Reshma Chhiba is a visual artist and an accomplished Bharata Natyam dancer who finds creative expression in both artforms. Visitors entering the FNB Slow Lounge at King Shaka Airport in Durban may recognise Chhiba’s photographic work Kali Tandava hung in the entrance. She is also the Creative Director of the Sarvavidya Natyaalaya, an organisation that teaches dance, and stages performances of Indian dance forms. Chhiba believes that dance and visual art are closely interlinked and the artwork featured above titled Kalika is an example of the merging of these two artforms.
Reshma Chibba was born (1983) in Springs, a small town where her grandparents settled when they arrived in South Africa from Gujarat (India) in the 1950’s. She obtained a BA in Fine Art (2005) and later MA in Fine Art (2013) from University of Witwatersrand. Chhiba has worked as a curator and registrar at Johannesburg Art Gallery, and as a lecturer at University of Johannesburg. Currently she is Exhibition Coordinator at the Point of Order exhibition space. She has participated in several group shows and two solo exbitions in South Africa.
Chhiba’s artworks include paintings, photography, video film, needlework and installations. Her knowledge and understanding of dance and Hindu mythology have a direct influence on her art. A theme which constantly appears in her work is that of female empowerment – specifically through the idea of shakti– a female primordial energy which is said to animate all living things.
Chhiba employs the iconography and image of the goddess Kali in her work since she embodies female power or shakti. Hindu goddesses are usually depicted as feminine, beautiful and adorned in silk saris and jewellery. However Kali is dark skinned, naked, has wild dishevelled hair and is usually depicted with her tongue sticking out between fanged teeth. At her waist she wears a girdle of severed hands and around her neck is a garland of male heads. In two of her four hands, she holds a blood stained scythe and a man’s head. In Hinduism, Lord Shiva is regarded as the most powerful manifestation of God and Kali is the only female who is his equal.
Despite her fierce appearance, Kali offers protection since she is fearless and destroys all evil. She is also thought to be the devourer of time and the one who destroys illusion (Maya) and ego. With all these attributes we can understand why Chhiba regards her as a symbol of female empowerment. In Kali Tandava which is made up of 45 images placed in rows, Chhiba uses the gestures, postures and facial expressions from Bharata Natyam to tell a story. It begins with the image of a traditionally dressed Indian woman engaged in a task until she is interrupted and looks up. In the next row, she raises her hands defensively and crouches down. Looking increasingly upset, she covers her ears with both hands and at the end of the row, she covers her mouth with one hand and holds the other against her cheek. The images that follow show the woman transform from being contemplative to becoming more confrontational as her arms gesture wildly and her expression grows angry. In the final frame, she appears truimphant – her hands rest on her spread knees, her hair is dishevelled and her dot is smeared. In order to overcome the person who has abused her, she has had to become the Kali figure.
Chhiba uses this story to comment on the verbal and physical abuse of woman within the domestic environment. A problem that has reached staggering proportions in South Africa, especially within conservative and patriarchal communities. Chhiba’s artwork is aimed at all woman encouraging them to empower themselves, speak out and fight against victimisation.
The next four artworks that I want to discuss are four separate images but they have to be read together since they all share a common thread.
In Unawakened, we have a back view of a young Indian girl on the brink of womanhood with pierced ears, and her long hair in a plait down her back. Restrained features the image of a mature married women as indicated by her sari and the necklaces (thali and mangal sutra) that she wears. Her hair is neatly pulled back and worn in a bun.
In Stripped, the woman is old, wears no jewellery and her head is shaven indicating her status as a widow. In India, when a woman becomes a widow her hair is shaven off, her sindoor (dot) and jewellery are removed and she has to wear white. In South Africa this practise is unusual except in very orthodox families. The last image, Unbridled, features a young naked woman with long unkempt and dishevelled hair.
In traditional Indian families, woman subscribed to certain norms for how their hair should be worn. Long luxuriant hair is the cultural ideal and has always been regarded as an important aspect of an Indian women’s beauty. Seema Mohanty writes, “the unmarried virgin plaits her hair, the married woman oils, combs, parts and knots her hair, while the widow is made to shave her hair. Hair is thus a metaphor for sexuality – poised for fulfillment in the virgin, domesticated and controlled in the married women, and stripped away in the widow.” The rigid norms and social mores that still dictate and control Indian women’s modesty and behaviour is challenged by Chhiba’s fourth image. The hair of the woman in Unbridled is wild and unrestrained which together with her nudity implies an untamed sexuality or spirit. This ‘Kali’ image presents women with a fourth option – one in which they can embrace their sexuality, their lifestyles and their freedom without fear of censure by society.
In 2013, Chhiba was commissioned to create an artwork for the disused Women’s prison which is now part of the Constitutional Court complex. Since this prison had held political prisoners like Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Fatima Meer, Chhiba wanted to make a statement about the indomitable spirit of these women. She created Come Inside – a 12 metre long ‘walk in vagina’ made out of padded red velvet and wool with an entrance walkway shaped like a tongue. She wanted to show the “yoni as a creative space, not just a space of birth, rather as a space of power and defiance”. By insisting that visitors remove their shoes before entering, she also wanted it be regarded as a scared space. The reference to Kali is found again in the tongue, a photographic image and curved knives which hang inside the womb-like space. The association of a vagina with a Hindu goddess was largely misunderstood and caused outrage from the Hindu community.
Click here for a review of the installation Come Inside.
Reshma Chhiba’s use of Hindu iconography and contemporary world views are aimed at showing women that they are in control of their own bodies, lives and choices. The presence of powerful female figures in spirituality, like Kali, should be an inspiration to all women to be strong and empower themselves.
Chhiba,R. Images of Kali as female defiance within selected examples of contemporary Asian Arts. MA dissertation. WITS.