Growing up in Delhi in the 1990s, artist Pallavi Singh notes that there were pronounced parallels between the shift in neo-liberal policies in India and how urban men were gradually questioning the more traditional concepts of rugged masculinity and the subsequent shift towards metrosexuality, also defined by the advent of targeted men’s grooming.
“Initially, I noticed changes in the immediate family and friends circle but gradually the changes became more evident, with the mushrooming of unisex salons and advertisements that were for men’s beauty products and so on,” says Pallavi Singh, a 2011 postgraduate in art from College of Art, Delhi.
Singh decided to work on the subjects and its related dynamics through her art. Some of these works are now being showcased at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in New York City. Titled “Worldbuilding”, the exhibition explores the culture of grooming in Indian men “through the lens of the commercial cosmetic and fashion industry”.
“In the course of my research, it has become apparent that metrosexuality has long been present in Indian society – though not always identified by this term. A review of Indian literature reveals that self-grooming was considered vital to the daily routine by both men and women, with the goal to enhance appearance along with personal hygiene (the use of oil baths, application of sandalwood to skin, use of essence of flowers as body fragrances, etc),” writes Singh, 34, in a statement on her works.
On display are four works, where Singh’s central protagonists include the common man, corporate raider, ad man and mirror man — inhabiting a fantasy land, all aspire physical perfection and battle everyday insecurities. Her inspirations range from Indian miniatures to pop culture. If in Hypno Bazaar men carrying mirrors are marching ahead, in the sculptural installation Perennial Quest 22 small wooden compacts highlight the pressures of looking a certain way, through popular advertising pitches from 1952-2019, including “for all skin types” to “fair and lovely” and how a particular product promotes “women’s empowerment”.
The set of works in New York, she notes, also represent the stereotypical gender role constructs. “Through my practice I carefully work through this ‘psyche’ of society, depicting male bodies in a raw and untouched format that also enables me to explore my own queries about the binary gender role in our society. Choosing loud, hyperbolic figurations are fundamentally an amalgamation of people around me in life — not a representation of any single person in particular, and this representation permits me to tell stories of my own family, friends and peers showcasing aspects of their personalities,” notes the artist.
Having showcased across India, including Hyderabad, Kochi and Delhi, Singh was also part of the 2011 Khoj Peers Residency and a group exhibition at Art Heritage Gallery in Delhi in 2020.
Commenting on her work, Tariq Allana, Associate Director, Art Heritage, says, “Her exploration of metrosexuality and grooming rituals by Indian men raises interesting and provocative questions surrounding beauty, gender equity and gender fluidity. Many of the works are influenced in content and style by Indian miniatures but each painting is infused with a personal narrative and commentary that encourages the viewer to reevaluate their prescribed, at times rigid, notions set forth by society around these topics.”
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