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What does one do to the body? 

By Chandrima Bhattacharya 
















What does one do to the body? Many things presumably, but Rujuta Rao places it in alcohol. 

Of course here we are resorting to a metaphor in the most obvious sense. It is not a body exactly that is in the jar: that would be outside the realm of possibility at an art exhibition. At the same time, Rujuta resists easy assumptions about her work, which makes the imposition of any metaphor difficult. So to have a clue as to what she is doing — you also ask, are we to have a clue? Should we have a clue? — we should perhaps begin at a place that is as free of assumptions as is possible, the literal. 

We can begin, therefore, with the practice of the making of her art, the process, which Rujuta talks about in precise, chiselled, unembellished sentences that remind you of polished metal or shards of glass. I mention her writing in relation to her art because it reflects the way the artist thinks of her art; her description of it leaves no room for an extra word or extraneous matter, which can be unnecessary emotion, contextualisation or frameworks of theory. It is as if she is focused on the details and the movements in her art — motion is an important element in her work — and about the rest she is reticent, though this reticence she considers to be a function of her diffidence about her art. 

She is also in the habit of saying that she often does not know why she does what she does. An artist is entitled to her secrets, to keep things even from herself. 

Yet this very intrigue, the puzzle at the heart of Rujuta’s work compels the viewer to wonder what is going on and why she does what she does.


Rujuta has worked as a bartender. At the bar she made for the guests. This practice of making cocktails is not much different from the practice of her art, she says. ‘The experience… is similar to making and serving a cocktail for the customer to imbibe, hopefully enjoy and to positively inebriate.’ But the series being exhibited here is particularly rooted in her bartending experience. She is making infusions here. She calls them ‘tinctures for fictional cocktails’, which seems too sober a phrase to describe them. 

She is placing in alcohol pieces of clothing, which have been worn — one of them fictitiously — by people who were close to her and were loved by her. A pair of stockings that she uses was worn by herself. Clothes in themselves are intimate objects, but the items she has chosen have a special kind of intimacy. 

But Rujuta has also been for some time a maker of garments. This series is significant in bringing together two of Rujuta’s professional practices, outside ‘art’. 

Her garments are striking; they are stern, strappy, sharp, strangulating, but also supporting, varying in their wearability and come with associations of kink as well as a feeling of comfort. ‘Bondage-bandage’, as her friend, interlocutor and for long, the solitary viewer of her art, Aveek Sen, used to call them. He thought her garments belonged to ‘a slippery space between the sexual and medical’, she says. 

In the current series, one of the objects used is made from a soft, pink cotton sari worn by her grandmother, which we can imagine clinging to the body of the wearer; another set of objects from a blue cotton sari belonging to the same grandmother; the third is a pair of pajamas worn 

by her grandfather; the fourth is a top she made for her uncle who went missing at sea; and the fifth pair of her own stockings. 

They have been altered before being placed in their jars. The saris have been worked on elaborately, after having been cut up in shreds. The word tortured may not be inappropriate either in the case of the saris. But all the objects have been altered fundamentally, through a slow meditative process that seems to combine calm and deviance in equal measure. 

Jar I is titled Aai I, ‘aai’ meaning grandmother. Rujuta has cut up the sari and made out of it shirred strings, very pretty. Rolled up, they resemble a large carnation. But it is unrecognisable as a sari. It represents the complete transformation of the sari, in its look, in its feel, presumably, and in all the binding associations that a sari traditionally has for an Indian mind. 

Especially if it has been worn by a beloved maternal figure. We do not usually cut it up. In fact, efforts are often made to keep an ancestral sari whole, to pass it on to the next generation or to someone who will treat it with love, even if it is an ordinary sari. Light quilts, kanthas, with running stitches all along the length of it, can be made out of the worn sari, to be draped around another body, when the winter is yet to turn harsh, to be held in it, with just the right warmth and no smothering. The legacy of the sari is huge, but Rujuta seems happy to run her scissors through it. 

In the second jar, titled ‘Aai II’, Rujuta has placed objects she has made out of another of her grandmother’s saris. She has cut narrow strips out of it, and has added tiny pleats to the sides and small lead weights have been added to their corners. Rujuta says the pleats are a reference to her grandmother’s petticoats. But lying along cloth strips weighed down by lead, they do not remind you of a petticoat. They remind you of a serrated sharp object. They remind you of a saw. They remind you of teeth. 

Rujuta calls this series ‘Tinctura’. ‘In Latin, "tinctura" refers to the act of dyeing or tinting textiles, implying infusing or imbuing something with a particular hue or quality. In the context of medicine, it refers to a solution obtained by dissolving a medicinal substance in a liquid, typically alcohol. Over time, the term "tincture" has been adopted into English to refer to various types of solutions or extracts made by dissolving substances in liquids, especially alcohol,” she explains. 

In the jar titled ‘Baba’, with her grandfather’s pajamas, another very intimate piece of clothing, the body parts become explicit. Rujuta mentions that her grandfather, in his own imperfect but original way, had mended the broken zip on the pajama front himself. Into the pajama’s seams 

Rujuta has placed tea leaves. In the jar you also find a set of dentures. An infusion made of dentures in alcohol can be slightly disturbing.

The idea of the body cannot be suppressed any more. It floats up in your mind, despite Rujuta’s efforts to abstract the clothes from it. 

But then we also remember that the body, or the clothes, are not being disposed of. They are being preserved. 

A film that Rujuta mentions having watched is Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, featuring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. The film, says Rujuta, constantly slips into modes of care in its attempts at cruelty. She talks about this in the context of her garment-making. 

Something similar seems to be going on in Rujuta’s current laboratory, set up with its apparatus of kink, its glass jars and the objects within. 

In the process of creating, by fragmenting the original objects, cutting them up, stitching them up, and then placing them in alcohol, is it something the artist is doing to herself? Or for herself? Trying to save herself from an enormous weight of the past, and creating new memories by rescuing bits from the past and changing them, so that no one else will know? 

She is not letting them go. These are infusions, she reminds. The object immersed in alcohol, whether it is a harmless piece of cucumber in water, or lemon slices in vodka, or stockings studded with cardamom and stuffed with two shells, as in Rujuta’s jars, the solid object dissolves in the liquid, giving to it its properties. The idea is to extract something from the immersed object, which must be of value. Dis-membering then becomes a way of re-membering, which is also remembering. 

One of Rujuta’s earlier works is about a woman who becomes gradually disembodied as she is teleported around the world, her journey led by prophetic photographs signifying her future travels. She thinks of the body of this woman as a map, Rujuta says. 

Finally, she suggests something that is again rather shocking: that her fictional cocktails may perhaps be imbibed. 

One wonders then about the limits of fiction. Or the possibilities of art.


This text is written alongside Rujuta Rao's work "Tinctura" which is part of the the State of Fashion Biennale 2024 in Bengaluru, India in March-April 2024 and Arnhem, Netherlands in May-June 2024.

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