Pure or (im)pure?
By: Sarita Manu
The workshop in early November 2011, “South Asia: Histories, Visual and Literary Texts” (jointly organized by Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune and Zubaan, New Delhi) introduced many new and interesting areas of studies to me, who is from a non- women’s studies or a social sciences setting. Given my background in art and architecture, the presentation, ‘Feminine Representations and Themes of Resistance in Nepali Art’ by Archana Thapa from Kathmandu, Nepal offered a very refreshing view of contemporary art from Nepal.
Archana’s selection of images from Nepal strongly focused on the theme of menstruation and the colour ‘red’ that occupies a significant place in Nepali culture and tradition. Looking at the images, the themes seem to emerge so strongly due to two reasons. The first reason: ‘red’ is an auspicious colour adorned by Nepali women in every form, from clothes to accessories, especially among married women. And second: the same ‘red’ as menstrual blood, sees the women being ostracized during and on menstruation every month.
In many parts of Nepal, during menstruation, women tend to be kept in seclusion, with no access to proper food. They are considered “impure” and are forbidden from touching anything or, in some cases, even speaking to anyone on those days. This is aptly represented in the installation by Om Khattri in Image 1 of a woman sitting alone in a makeshift hut / cowshed. The woman sits isolated and looks uncared-for. Another contemporary artist from Nepal is Asha Dangol, who has participated in exhibitions on similar themes. In Image 2, he shows the mannequin of a menstruating woman. Red threads representing the ‘impure’ menstrual blood flow out of her vagina and end up as the beautiful lotuses on the floor. His installation attempts to shun the association of ‘impurity’ with menstruation, by using lotuses, which are considered very pious in Hindu religion.
Menstruation also presents itself as a stark interruption in the life of the ‘Kumari Devi’, the Living Goddess of Nepal. The Kumari Devi is a deified young (pre-pubescent) girl who is worshipped in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition in Nepal. A girl from the Newar Shakya community of Nepal is selected to be the ‘living goddess’, upon passing all the eligibility requirements. She is highly revered and worshipped as a goddess. When the Kumari starts menstruating – or sheds blood in any form – she ceases to be the ‘living goddess’, as menstruation is considered ‘impure’. Following the end of her life as the Kumari, she starts living the life of a normal girl, but is considered unlucky for marriage.
In a sharp contrast to Asha Dangol’s installation that sets about to erase the ‘impure’ and embrace the ‘pure’, artist Ashmina Ranjit’s installations and performance are very blatant and ‘in-your-face’. The image (see Image 3) of Ashmina performing in a dress made of sanitary pads, from March 2010, made some of us gasp and most, guffaw. Ashmina Ranjit successfully draws attention to the act of menstruation in an attempt to eradicate the taboo associated with menstruation and menstruating women. A thin tube spews blood on the napkins one at a time, as Ashmina carefully folds and discards them in the trash bin. In a similar effort as seen in Image 4, Ashmina also creates an installation of a woman’s toilet by covering it entirely with sanitary napkins. It was interesting to note a woman from the participating audience comment on how the modern sanitary napkins not only reflect menstruation successfully but also the face of capitalism. The ultra-thin sanitary pads seen here are a modern replacement of the traditional cloth or cloth pads used by many.
As I ran over the images from Archana’s presentation in my mind, I could not help but wonder about how menstruation as a subject remains largely unexplored with contemporary artists in India, despite the fact that menstruation is taboo with many Indian Hindu communities, as in Nepal. Amongst many South Indians, the first menstrual cycle in a girl often calls for much joy and celebration as it indicates that the girl is now a ‘grown up woman’, with her womb ready to ‘receive’. At the same time and in a seemingly contradictory manner, it is customary for the women to be barred from entering the kitchen to cook during menstruation. Although some view this as the period when a woman is allowed to rest and be relieved of her domestic duties, she is not allowed to touch anyone or enter the temple or perform any religious rituals.
Today, in many families of the present generation, women are no longer barred from the kitchen during menstruation or treated as untouchables. But for menstruating women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple or to stop considering menstruation as an ‘impure’ process is going to take more than just education and awareness.
Images 1 and 2 are from Archana Thapa; Images 3 and 4 were obtained from http://sanitationupdates.wordpress.com