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

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Archetype series. Charcoal on paper, 180 x 105 cm. National Gallery of Modern Art, India.

By Gail Levin

Sajitha was thus not able to escape her problematic marriage and domestic abuse until her daughter turned seventeen and was ready to go to college. By then, having narrowly avoided tragedy, Sajitha found herself at forty years old, recovering and broke in Kerala. She determined that to survive as an artist she had to move to where there was an art market, either Bombay or Delhi. Impulsively, on September 14, 2007, she rolled up some paintings and caught the train for Delhi, nearly fourteen hundred miles from home, where the language, Hindi, was unrelated to her own. She lacked enough money to live and was too proud to ask anyone for help.

Sajitha with her daughter Shilpy and her father, Shilpy’s grandfather.

She decided to pay a call on a well-known artist from Kerala, A. Ramachandran, a figurative painter, more than three decades her senior. Although he knew of her established professional reputation, Ramachandran tried to dash her hopes. He argued that Delhi was too difficult and advised her to return to Kerala. Delhi’s other male artists from Kerala virtually shunned her, Sajitha recalls, although some of them had been cordial when her work was being celebrated in Madras.[1]

Things looked up when two unrelated friends each happened to give Sajitha the same book: an autobiography of Brahmashri Saraswathi Devi, a woman known as “Amma.”[2] The book’s name is Athma Darshanam (Spiritual Experience), and its subject, who lives in the Himalayas and paints, is a very radical woman, adopting the role of a sanyasini, which in Sanskrit describes one who renounces, who lives as a mendicant and ascetic. As she read, Sajitha recognized a life pattern: Amma meditates, and when she awakens, she paints. Sajitha herself, then, the next morning, after meditating, called her friend and asked to meet Amma, whose presence she had felt in her meditation. She was told that it would be very difficult; but when the friend called, Amma said, “Bring her here. I am waiting for her.”

The meeting went very well. Sajitha said very little; but for her, the timing was perfect, and she felt that Amma sensed everything. She shared a common background with Sajitha — born into a middle-class family in Kerala, speaking the same language. Amma, from her childhood, had pursued God, sitting alone for hours. She preferred a spiritual path, but her family had forced her into marriage, causing her physical and mental torture. She ultimately believed that she experienced the Divine within herself.[3]

Amma advised Sajitha that she had lost only “material things,” but she could see that Sajitha had gained strength from her experience. She told her that her “art was her power.”[4] She invited Sajitha to come back and stay with her if she needed a place. Amma wrote, “When the intelligence is alone, it turns out to be arrogance. Arrogance leads to sorrow. When intelligence remains [in] union with reason, it is Gita [Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord,” a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit, part of the epic Mahabharata]. That is that[,] the end of ego.”[5] Sajitha drew strength from her meeting with Amma, “a great painter and writer,” appreciated by her contemporaries. For a time Sajitha went every Saturday and Sunday to stay with Amma at her home in Noida, outside of Delhi. They would sit and meditate together.

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Archtype Series (Hybiscus Thumpa, a medicinal flower in a spiral shell), 2012, mixed media on handmade paper), 120 cm x 120 cm.
Sajitha R. Shankhar, Archetype series (Hybiscus Thumpa, a medicinal flower in a spiral shell), 2012. Mixed media on handmade paper, 120 cm x 120 cm.

Meanwhile Sajitha found for herself a place to work in Neem Chowk at the Garhi Studio of the Indian government’s Central Lalit Kala Akademi, which was for professional artists. She began to see fellow artists daily as she went back and forth to the studio. Despite the precarious circumstances of her nomadic existence, Sajitha, inspired by her new bond with Amma, revived and transformed her idiom. She returned to drawing in charcoal on paper, producing a major work.

vivek r nair (32)

The 2007 drawing, produced in Delhi, looks like three women, but is derived from Sajitha herself posing in two different positions, which for her represent feminine forces merged into one female body. These female forms stand on the earth, which is covered in mushrooms. Along the vertical borders are circular cosmic forms that echo her earlier series, also from 2007, Navagrahas (“nine planets” in Hindu texts) [image right, 36 cm x 24 cm each sheet].

Sajitha’s new drawing caught the interest of Ajit Caur, the mother of Sajitha’s friend, the artist Arpana Caur, who is also a well-known writer of fiction about social-realist themes, especially the experiences of women. Ajit looked at Sajitha’s picture and thought of the South Indian twelfth-century poet, Akka Mahadevi, considered a Hindu saint and a prominent figure in the field of female emancipation. Ajit linked Sajitha’s work to oppressed, exploited, and alienated women who turned to spirituality for self-expression because this is a time-honored tradition in India.[6]

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 6.15.27 PM
Sajitha R. Shankhar, Remembrance of Akka Mahadevi, 2007. Charcoal on paper, 300 x 180 cm.

Sajitha had in fact been reading Akka Mahadevi’s poetry, translated into English (from Kannada, the language from the South Indian state of Karnataka). It was also Akka Mahadevi, who was the subject of a play that Sajitha had seen produced at an Indian festival in Valladolid, Spain, where her work was exhibited in 2000. Acknowledging the similarities of the poet to her drawing, Sajitha called her work, Remembrance of Akka Mahadevi, 2007.

Contemporary Hinduism embraces such female rebel-saints as Akka Mahadevi, who is remembered for rejecting King Kausika, leaving his palace naked, covered only by her long hair.[7] It is just such an image of a nude woman covered only by her long hair that we see three times in Sajitha’s life-size charcoal drawing. In the face of her own conjugal estrangement, this Saint’s flagrant denial of women’s sexual obligations and bold refusal to conform to sexual expectations must have seemed liberating to Sajitha, who goes on to explore this theme in a series she calls Alterbodies. Sajitha found in Akka Mahadevi’s poetry a radical re-examination of the role of women in society and a challenge to ideas of sexual identity. She elevated creation beyond the masculine power of the god Shiva to emphasize the feminine basis of all of creation.[8]

Sajitha refers to this work as a “lucky” one, since good things were to come from the people who saw it and responded to its imagination and creative energy. From then on, Sajitha began to regain the career momentum lost during years of personal trauma that forced her to flee and had disrupted so much. Working on her large paintings in the Akka Mahadevi series of women archetypes, Sajitha wrote in her journal: “[While] all disappear[s] from the earth, the fire never dies. Wherever you touch, there will be fire. Each and every person is a miniature of the universe. A human is like fiction. I feel that primitive man is still living. Without knowing anything, the mind sometimes acts like a person who cannot see. The mind is a book without words.”[9]

At this time, as Sajitha returned to her practice of using her own body in her painting, she wrote, “The way to knowledge is our body,” as she drew a sketch of herself “in a meditating pose” in her diary.[10] The next day, she observed, “When you enter into your own body [yo]u can see the whole world.” [11] It was out of this ferment that Sajitha created her new Alterbodies series. She started with a small figure drawing on paper that is a self-portrait seated in a yoga lotus position. Her body appears like a skeleton, composed of bones without any flesh. Below this figure are lines of her poetry written in Malayalam: “The rooms of the brain are too small. Whenever I tr[ied] to sleep, I felt suffocated, and felt like I was dying.”

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Alterbodies series, 2010. Mixed media on hand made paper, 27 x 35 cm.

This woman, Sajitha knows, cannot contain her thoughts of the past, which are too painful. She must, through meditation, learn to live in the moment. Thus, Sajitha depicts herself as continuing an ancient Indian tradition and reflects her own experience practicing meditation – an intrinsic element in yoga and a practice that evolved in India as a means to transcend suffering. This same lotus position is used in representing not only Shiva, the meditating ascetic God of Hinduism, but also in Buddhist and Jain imagery. Sajitha’s adaptation of this posture is poignant, evoking her own painful experience in life. Throughout her mature artwork, Sajitha continues to mine Indian culture for its clues to perception.

As she pursued the practice of meditation and yoga very deeply during her time in Delhi, Sajitha reached a calmer place psychologically. This enabled her to begin anew. In Alterbodies, she says that she is “exploring something beyond sexuality, beyond the exterior [and] the skin.” “What are the alternative possibilities?” she asks. “I am exploring it through my own body. I use my own body as a form. I started from my skull itself — the skull series.” Sajitha saw skulls as always laughing: “There the long journey of Alterbodies started.” The skulls transcended their flesh and their sexuality.

When she moved on to using her face in an abstract self-portrait bust in 2009, she moved the heart from left to right to make “a spiritual heart.” This was a concept she took from the man she considers her Guru, Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950), an influential Indian philosopher and a Hindu sage born in the state of Tamil Nadu, where Sajitha lived during her marriage.

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Alterbodies series, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm.

Sajitha made a series of self-portraits, continuing to explore the self. She likes to exhibit them in groups of nine, referring once again to the “nine planets” in Hindu texts. On one painting from a nine-part Alterbodies series of her heads, she has written “Nissanghatha” in Malayalam, which means “non-attachment.” “It’s a kind of reflection of the city on the body,” she explains. “How sensitive we are, [and that] we are unaware of this.” Sajitha survived her self-imposed exile in Delhi and returned home to work in Kerala in 2010, where she continues to focus her work on her intuitions and awareness.

© Gail Levin 2017

The author wishes to acknowledge the Fulbright Scholar Program for support of her research in India in 2015–16.

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Alterbodies series (detail of lower right panel), 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm.


[1] Sajitha R. Shankhar, interview by author, December 30, 2015, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. [2] Brahmashri Saraswati Devi Adi Shakti Matom, also known as “Amma,” alternates between her Matom in Neyya Tinkara, near Thiruvananthapuram, and one at Noida, close to Delhi. [3] Website of Brahmashri Saraswati Devi Adi Shakti Matom, accessed October 24, 2017. [4] Sajitha R. Shankhar, artist’s notebook, 2007, translated by the artist from Malayalam text for the author, January 2, 2016. [5] Bhamashri Saraswati Devi, Experiencing God (Noida, India: Namya Printers & Publishers, n.d.), booklet, collection of Sajitha R. Shankhar. [6] Ramaswamy, Vijaya, “Rebels — Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India,” Anthropos: International Reviews of Ethnology and Linguistics. (1992), 87 (1/3): 133–146. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Sajitha R. Shankhar, diary of January 1, 2008; translated by the artist for the author, January 2, 2016. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid.