beating her until she told him the truth.

The next day, at school, Sister Eucharist, one of her teachers, came upon Sajitha crying in the chapel, and saw the bruises on her legs. At a meeting with her parents, she told Sajitha’s father how talented his daughter was and that he should not beat her. From then on, he encouraged her creativity.

Sajitha’s accomplishments at the age of fourteen resulted in an invitation to enter the state College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital. Her father, dubious about letting his young daughter go to art school in the big city, worried that she would be “mixing with drug addicts.” He was anxious that she could make a living from art. He spent two weeks in a hotel next to the College so that he could be sure his daughter was safe.

Sajitha R. Shankhar at the College of Fine Arts in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India.

Sajitha excelled at the College, where her teachers were all men. Her class included three females and twenty-seven males. “We were all good friends,” she recalls.[3] In February 1986, Sajitha left by train for the college’s “All India Trip,” a month-long tour for third-year students to study Indian art and architecture.[4] Stopping off in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, they visited the Cholamandal Artists’ Village in Madras, introducing Sajitha to the idea of being a part of a community of artists and planting the dream that she could one day live there. She was already aware of one of its artists, K. C. S. Paniker, who, as part of the Madras Art Movement, was important in establishing modernism in the south of India.

Most of the artists at Cholamandal were male, but Sajitha assumed that women could be artists at Cholamandal and elsewhere, though she had become conscious of limitations placed on women while at college. In the room next to hers in the student residence lived Devika Jayakumari, who became a life-long friend as well as an influential Malayali historian, social critic, and feminist. At the time, Devika, who was studying history at another nearby college, led the fight against the 5:30 p.m. curfew for girls. Yes, Sajitha was unfazed at being one of the few women in a nearly all-male institution like the Art College. “I wasn’t nervous. Even the little misgivings I may have had, even those appeared negligible, because I was truly fired by a burning desire to do art. The other reason was that I had an element in me that did not bend before the disciplining imposed by the norms of femininity.”[5]

Sajitha R. Shankhar at her first solo exhibition at the College of Fine Arts Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram, with the cultural minister, the Late T. K. Ramakrishnan, Leela Damodara Menon, and her father.

When the students traveled to see museums in Bombay, Sajitha recalled, “We two girls got a chance to stay at senior artist N. S. Bendre’s house.”[6] When Bendre taught the previous month for a week at the college, he and his wife, Mona, offered to host the girls during the students’ visit to Bombay. Getting to stay with one of India’s celebrated artists, who had managed to make art that blended Western modernism with Indian forms and themes, Sajitha saw a model that would serve her later. This was also her first time meeting an artist couple, seeing that two artists, a man and a woman, could live and work together.

The next year, Sajitha, then twenty years old, served as vice-chairman for a printmaking workshop at the college. She later recalled how the “social climate in Kerala at the time gave me a sense of purpose and trust in my development as a painter. I saw the reality around me — the status of woman, the way we live and the meaning of our existence within this society — and I felt an urge to express this reality in my art.”[7] This optimistic revolutionary vision of woman’s new status took hold in intellectual Leftist circles in Thiruvananthapuram, but it had not yet reached her parents and their circle. In most of Kerala (as in most of India), male domination and the injustice of inequality prevailed in the larger society and certainly in the world of artists.

One of the dozen guests in the workshop, who had traveled to Thiruvananthapuram from Madras, was a printmaker and graphic designer, then twenty-seven years old. The principal of the art college knew that Sajitha wanted to travel to Madras to pursue graduate studies, so he suggested that she speak to this visitor.  She took the principal’s advice and gave him her address to send information about the regional art center in Madras.

Instead of the institutional information she had requested, Sajitha received within a month a letter from this young artist, proposing that they marry immediately. He revealed that his mother was in the process of finding him a wife for an arranged marriage. Thus, there was some urgency on his part, since he had to find a substitute bride if he wanted to be able to choose his own wife.

Sajitha was somewhat taken aback, but did not reject his unexpected offer. Instead, she went home to share his letter with her parents. It was especially attractive to her that her would-be young suitor came from a family of artists, including his father and his older brother. She imagined that they would encourage her artistic development too. What Sajitha did not realize was that his family were conservative Tamil Hindus, while her family was a much more relaxed Hindu family leading a more secular and modern lifestyle in Kerala, which had been marked by the presence of a strong Communist party.

Wanting to get out of Kerala, which she viewed as provincial, and avoid an arranged marriage to someone not an artist, Sajitha insisted that she wanted to marry this man, whom she had barely met. Though initially opposed, Sajitha’s mother came around and convinced her husband. Within two months the couple were married. In the fervor of Sajitha’s desire to escape the typical woman’s fate in Kerala and become an artist, she remained blissfully ignorant.

As is the custom in India, Sajitha went to live with her new husband and his parents. She had to speak to them in English, since they spoke Tamil and not Malayalam. Every cultural difference stood out. Art, it turned, out was emphasized in his family, just as she had calculated — but it was reserved for men only. Even when she retreated to her reading, her in-laws would scold and discourage her. Feeling restricted, Sajitha kept insisting that she needed to go to a studio and continue her career in art.

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Relationships, 1987. Mixed media, 7 x 32 cm.

Among the first extant works that Sajitha produced after her marriage is a series of four small images on paper called Relationships from 1988, which she painted at home in the room she and her husband shared. In these, one can see a man and a woman in various embraces, not necessarily affectionate. The predominant color is blue: “I was blue too. I was missing that intimacy between people. There was no expression of love at all.”[8]

“I was painting very autobiographically,” Sajitha recalls. “In a way, I was documenting my feelings and emotions and throwing out all these suffocating things.”[9] Sajitha felt that her husband was jealous of her engagement and passion for her own creative process.[10]

Sajitha with her daughter, Shilpy, ca. 1988.

Her in-laws finally allowed Sajitha to accompany her husband to a printmaking studio. After five months, she became pregnant. They continued to require their pregnant daughter-in-law to sit on the floor during meals, in deference to themselves. They shouted at her, complaining that she showed too much pride and had a superior manner. Once when her husband came home, his parents complained about Sajitha and exaggerated her behavior. Sajitha recalls that, hearing this report, he became violent, shouting at his pregnant wife and pushing her down the steep stairs. She fled momentarily, but societal pressures overcame her fear for the life of her unborn child. She decided to stay in the marriage and raise her child, despite having to deal with constant abuse. She recalled: “After two years, I began to wonder if I could be an artist at all.”[11]

Sajitha with her daughter in the studio at Cholamandal Artists Village, ca. 1991.

After the birth of a daughter, Sajitha insisted to her husband that she would stay in the marriage only if they could live in their own place. In late 1990, since they could not yet afford to build a house on the land that they had purchased in the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, they moved into a small rented house there. From this moment on, Sajitha considered that her career as an artist began. Almost all of the other artists in the Village were men, some of whom spoke Malayalam. The 1990s, however, were important years in India for women artists, who were finally getting new opportunities and encouragement. Exhibition opportunities came her way both in India and in Europe, the result of a constant stream of international visiting artists. Sajitha began accept short-term artists’ residencies in Europe. Prizes, and sales followed. So did her husband’s jealousy.

Sajitha in front of her terra cotta relief on her house in Cholamandal Artists Village, ca. 1995.

It was in 2003, in the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, that Sajitha pushed her method to a new level. She devised a new series of works, which she called Archetypes, having read Carl Jung on his concept of universal, mythic characters that reside within the collective unconscious of people the world over.

Sajitha R. Shankhar, working on her “Archetype” Series, 2003. Charcoal on paper, 180 x 105 cm. These works are now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, India.

To make these life-size self-portrait figure drawings, she placed three large sheets of paper on her studio floor and stretched out on each of the sheets, getting her daughter to trace the outline of her body as the basis for each charcoal drawing. As she finished these drawings, the curator of The National Gallery of Modern Art happened by and snapped them up for its permanent collection.

Despite her success, Sajitha’s life was fraught with discord, and her conflicts at home remained unresolved…. {continued in Part Two}

© Gail Levin 2017

[1] The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic Major Archiepiscopal Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is one of the twenty-three autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in the Catholic communion. [2] Sajitha R. Shankhar quoted in “The Woman-Painter’s ‘Discretion and Restraint’ An autobiographical Interview with Sajitha G.” by Dr. J. Devika, in Uma Nair, ed. Sree (Tracing 20 Years), (Dehli: Trinethr Art Gallery, 2008), 104. [3] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by Devika, 105. [4] College Union magazine spring 1986, n.p. [5] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by Devika, 105. [6] Sajitha R. Shankhar, personal communication with the author, April 10, 2017. [7] Sajitha Ravi Shankhar: a journey “into the secret corridors carved by life’s incessant chisel,” accessed October 17, 2017,[8] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by author, January 13, 2016, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. [9] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by author, December 17, 2015, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. [10] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by author, January 24, 2016, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. [11] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by Devika, 107.