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Phantom Lady or Kismet: A Photo-Romance

Phantom Lady or Kismet: A Photo-Romance
titled, numbered, signed and dated 'Phantom Lady 6/10 Pushpamala 1996-98' (on the reverse) each
silver gelatin prints on archival fibre paper
16 1/2 x 11 7/8 in. (41.9 x 30.2 cm.) each photograph; 19 1/4 x 14 5/8 in. (48.9 x 37.1 cm.) each sheet
Executed in 1996-98; number six from an edition of ten; twenty-four prints on paper
Arianne Piper Art Advisory, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009
Pushpamala N.: Indian Lady, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2004 (another edition illustrated, unpaginated)
‌Y. Dalmia and S. Hashmi, eds., Memory, Metaphor, Mutations; Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan, New Delhi, 2007, p. 172 (one from another edition illustrated)
G. Sinha and P. Sternberger, eds., INDIA: Public Places, Private Spaces, Mumbai, 2007, pp. 88-91 (four from another edition illustrated)
G. Sinha, Art and Visual Culture in India 1857-2007, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 304-305 (three from another edition illustrated)
F. Bousteau, ed., Made by Indians, Opus 2, Paris, 2011, pp. 342-343 (one from another edition illustrated)
Mumbai, Gallery Chemould, Phantom Lady or Kismet, A Photo-Romance, 1998 (another edition)
New York, Bose Pacia, Indian Lady, April - May 2004 (another edition)
Chicago, Walsh Gallery, Phantom Lady and Sunhere Sapne, 2003 (another edition)

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Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

A globally acclaimed pioneer of photo and performance based art, Pushpamala N. “interrogates identity with the masquerade of costumes and theatrical props. By interposing herself, she provides wrap-around situations where notions of colonial history, gender differences, as well as the photographer and photographed, are played around with in an ironic vein” (Y. Dalmia and S. Hashmi eds., Memory, Metaphor, Mutations; Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan, New Delhi, 2007, p. 171).

Representing the artist’s earliest exploration of photo-performance as a medium, the present lot is an instantly engaging narrative series of twenty-four images titled Phantom Lady or Kismet. Resembling film stills, these images take their cue from the popular action movies of old-world Bollywood. Dubbing this pivotal body of work a ‘photo-romance’, Pushpamala parodies the cinematic tropes of this specific period and genre to craft a story full of intrigue and irony, where the main characters are played by herself. “Her first photo-romance, Phantom Lady or Kismet, in which she played the two protagonists, is a deliberately excessive, even burlesque, revisitation of a popular genre of films from pre-Independence India, recalling the stunt pictures of Wadia Movietone, featuring Fearless Nadia - the ‘Hunterwali.’ Richly atmospheric, the series presents a film-noir adventure loosely structured to offer a Bollywood style narrative set in actual locations in Bombay, where a masked Zorro-like character embarks upon a mission to rescue her twin sister from entrapment as an underworld moll. As early conceptual photography work in India, Phantom Lady's use of performance, irony, spoof, and fictional tropes made it difficult to assimilate at first amongst audiences unsure of how to respond to its clever humour and nuanced interrogation of stereotypes” (‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’, Gallery Chemould website, accessed June 2022).

In ‘Robert’s Story’, a satirical narrative accompanying this work, Pushpamala provides a prompt for the action it documents in the voice of one of the characters she interacts with:

I was sitting behind the partition in Brabourne Restaurant after Sunday mass eating my bun maska, when I noticed a strange masked woman sitting alone at a table darting glances at me. She wore black velvet shorts, black tasseled boots, a big black cape and a black hat with a white feather in it. I thought I was in a film shooting. Her eyes rolled behind the mask and she crooked her finger at me furtively. She signaled me to join her at her table.

“I want the Don,” she hissed, “I knew you were a Robert the minute I saw your gold tooth. You must know everything.” “Madam” I said, “I used to be the Don’s right hand man once. I have now become a devout Catholic. In fact he should have finished me off long ago because I know so much. But life is strange. Maybe he is waiting for me to go back because every Don needs a Robert.”

“Robert, you must help me,” she said. “I must expose this badmash and rescue my twin sister.” “Madam” I said. “I will try my best. But who are you and why are you dressed like this at 6.30 in the morning? You look as if you are going to ride off on a horse shouting ‘Hey Hey Hey!’”

“I am a small town girl who has had a tough life. I have nobody. I saw myself as a CID agent slipping in and out of the deep shadows of buildings, stalking and being stalked. I would wear a trench coat and a hat low over my face, chain smoking. Then I saw a picture of this costume. Satin, velvet, studded belt, armbands, tassels, feathers, jewellery. It’s glamourous. I like it. And I feel free.”

“Robert” she said, her voice dropping, “my twin sister and I were separated in childhood. She was lost and I remained… or maybe it is the other way around. She is bound and I am free… or maybe it is the other way around…”

She pulled her hat low over her face, glanced left and right and darted another look: “I don’t want to be a cliché, Robert… I want to explore the whole world”

(Artist statement, Pushpamala N website, 1998, accessed July 2022).

Also inspired by an early catalogue produced by Bhupen Khakhar in which he included a series of playful photos of himself and others dressed in spy outfits, this suite of photographs cites a wide range of references and resonates with multiple layers of meaning. Seeking to subvert dominant discourse through a feminist lens, “The dual and largely surrogate identity of Pushpamala’s protagonist seems to vacillate between the cliché commanded by the male gaze and its appropriation by the female towards self-assertion from within it, while naturalness emerges from underneath both […] So the validity of conventional categorisation becomes interrogated, opposed and at least partially denied” (M Jakimowicz, ‘The self versus self-images and the cliché’, Pushpamala N., Indian Lady, New York, 2004, unpaginated).

To find a complete set of these photographs is exceedingly rare today, almost thirty years after it was produced. The only other known undivided portfolio is part of the permanent collection of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. Pushpamala’s work has been exhibited at several institutional venues and festivals around the world, and she has been awarded artist residencies by the Centre Pompidou, the Rockefeller Foundation, Khoj International and the Charles Wallace Trust among other prestigious organizations.

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