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Creating Spaces for Women in Art (India)

Mamta Chitnis Sen’s Red House Art Exchange is an ongoing project in Konkan, India, which aims to provide an artistic space for those previously restricted from creative expression. Mamta tells of the many obstacles she has faced in this journey, and how she has come to turning her dream into a reality.

Red House Art Exchange workshop for women farmers

"Art has always been an integral part of my life, and I have nurtured a desire to be an artist since I can remember. But it wasn’t until my thirties that I enrolled in an art school and mastered the subject. As a journalist, I often used to cover and write on art and art related issues whenever the opportunity granted.

In 2012, when faced with a life changing incident, I began documenting social crises through art. I had come into inheritance of quite a bit of farming land - a part of ancestral property belonging to my late father’s family. Surprisingly my right to own that land was opposed by few extended family members, mostly men. The denial appeared to be more gender biased than anything else. Being denied something that already belonged to me was hard to digest and nevertheless, with great reluctance, I sought the legal route to solve the matter.

Interestingly during my visits to the courtroom where the matter was being held, I came across many women who were in the same boat as me. During my waits there I came across many women, who mostly toiled fields for a living, but interestingly were denied any rights to the land. While some did have land to their name, they were disallowed from taking any decisions related to this ownership.

Upon hearing their stories, it was clear that women, rather than being owners, were delegated to being only caretakers. These women inspired me to begin painting my first series on women farmers of Konkan which I later exhibited all over the world.

Although I have covered several topics over the years, I mainly enjoy writing about art, culture and politics. I also enjoy observing and writing about various communities and trends associated with them, and the social changes that occur due to these. Issues related to women have also been my priority, as I have a deep desire to empower women in the realm of politics. I also have a keen interest in cooperating with women from marginalized communities, providing workshops that help to guide them into political positions.

I believe politics and art are deeply connected to each other, and it has been quite interesting both as a writer and an artist to observe social and political situations using these lenses, and presenting them either through the written word or through the canvas.

Red House Art Exchange is a space dedicated to empowerment, dialogue and growth of artists – it is used to explore, ideate and preserve art, culture, new ideas and innovations. Apart from an art gallery, the building shall also house a museum and art studios, and will host artists and writers residencies from time to time. The Konkan region, where the project is situated, is known for its red soil, and the art space is built with locally sourced materials such as red laterite stone which is a prominent feature of the region. Since the colour red symbolizes life, love, passion, desire, action, energy and confidence it seemed apt to name it accordingly.

The idea for the residency has been a dream of mine for a long time but it wasn’t until the pandemic and my stint with death, that I came to realizing this dream.

At the beginning of the pandemic in India, I was struck with severe typhoid that left me extremely weak. Being a severe diabetic, the recovery process seemed to take ages, and my health began failing so much so, that I unsure on whether I would live to see the next day. For ten days, both day and night, my life was a living nightmare. But during those brief moments between life and death, I realized that life is indeed short, and it should never ever be taken for granted - one should make the most of it.

As mentioned before, I had taken the legal route to get my rights and had promised myself that, if I won the case, I would construct a space dedicated to women rights and art. I won my legal battle, but unfortunately I met further challenges due to the properties being in joint collaboration with my immediate family, who refused to part with my share. I was back to square one, and it felt as if I’d have to wait an eternity to realize my dream.

Interestingly, being on your death bed does wonders for your self-esteem, and it wasn’t long until the first phase of the lockdown ended, and I decided that I would not depend on anyone but myself. I pooled all of my life savings and applied for a bank loan to buy my first plot of land (a beautiful space which was surrounded by lush paddy fields) in Ronapal, a small hamlet on the Maharashtra-Goa border. I am glad I made this decision and have had no regrets.

I purchased the land towards the end of September 2020 and the project began in November. Since the project was located deep in the rural belt of Konkan region, the availing of necessary permissions was slow-paced. For the first 3-4 months alone, getting sanctions and permissions from local government authorities was quite the task. But, where there is a will there is a way, and I did manage to overcome these hurdles. I also met some wonderful people in the village who helped me out during these challenges.

 An early image of the Red House Art Exchange when it was initially set up
An early image of the Red House Art Exchange when it was initially set up

While I started off with a small budget, planning the construction of a project of only around a few hundred square feet, it later began expanding and now the project stands at around 4000 square feet! The first floor is now complete, but there is plenty of work still pending - we hope to finish the complete building in the next few months.

The main intention of setting up this residency in a rural area was to not only create awareness related to art and culture, but also to provide art education, and to connect the marginalized and the ‘not-so educated’ with various mediums and exchanges within the artistic world.

For instance, on Independence Day in 2021, we hosted a workshop with female farmers from the local community, creating artwork on canvas to reflect what their idea of independence was. Most women were between the ages of 30 to 60 years and had never held a paintbrush in their hands. They created beautiful artwork that depicted their daily lives, and were so encouraged by the workshop that they expressed a desire to study art further. We now plan to introduce daily art sessions for these women once the space is fully complete, wherein they can come along and paint at their own convenience. We also aim to recruit established artists to assist them in this, and plan to use art to create material that can also help generate some income for these women.

The challenges have been many, but these challenges ended up being a lesson in disguise. Apart from the pandemic and lockdowns, which led to shortage of labour, the most significant challenge was climate change. Soon after the construction began, we were hit with the Tauktae cyclone.

The cyclone and the incessant week-long rainfall that followed left us with no electricity for 8 successive days. Labourers refused to come as the rain had left everything in shambles - the newly dug well for water supply too was partly damaged, and the construction budget resultantly increased multifold. Moreover, unlike in Indian cities, construction in the rural belt of the country is very dependent on the working hours of the labour, which In Konkan are very restricted due to the heat. Seasonal reverse migration, long duration of religious Indian festivals and climate change add to the non-availability of labour. It was not unusual to see villagers and labourers taking days off to celebrate feasts and days related to their Gods.

As for criticism, many have refused to believe that, due to my womanhood, I am capable of starting something independently. Many have attempted to jump in or squeeze in on the project, until I had to politely explain to them that it was my project and I was motivated to achieve this, and prepared for any consequences that followed. The main thing I learnt was to respond with sharing my thoughts with them honestly and shamelessly.

A local farmer at the Red House Art Exchange workshop

The most rewarding part of the project is the realization of what I could achieve. What was a dream is finally becoming a reality. This project also gave me the confidence to face everything with an open mind - it helped me look at things from a different perspective and instilled in me a certain respect for people who have created and realized their own dreams.

As for the art project, it has definitely began to create an impact, even before its completion. Following the first workshop for women farmers, we have been bombarded with requests from almost 20 surrounding villages to conduct similar workshops. We also hosted a cooking competition between couples to encourage local cuisine wherein we invited government officials and celebrity chefs to judge. This was a big hit, and now there are talks to make it an annual affair with government support.

We recently collaborated with international artist Soraya Marcano on ‘Project Wildflower’, wherein we encouraged children to document and paint wildflowers that dominate the fields and forests.

In the following months, we are expecting the cooperation of some renowned Indian and international artists who shall come to a garden space reserved near the art space of the residency, planning to create sculptures and murals.

We are also soon expecting to open the new art gallery, which will involve a photography exhibition, as well as a theatre festival.

I hope the art residency is an inspiration for women and everyone alike.

In India, we lack spaces for women to pursue their ideas and dreams, especially those women who belong to marginalized backgrounds or who have no support system to fall back on. I hope this art residency can help change that. Although it is open for all, the primary focus is to make it accessible for more women, helping them to empower themselves through art and creating opportunities for growth. We also plan to have weekly free legal counselling made available for women and are happy to have found support for this from many lawyers who have promised to give free legal advice as well as give them the necessary help they need in this regard.”


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