Bodies and Alterbodies

A view of Sajitha R Shankhar’s visceral engagement with and raw understanding of the body.

If you can pull out the serpent’s fangs,
And make it dance,
It is good to make friends with serpents.
If you can describe the body’s composition,
It is good to make friends with the body.
Like a mother turned into a she-monster,
Body’s sickness,
O Channamallikarjuna,
Don’t say those you love
Have a body.

Akka Mahadevi


 Alterbodies. Photo: Vivek Nair

A contemporary Indian artist hailing from Kerala, Sajitha’s early works explored her ‘self’, and drew from her family and the environment in which she was growing up. Soon, as she began to notice her own ‘self as woman’, her art acquired a profundity which radically altered her compositions. The use of bright natural colours and raw energy in her earlier works underwent a sea change in the later Archetypes series where she explores the paradoxes of being a woman. It further evolved in Alterbodies, where the artist makes a brilliant visceral examination of the body to reveal the long-shrouded urges and alter-powers that must lead them on to a luminous future.

Sajitha’ started working on her Archetypes in Spain in 2003, but one finds in this series the spirit of the Bhagawatis (goddesses) of Kerala – especially those who revealed themselves through the native cultural ritual of Theyyam, which is different from those of the Brahmanical temples. Theyyam, a vulgar form of daivom or god, is not an oracle, but a manifestation of the deity itself, when the dancer is in his revelatory act. Most of these dancers are men belonging to lower castes, and they assume the character of a particular local aspect of the mother goddess. So, when a Theyyam is revealed, all the people in locality, irrespective of gender, caste, creed, seek its blessings. This public interaction between the ‘small’ and ‘big’ cultures makes Theyyam an interesting field of research, as well as a poignant expression of the masses.

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Archetypes series. Charcoal on paper, 180 x 105 cm. National Gallery of Modern Art, India. 2007

In her Archetypes Sajitha places the woman as cosmos incarnate. She is at once whole and fractured, detached and endeavouring, tender and fierce. She is a mandala that mixes spatial and temporal dimensions—and is revealed in and as ‘floating elements, planetary eyes and mouth, that leap forwards and backwards in time as intonations to alternate existence’.

Navagrahas (“nine planets”) [36 cm x 24 cm each sheet]. 2007

One of the Indic themes that has deeply influenced Sajitha is the Navagraha worship in temples, which are a curious simulation of the cosmic movements. Each graha (planet) has an ordained sthana (position), but the icons do not face each other, and are supposedly rotating on their own axes. Hence, to pay respects to all of them, one has to circumambulate the installation, and partake in the cosmic movements. The profound composition of Sajitha’s Navagrahas invokes the cosmic movements, an experiential awareness of which may resolve the human puzzle of good and evil. Hence, later, the compositional frame returns to her Alterbodies pointing to the transformation of the artistic self through a series of experiential art: which is at once personal, delicate and fragile.

In Alterbodies, Sajitha revisits the sources of feminine powers as depicted in the Indic myths, folklores, religious rituals, spiritual traditions, art and literature. They form a more engaged continuation from her earlier reflections and explorations, resulting in an “inter-connected flow of the multiplicity of selves in a fluid and dynamic mediation with one other.”

Sajitha’s artistic core may be discovered in the words of the late Kamala Suraiyya a.k.a Madhavikutty, an iconoclastic Indian writer: “Sajitha does not celebrate the fact of her existence, she does not offer any solutions, nor does she pass on any messages. She gifts the viewer with the Weltschmerz of today’s displaced generation. She knows how different today’s world is from yesterday’s. One cannot help being reminded of the tragic landmarks of this century – the allpervasive cynicism and the cult of money. Sajitha’s art is strong meat, it cannot be ignored.”

Sajitha R. Shankhar, Remembrance of Akka Mahadevi, 2007. Charcoal on paper, 300 x 180 cm.-- 2007

We present a few remarkable works from her rich repertoire—select paintings from two unmatched series: Archetypes and Alterbodies. We are sure that visitors to this site will find the arresting art of Sajitha R Shankhar most revealing of, profoundly critical of and deeply resistant to the corrosions that have affected our body politic today

Click the following links to know more of Sajitha and her works

STREE Catalogue

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Alterbodies Catalogue

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Artist’s Profile

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Annotated Paintings from ARCHETYPES & ALTERBODIES

Portrayal of Dancer Chandralekha (180 cm x 90 cm, Mixed Media on Canvas, 2006)


Sajitha has a deep connect with the late dancer Chandralekha’s thoughts and works. Chandralekha renewed the form of dance by bringing together the energies, postures and movements of yoga, kalari, bharatnatyam etc. She weaved into her dance, her interpretations of Indic figures such as the Navagrahas as well as her explorations of the human body. Sajitha’s Portrayal of Chandralekha is a fine instance of the continuum of artistic consciousness across the borders of time and forms.

Archetypes Series & ‘Marappachi’ (180 cm x 90 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2006)


This painting is structured into an intriguing configuration of luminosity that emerges from within the potential human material. Marappachi’s aesthetic is metaphysical, but it also has a strange native rootedness—a connection that makes it inspirational, inclusive, timeless and, most importantly, ironic, seen against the holograms of development and spectres of modernity.

Archetypes Series, 'Untitled' (210 cm x 90 cm, Mix media on canvas, 2007)


This dual plane with the woman’s hair tangled into knots around the body is reminiscent of the ritual, Mudi Theyyam (Hair Dance) in Kerala. The Mudi Theyyam’s act is a ritual with a meditative character, even as it is vigorous. She embodies the twin bhavas of the female principle. But she is also reminiscent of the ardha-nari, the potent convergence of apparent opposites. A figure of profound independence and belonging at once!

Archetypes Series & 'Akkamahadevi,' (270 cm x 90 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2008)


This scintillating painting transcends the physicality of femininity. Its inhabits a psychedelic realm and leads one to an out of the body experience. It is the artist’s journeys into Akka Mahadevi’s mystic poetry that inspired in her paintings on the poet, this “rebellious intensity, lyrical depth, luminosity and transcendence”. Akka Mahadevi emerges in Sajitha’s paintings over and over, reconstructing the poet’s “sharp criticism of the social construction of the body and its spectacles.”

Alterbodies (Acrylic on Canvas, 97 x 97 cms, 2009 )


The placement of the nine alterbodies is reminiscent of the Navagraha iconography and Sajitha’s own earlier work Navagraha, which has drawn from dancer Chandralekha’s interpretation of the term. It explores the artist’s positioning in form, structure and design through a fragile representation of the body from its cellular experience to a transcendental one.

Alterbodies – Chamunda (Acrylic on canvas, 150 x 120 cms, 2012)


Chamunda seems a powerful contemporary evocation of a historical presence. Its intricate make up embeds a comic aspect that can upturn the information-afflicted world’s blatant proclamations of knowing. The graphically arresting figure manifests the artist’s own physical, spiritual, mystical and intellectual unison with the universe. Her reflections on human fragility enters the image whose multiple paths to meanings wind through the waking and dreaming minds of the viewers.

Alterbodies: Latest Works from 2015

Some Early Works of Sajitha R Shankhar