Women’s blood inspires rebel art in Nepal (Feature with images)

March 21st, 2010 - 12:53 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, March 21 (IANS) As a young girl brought up in a conservative household in the Nepal capital, Ashmina Ranjit remembers how her mother used to scold her for touching things during menstruation. “I used to hate that,” the artist says adding her anger inspired her to create and “celebrate womanhood and the feminine force”.

“In South Asian countries, a natural feminine phenomenon is regarded as an impure thing,” says the 43-year-old maverick artist, known for her multimedia presentations on war, human rights violations and discrimination against women.

“In Nepal, the traditional belief is that if a menstruating woman touches water, it becomes defiled. If she touches her husband, she commits a sin and if she touches a plant, it dies.

“When my mother asked me not to touch trees, I would deliberately go and put my hand on a sapling. ‘There,’ I would tell my mother, ‘Did it die? Now it’s become even stronger’.”

The anger against discrimination against women has inspired some of Ranjit’s most startling creations celebrating menstruation, which she redefines as “celebrating womanhood and the feminine force”.

Last week, when Alliance Francaise organised the “Week of the Women” in Kathmandu to celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day, Ranjit held a three-hour solo show with an art installation and a performance as part of her “menstrual activism”.

“In Nepal, menstruation is regarded as a private thing and women are asked to stay in isolation,” says the artist who comes from a community traditionally engaged in print-making.

“I calculated how many sanitary napkins a woman needs during her lifetime, if you consider the average adolescent to start menstruating from 12 and reaching menopause at 50. Then I glued the estimated number of pads into a white dress embroidered with red threads to denote veins. When I wore this dress to the performance, people were stunned at first. They didn’t know how to react.”

During the performance, Ranjit would squirt red paint from a tube into each of the pads, roll it up and put it into the litter bin. She would then move among the audience explaining what she was doing and why.

Now the mother of a nine-month-old is gearing up for a herculean 15-hour public show.

“I am planning to hold it around September,” she says, “when Nepal celebrates Rishi Panchami. It is an occasion when women have to brush their teeth with twigs for more than 100 times and do other cleansing acts to expiate themselves of the ’sin’ they committed by touching their husbands during menstruation.”

Ranjit, who holds art degrees from Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, Australia’s University of Tasmania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Art, did her first menstrual installation, Hair Warp, in 2000 in Kathmandu, Fukuwa in Japan and New Delhi.

The exhibit included a dark room curtained with human hair. Inside the room there were public triangles strung with red thread to simulate the flood of menstrual blood.

She did an encore in 2002 while doing a three-month residency at New Delhi’s Sanskriti Foundation. The installation at the Lalit Kala Akademi interwove the yoni, the tantric symbol for the female sex and reproductive organ, with the kunda, the male one.

The design was punctuated by hundreds of feminine dresses made of ceramic with a hole at the bottom from where pieces of red thread dribbled down to resemble blood.

Rural Nepal still observes ‘chhaupadi’, a dreaded custom that keeps menstruating girls and women confined, often in a dark cowshed outside the main house.

Girls are not allowed to go to school during this time while women teachers can’t take classes, even in government schools.

“If you can’t go to school 13 times a year, it becomes an equality-related issue as well,” says Ranjit. “As it is, girls are behind boys. This makes them lose out further when it comes to education and opportunities.”

Ranjit says her art is intended to make people think. “I always think culture should be preserved. But we need to question them. There would be no life without menstruation, which is a form of feminine power.”

“So the taboo on it is a bid by patriarchal society to negate it so that it can dominate women.”

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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