Profile: Sneha Varhadi / Foot Board Views of Life/ Sushma Sabnis
In an urban space, the demographic of ‘working women’ also displays unseen hierarchies and class divides. Artist Sneha Varhadi uncovers hard truths and triumphs about the disadvantaged women in the most unorthodox ways in the most unexpected of places, the Mumbai local trains, observes Sushma Sabnis
Mumbai’s local trains are like libraries and schools all rolled into one. Life, the itinerant teacher lectures, goads and even disciplines travellers/students on a daily basis. Among other things like jumping in and out of a moving train, balancing the body on one foot etc, one is taught the subtle art of observation. Mumbai based artist Sneha Varhadi takes some insightful lessons from her travels and translates them in her sensitive art works.
Equipped with BFA and MFA in Painting from Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, Sneha presents an urban woman’s perspective of her surrounding unlike most city based women artists. She chooses to paint the lives of those women who sit on the foot boards of local trains, not the ones who fight for the seats. The loaded metaphor here of the foot board and the seat is also of class divide. Along with being a school, the local train is also a market place. An unspoken rule about occupying space in a train exists between the women who sell food items, trinkets and utility items in trains and the so called ‘working women’ (women working in offices) a demographic created by urban living. Essentially everyone is a ‘working’ woman, but the divide in the class is evident from the formal and informal attire and the unsaid hierarchy which is more a mental stigma based on education and social status. Sneha takes silent lessons from these women, listens to their stories, their lives and their triumphs to portray in her works.
We live in a world today which thrives and feeds on the misfortune of gender based events happening in society. We have arm chair strategists, rumour mongers, rights/outrage activists, manipulative experts and blundering politicians all vying for footage on social and every other media for public attention and acknowledgement. In such an environment artists become dormant or hyperactive depending upon their aptitude for ‘social issue related artistic expressions’. We have confused and clueless art works flooding the white cubes and multicoloured-polygons alike. The reason is simple; the lack of observation and insight into the issue being brought to light through the art work. The art work becomes the artist’s view of the issue, an opinion or a statement.
When one looks at Sneha’s works through this looking glass, one is made aware of her deep observations and silent addressal of the issues which plague the women of an urban space. Without sloganeering about the rampant rapes and humiliating misogynist views women are subjected to in society and at home, Sneha quietly presents a true picture of the woman conflicted yet determined. These women are often disadvantaged or leading difficult lives yet, they seem to be huddled together almost as if the groups give each other the strength to carry on forward and defeat the challenges. In the work, ‘Crippled Carriage’ the artist brings a group of women, who evidently come from a lower economic status, standing in a row, supporting each other. The artist then places them in a coach of a local train, which is marked out for old, handicapped and sick people. The background is filled with motifs of body parts which are markers of exploitation of women on various levels, both mental and physical.
A similar grouping of women is seen in the work ‘Google Katta’ where Sneha displaces the favourite haunt or a train station bench to an unknown location. This bench is occupied to capacity with women and children in wait. One sits with her body turned away from the viewer in rapt conversation over a mobile phone while the others on the bench appear to eavesdrop. Again the artist embellishes the background with motifs of tribal and rural art, with religious motifs, holy basil plant, (tulsi), the Taj Mahal, the shrine of a woman who was loved, and the hand of Hamsa, the symbol of protection. These embellishments are probably suggestions of the concerns of the women portrayed. The artist uses symbols to depict them so as to merely hint at the challenges the women face, yet clearly stating that each issue addressed on that bench could be found (like an online search) being tackled defiantly.
Some of Sneha’s works are reminiscent of the works of veteran artist B Prabha or artist Amrita Shergill at the outset, yet the similarities to the veteran artists are merely on the notion that mostly the protagonists are women. Sneha tries to read between the lines, rather between the rungs of social structure to find her protagonists to portray. In certain works she portrays women in deep contemplation, alone, as in the works ‘Around me’ and ‘With the Stream’. These two works are quite different from the other works, in the sense that the protagonist is seen pondering over her own life while she sits at the train window, and yet somehow, the artist portrays it as a visual from ‘Dashavataar’ of the ocean churning. The internal battles the protagonist weighs are clearly shown through the train window while she sits atop the mountain of concern watching the events unfold. In another work, titled ‘With the Stream’ the artist plays with optical illusions as she portrays a carpet which looks like a stream of water and a woman sitting placidly clutching a few bundles of possessions. Peeking through the openings of the bundles one is shown a glimpse of the woman’s life, erotic imagery, worry about children, protection, food, shelter and clothing, crops in the field, water scarcity, all these motifs are shown in the work. The protagonist seems to be going along with the stream of her life, while moving around hurdles like water in a stream moves around rocks in its path.
Sneha attempts something different in her work ‘The Door’ where she shows women standing at the threshold of a door. Some of them seem to be neighbours talking to each other, some merely standing and observing life go by, others seem to stand with an authority over the space and yet others seem to allure the passerby seductively. None of these women seem to be aware of the viewer’s gaze. These women are closeted in the individual images by mountains, brick walls, ladders suspended in mid air, and fences. There is one work within this pyramid like structural formation, where two women are seen sitting facing each other and looking up at the viewer. Like the yin and yang balance of elements, these two women dominate the composition while staring back directly at the viewer. The artist questions the viewer as to how long do women have to wait to go beyond the mental and physical thresholds imposed on them in the name of religion, gender and propriety by society.
In two very large scale works titled, ‘Factual’ the artist takes the viewer away from the grounding position to that of a birds eye view. The two imageries are conflicting in the sense one seems to converge upon an oval sky which is seen surrounded by numerous human beings, doing various acts, sitting standing, relaxing, conversing, exercising, strolling about. There are ladders in this composition which are markers of rising up in life, and some people are seen holding these ladders while others are seen climbing it. In other places, people sit on a brick wall, a marker of restrictions and in another place, somebody is shown filming the others. Lovers sit holding each other, mothers and children sit at the edge of this oval sky, with dreams in their eyes. In the other work, a reverse formation happens where the sky dominates the composition dwarfing the earth from which people seem to fly out. The artist in these two works brings to mind the intricate unpredictability of life and its crisscrossing lines. She tries to relate the point of success achieved through hard work and the apparent success achieved by false means in this work.
Sneha in her works has tried to bring out the indomitable spirit that resides within the heart of the woman, whether rural or urban, the spirit which drives them to succeed at whatever they do, while confronting multiple challenges in a skewed society. Without so much as shedding a tear or sloganeering, Sneha Varhadi in her works talks about the lives of the women, the ‘real’ women in our country, the roles they play, their triumphs and the challenges they face on a daily basis. She also portrays them in local trains their safe haven and a metaphor for the rhythm of urban life.
Sneha Varhadi lives and works in Mumbai.