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Deepanjana Pal is books editor at DNA

Dallying with the domestic, humanising the help

t's not everyday that an extra from a Nagarjuna film has a solo exhibition in a posh, south Mumbai art gallery, but Nicola Durvasula is one such artist. Durvasula is a rare bird. Not because of her cinematic repertoire but because of the unusual confluence of influences from different times and parts of the world in her art.

Despite her Indian-sounding surname, Durvasula is British. Born in Jersey, United Kingdom, Durvasula's decision to visit India in the late '80s proved to be a turning point. She met the man she'd marry and from 1992 to 2002, Durvasula lived in India as a wife, mother and artist, steeping herself in both the intricacies of everyday life as well as the ideas that were swirling in the contemporary art scene. I Am Here, which is on display at Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke, is a collection of paintings, drawings and sculptural installations both old and new. You wouldn't expect a bubbling sense of humour in works made by a woman whose interest in South Asian artistic traditions began with an admiration for the elegant lines and delicate washes of colour in ancient Buddhist art, but I Am Here is fun.

Enter the gallery and in the niche to your right hangs a jhaaru. It looks like a regular jhaaru until you see the end that is usually used for sweeping has been braided to look like a plait. Meet The Reddy Maid II. Further inside is The Reddy Maid, which is a pochha (the cloth used to swab floors) that has been neatly and ceremoniously framed. There are a number of household objects that appear in I Am Here. Usually, the person who uses them is dehumanised because we consider the work menial — we Indians are notorious for how we disrespect and mistreat domestic help and housewives — but Durvasula does the exact opposite. She humanises objects that keep a house clean and in order, lending everything from a mosquito coil to a surface cleanser dignity, grace and wit.

She humanises objects that keep a house clean and in order, lending everything from a mosquito coil to a surface cleanser dignity, grace and wit.

here are some delightful examples of mix-and-match in Durvasula's work. East meets West, historical meets modern, taste meets tasteless (but tastefully). One watercolour has Wajid Ali Shah alongside the weeping woman from Roy Lichtenstein's Hopeless. "Post-colonialism II" shows a face that could be out of a Mughal miniature strategically poised under a porn star who, while striking her pose, looks like a wraith because of Durvasula's almost-invisible, fine lines. Steel tumblers that make you thirst for filter kapi raise a toast to Constantin Brancusi's "The Endless Column". Incense sticks look like brutal gashes, reminiscent of Lucio Fontana's slashed canvases. Hoshang Merchant, Pablo Picasso, Apple, Nagarjuna (who becomes a bit part actor because in the little video, it's Durvasula who is the star since the snippet is her story rather than the superstar's) — the cameos in I Am Here are many.

On one wall are a series of heads, drawn using a Biro pen and stamp-pad ink. Those who have attended art openings will recognise many of the faces because they're all portraits of artists, gallerists and critics whose approval gives on the stamp of acceptance in Indian contemporary art. How fitting, then, that the media for this work are a pen and that distinctive purplish ink, the staple tools in government offices, banks and other places that have the power to accept and reject people and proposals.

All this tongue-in-cheek wit doesn't mean there's no poignancy in Durvasula's work. Even at its most jocular, there's a softness and fragility in her art. One series of untitled figures has a tentative quality that is particularly moving. The drawings are a palimpsest of bodies as seen in Western sculpture, sweeps of colour and Buddhist-art inspired faces. It's almost as though the men and women are undecided about which aspect of themselves to show or nervous about appearing wholly and entirely on the paper. They're here, but just out of reach. And I wonder, where should we look to learn where Durvasula has hidden herself in the hushed lines of her art?

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