I had the opportunity to visit the studio of my artist friend
Swagata at Alipore. Housed in the ground floor of her residence.Led by a garden
path with flower pots in a quaint house of British-Calcutta architecture.
As she greeted me at the portico and I entered, I realized that
it is a studio cum residential quarter, much like my father’s library cum
There were paintings stacked all over. Not in any particular
order or theme. Some on subjects, some on size, some on medium. All among signs
of living: with glasses, a dining table, fridge and books strewn all over.
There were paintings the size of Bill Boards to Miniatures. Subjects ranging from seaside scene to small abstracts.
But what attracted me are the nudes.She has studied a lot of
naked women. She’s studied wrinkles, tattoos, scars, pubic hair, breasts and
The Bengali artist, who had spent some time living in Manchester
and now living in Kolkata, has been lauded for her realist, larger-than-life
depictions of ‘real’ female bodies.It started with the ‘Venus’ series, which
saw her paint a series of giant nudes, featuring women.
One I like particularly depicted a woman, with her fulsome
breasts almost touching her stomach.
Her images are criticised but Swagata was undeterred. She’s
exhibited in the Manchester and in different cities of India. Now, she wants to
mount a new show at Kolkata.
The paintings are in the same spirit – playful, confident, naked
women – but her subjects now span the generations. “I’m at the age where my son
has grown. So it’s something that’s happening now, my vision has broadened”
I think her paintings challenge the ageing process: how the
years affect our bodies and minds, and how we’re ‘supposed’ to behave at a
So there’s a giant canvas on which is a single nude figure in
dark; the darkness play an exaggerated, hide and seek game, crawling out of
crevice. There are two pictures depicting a young lady. Another captures a
charcoal series, standing companionably, side-by-side.
Swagata began painting nude at a latter period. “So I decided to
go back to basics and explore my history and the people I grew up with – all
these amazing women. The female body is an incredible thing to paint.” But, as
well as being a personal project, Swagata’s work has also shone a light on the
subject of body image.
“Most women have issues and I’m not immune to that,” says
Swagata. “We’re told that our bodies are supposed to be a ‘certain height,
certain size, certain weight’. But the pictures we see are completely
unrealistic. “We all know it when we look at them in magazines and yet, we
still compare ourselves.“That’s why we need images that show all sorts of
bodies – so we can accept every size and shape.”
This attitude is why her work resonates. We may not recognise
the individuals depicted in paint, but we recognise them as people (and it’s
likely why two of India’s leading collectors of modern art have snapped up
She also says that painting women was a different experience to the
, let us say, Talsari the fisherman of Orrisa.“We generally care more what we
look like – probably too much at times, me included,” she says.
“Young women are still trying to fit in. I think when you get
older you care less –that’s not a negative thing at all. You’re just more
accepting.“When you get past a certain age you become invisible – and that’s a
whole other problem.“For me, it’s about finding beauty in every imperfection.”
Swagata’s paintings do dominate a room. Each is twice life-size
and, according to Swagata, her works are getting “larger and larger”.“You get
an amazing human connection that way,” she tells me. “They are more in your
To the outsider, it looks as though it’s Swagata who’s really
been invading personal space. But she assures me that she’s never had to
‘force’ any of her subjects to model in the nude.“I don’t want them to go into
it not wanting to,” she explains.
“I ask them to close their eyes and go inside. That can really
ground them in their bodies and make them feel relaxed. I also let them know
that I’m completely comfortable.“I almost don’t even see nakedness anymore; I’m
so used to it.”
She does admit that a few men went through “difficulty” when
they first saw women depicted in paint. One critic after going through all the
paintings chose a colorful landscape as his best. I said, “He must be a prude”.
And both of us laughed. “Not everyone wants to see non-idealised female bodies,” she shrugs. “I try not
to be affected but it’s difficult sometimes.
“People have a right to say what they want. But there’s
something about the critic that gives them a platform to say anything. There’s
that veil between you and that person.
Next, Swagata plans to tackle gender and admits to having male
subjects lined up. But it is difficult to get male model“. “But men are
actually less comfortable posing in the nude. I guess we see less nude men
generally in culture,unless you look back to Greek art.
She is happy to have her family: her husband her son to support her. “I think there’s an expectation that for women to ‘make it’ you only have to do your art on your own,” she says. ““You have to be incredibly selfish and spend a lot of time in the studio. People say you have to be ‘married to your art’.
“But I also believe you can have a partner and a family. I am absolutely devoted to that.”
It is at this moment that her son came to collect money to buy his books for the next new class.