In Sultana’s Dream, her second suite of prints with Durham Press, Chitra Ganesh has brought to life an eponymous short story by Rokeya Sakhhawat Hossain, first published in 1905 in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine (Madras, India). The story’s narrator is Sultana, an Indian woman of Hossain’s time who practices purdah (the seclusion and veiling of women). In a dream, she visits Ladyland, where she experiences a society administered by and for women, made possible by the purdah-like seclusion of men—the result of a catastrophic military failure by men that was remedied through strategic technological inventions by women. The peaceful country is ruled by a generous and progressive queen who rigorously promotes education, science and horticulture for her female subjects. Water is collected from the atmosphere by an enormous balloon, solar power fuels cooking and heating, and flying cars provide transportation. The tale closes with an abrupt return to reality for both the awakened Sultana and reader.
Ganesh’s 27 images, which featured prominently in her solo exhibition in New York at the Kitchen in the fall of 2018, convey Hossain’s prescient anticipation of technological and social advances. Simultaneously, the viewer is made acutely aware of Hossain’s unrealized ambitions for female agency and sustainable resources. For the artist, Hossain’s text represents “the enduring relevance of feminist utopia imaginaries in offering an invaluable means of envisioning a more just world.”1 The work’s somber ethical and social content is complemented by the artist’s fanciful world, in which women express their individuality through creative self-adornment, Gaudí-like architecture, fantastical vehicles and exotic horticulture. Throughout, Ganesh’s grounding in popular visual cultures of India and of the West is apparent. In a departure from her usual vibrant color palette culled from graphic novels, these bold images are printed only in black. The paper’s pale umber tone suggests an old manuscript, further complicating the futuristic images.
Some images relate to specific passages, while others evoke Hossain’s characters and ethos more broadly, such as Baby Queen which shows the seated sovereign of Ladyland crowned with emanating rays of enlightenment. Ganesh also ventures beyond the text, exploring the contemporary resonance of the story in prints such as Event Horizon. Here Ganesh provides a Desi-inspired image of female empowerment: a young woman with eye tattoos gazing skyward at a female superhero charging through the night sky.2
- Artist’s introduction, published in the portfolio.
- Facial dot tattoos are applied in Hindu societies for body ornament and beautification. They also have religious connotations and are believed to ward off evil.