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Satidaha to Single Motherhood: Celebrating Womanhood Through Art

The walls of the South Gallery were adorned with her canvases…painted mostly with acrylic and oil…bringing alive bold statements of her artistic and individual thoughts
Art exhibition Eelina Banik
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The title—‘Homage to Raja Rammohun Roy…from Satidaha to Single Motherhood’, was indeed intriguing…even though it did in a way announce what the show would contain. This was the title for a recently concluded exhibition of Eleena Banik and her daughter, Amravati’s, held at the South and Central Galleries of the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata, which included paintings, drawings and ceramic sculptures. An eminent artist based in Kolkata, Eleena Banik, a single mother to a 10-year-old Amravati, added an interesting new dimension to the 250th birth anniversary celebrations of Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) at its fag end.  

Jogen Choudhury at inauguration of Eelina Banik exhibition
Jogen Choudhury inaugurated the exhibition.

During Rammohun’s lifetime, nothing caused as much of an upheaval in Bengali Hindu society as his campaign for the abolition on December 4, 1829 under Regulation XVII of satidaha – the burning of widows along with the dead bodies of their husbands. To the knowledgeable, Rammohun Roy’s lifelong efforts were aimed at achieving for society at large every conceivable form of religious, social and political emancipation, particularly those aimed at the education and well-being of women. 

Rammohun’s success in this campaign was based, on the one hand, on his mastery over all Hindu shastras, his writings and pioneering role in the development of Bengali prose, his unbelievable success at debates organised in Kolkata by orthodox Hindus and on the other, his excellent presentation of powerful and cogent arguments for its abolition to the Governor General Lord William Bentinck in Kolkata, and later  to the East India Company officials, during his visit to England (1831 – 1833) to make them fully understand his arguments and take appropriate action in the teeth of fierce opposition from orthodox Hindus.

Eelina Banik and Amravati
Eelina Banik with daughter Amravati at the exhibition

Even till a decade ago, there were no unwed single mothers with IVF children (in India) to benefit in any way directly from his efforts aimed at emancipation, individual freedom, and the well-being of women. The fact that Eleena Banik and her daughter have been able to relate Rammohun Roy’s efforts to their present status and well-being, and pay homage through their exhibition, is as noteworthy as it is laudable. She also uses this platform to highlight women and her role in society engulfed with both the negative and positive responses.

Eleena’s maternal family are Brahmo by faith. The engaging installation, placed right in the centre of the South Gallery, was a sofa set on which sat framed images of women, men and children… instantly giving rise to the question…”Who are they?”  “This is my maternal family. Ancestors of my mother,” states Eleena, “they are here on a 19th century sofa.  There’s Jogindranath Sarkar, my mother’s great granduncle, then here sits Nilratan Sircar, elder brother of Jogindranath, his wife, Nirmala Sircar, my mother’s maternal grandaunt; then Bina Sircar, my maternal grandmother and her husband, my maternal grandfather Nirmal Chandra De…and others.” Jogindranath Sarkar and Nilratan Sircar belonged to the Brahmo Samaj.  The cushions, thrown over the sofas, featured women from the Brahmo households of the Sarkars and Des.

photos of Brahmo family
Photos of Brahmo family members on a sofa

This installation stood out amidst a hall-full of canvases, most of which portrayed women in their various avatars! Through this installation Eleena establishes the role of women in her maternal ancestors’ family… “All of whom played an important part, though unknowingly, in elevating the status of women through their sartorial tastes, education and emphatic presence.”

The walls of the South Gallery were adorned with her canvases…painted mostly with acrylic and oil…bringing alive bold statements of her artistic and individual thoughts where women ruled. Her subjects included goddesses, matriarchal figures, African masks, and women at work, woman as a mother, a friend… not celebratory in mood, but narrating the struggle and tribulations of women then and now. When asked how she conceived this exhibition, she was quick to retort…“Through self-conversations! I am in all these goddesses and all these feminine characters…in all forms, mythological or folk. They are in my subconscious—‘amar rakte, amar mastiske’ (in my blood and in my thoughts). Satidaha may have been abolished, but women still have to fight for their honour, in fact, for their everyday existence. In spite of the continual struggle I celebrate womanhood.”

Painting by Amravati
Amravati’s work

The colourfully painted bathtub (with a mannequin lying in it) in the far corner of the gallery was another installation through which Eleena celebrated womanhood in all its sensuality. What inspired her to create such a stunning piece of art? “I was inspired by a song from Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada…Aamar ange ange ke baajay bnaashi. Aanonde bishadhe mon udasi… (Who plays that flute touching my whole being? I grow listless in joyous pain.) It is sensuous. I have used a mannequin as a symbolic representation of the female form and there’s a foot cast lying inside. Here I talk about feminine sexuality.”

Eleena’s work cannot be ignored; the narratives are bold and hit you hard. Forms are very important to her when she translates her abstract feelings. Beyond the bathtub, she had mounted a black and white framed work of a vagina and a lobster… “This is from the Hairytale series which I am working on at present. Here I have used real hair. Through this series, I have tried to portray how women are treated and looked upon—as objects without an identity of their own. Every moment I am reminded that I am just a ‘meyechhele’ (Bengali slang used to denote women in a demeaning way) — as I am living a life without masculine support.” 

art exhibition by Eelina Banik
Eelina’s art celebrates womanhood

Eelina’s daughter Amaravati is growing up in a household where two single women run the show– Eleena’s widowed mother Sukla Banik and the artist herself. Amaravati was the co-exhibitor in this show where she stunned the viewers with her colourful work splashed on the walls of the Central Gallery. They stood out with their unique and innocent outpourings of a child artist trying to capture every moment of life. Her paintings featured human figures, animals, flora and fauna depicted through water colours, crayons, colour pencils and acrylic. “She refuses to be tutored and prefers to follow her heart,” informs Eleena, “I have, therefore, allowed her to experiment with colours and forms in her own way. When asked to explain her creative outpourings she refuses to talk. In fact, because of her reticence we had to discontinue her music classes.” Amaravati believes in talking through her art, all of which, mounted on the gallery wall spread happy cheer!

In Eleena’s—‘Homage to Raja Rammohun Roy…from Satidaha to Single Motherhood’, one felt the absence of texts— captions and an introductory note,  explaining the concept and the thought behind her exhibition which was so unique a homage to the 19th-century social reformer Raja Rammohun Roy and the founder of the Brahmo Samaj. 

Images are from the author’s collection.

Arundhati Gupta is a Kolkata based food enthusiast, communications consultant, freelance writer and a translator.

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