Fusing contemporary electron media and traditional paint-based techniques, Nalini Malani has come to the forefront of a generation of Indian artists who, in the 1980s, moved to international focus. At that time she was a figurative painter whose works powerfully raised issues of race, class, and gender primarily in India. In the 1990s, thanks to installations at the 1995 Johannesburg Biennial and other venues, she came to be known primarily as a media artist. She often illustrates the lives of those that have been ignored, forgotten, or marginalized by history. Her pieces are politically charged and reflect a deep commitment to women’s issues, particularly in regards to women’s struggle for voice and power. Ancient Greek and Hindu epics, and modern European drama, give additional subtext to Malani’s complex layered surfaces.
Malani was born in 1946 in Karachi, a year before the Partition of India, and her family emigrated as refugees from Pakistan to India, where they endured cultural dislocation. While Indian art for decades was mostly focused on new interpretations of its traditions, Malani’s framework has always reached farther than the boundaries of India. As she evolved as an artist, she related against the male-dominated world of India. For two decades her work centered on painting, then moved progressively into the realms of installation and theater. Her works are dominated by three prominent themes, where she engages in socio-political issues.
Her works tend to display three themes: woman’s experiences and roles as an allegory of our times; he underlying realities of urban life and the consequences of man-made ecological disasters; and her reinterpretation of classical epic narratives and modern drama to reveal universal yet elusive aspects of the human experience.
Many of her works interpret women’s experiences and roles as an allegory for our times, such as the installation Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain, 2005. It prompts consideration of women’s roles in patriarchal societies and addresses the issue of sexual violence against women in time of war. It specifically references her personal experiences as a refugee of the Partition when thousands were killed in Hindu-Muslim violence. The women who are raped or kidnapped, many of them decided to marry their violators because babies had been born. Five years later, after the women had made a life for themselves, the Indian and Pakistani governments each stated that they wished the women to return to their “home” countries. For these women it was like a second partition. It is only now that they are much older and they will soon pass away that they share their story in order to be remembered. Malani in an interview states, “The bodies of women were metaphors for the nation, they had to bear the signs of their possession by the enemy.”
Malani’s second theme of works looks at the underlying realities of urban life and the consequences of man-made ecological disasters. In her film Remembering Toba Tek Singh, it negiatively focuses on India’s underground nuclear testing. The video installation draws on the short story of the same name by author Sadat Hsan Mantu. The story is set during the Partition and is about a mental patient, Bishen Singh, who was so confused by the process of administering India’s Partition that he did not know whether the land he was standing on was India or Pakistan. He refused to be removed to India and dies. Manali uses the symbolism of Singh’s death to explore the effects of partition on the human and environmental condition. The installation, video projections show two women folding a sari across the exhibition space. The unabridged gap between the projected images acts as a metaphor for partition and the nuclear impasse between India and Pakistan.
Continuously throughout the majority of her work, Malani reinterprets classical epic narratives and modern drama to reveal universal yet elusive aspects of the human experience. Most of her characters are based on various female protagonists, Sita from the Hindu epic. The two female characters share parallels between their two stories: both were associated with the earth, both went into exile for the sake of their husbands, and their men eventually rejected both. Sita and Medea then figure as supremely tragic and potent symbols for deeply ingrained gender-biased in Indian and European mythology, but also for desire, violence, and betrayal as basic characteristics of human behavior.