Mapping Faith, 2022. Ritual materials (Rudraksha, Mauli, Janeyu, and Jyot) and ink on canvas, 60 x 30 in. Photo: Courtesy Studio Art and Megha Joshi

Beyond Conventional Practice: A Conversation with Megha Joshi

Passionate and opinionated, a self-described feminist and atheist, Megha Joshi is unapologetic in her work and life, questioning misogynistic beliefs and practices. Her sculptures and installations, made with sacred items such as oil lamp wicks, beads, and incense sticks, often take an ironic turn as ritual function and subject matter collide. Yet even her most uncompromising works balance critique with understanding and nuance. The works in her recent exhibition, “Rite of Passage,” take a softer, more inward-looking approach—though the familiar play with materials remains, as Joshi coaxes them into configurations that bring out different feelings and dimensions. The same materials that launched her crusade against the secondary position of women now give insight into a calming world. Will this journey of reconciliation continue, or will it mark just a brief hiatus before Joshi returns to her earlier way of working? Time will tell.

108, 2021–22. Watercolor and acrylic on paper, set of 108, 5 x 3.5 in. each. Photo: Courtesy Studio Art and Megha Joshi

Chitra Balasubramaniam: Rudraksha beads, or tears of Lord Shiva, find a pivotal role in your recent work. Why did you begin using these elements of Hindu practice? Are you interested in their association with healing and protection?
Megha Joshi: Rudraksha beads, given their shape and complexities, are fascinating for an artist. The form attracted me first, then the function. I had seen my grandmother meditate using Rudraksha beads, repeating the same mantra over and over again, 108 times. In my earliest work with the beads, I put a Rudraksha string next to a written punishment given in school classrooms. Teachers commonly make students write out errors or misbehaviors a number of times: “I will not talk in class” or “I will do my homework.” Such repetition, which scientific studies have validated as beneficial in reinforcing and internalizing, is also used in meditation. Thus, the Rudraksha, if taken out of the religious or ritualistic context, has a larger bearing in our day-to-day lives of boons and punishments.

CB: How has your use of the beads changed over the years?
MJ: I have been making biomorphic forms with Rudraksha and other sacred materials for the last 12 years. I call these works Quasi-Rituals. In recent works, I have used Rudraksha as the bead itself and as drawings. In 108 (2021–22), there are 108 forms of Rudraksha drawn with watercolor pencil over a period of 108 days—one Rudraksha every day. This was after Covid, when I had health issues. I was told to meditate, and the drawing was therapeutic. Each day, I would write down my feeling when I drew the Rudraksha. Later, these were copied by a specialist on a grain of rice and added to the drawing. I kept no chronological record as to which day I drew what, but I can still relate feelings to the drawings—the day I was confident, the strokes were bolder; when I was emotional, they were softer.

I have also used Rudraksha, a symbol of Hindusim, with certain patterns from Islamic culture. When juxtaposed, they melt into one another as symbols—for me, the larger picture is that all religions teach the same thing. In Casual Synchronicity (2022), I hand-knotted threads, tying three at a time, and stuck them into the canvas, trying to mimic the undulating Rudraksha bead. The other half of the bead is made up of patterns from Islam; they sit ideally together.

In Untitled (2022), which also includes beads, I tried to visualize an underwater world. I am an underwater diver, and the coral reefs are a revelation. It is a very different world from the one we inhabit—a world in itself. I found rocks with natural indentations and placed Rudraksha beads, in addition to the sacred thread and wick, into them to depict underwater life. It is interesting how the same ritualistic objects can mean something very different in a different context.

Untitled (detail), 2022. Found rock and ritual materials, 1 of 4 stones, 17 x 12 in. Photo: Courtesy Studio Art and Megha Joshi

CB: “Rite of Passage” marked a shift in your approach. How are these recent works different from your earlier works?
MJ: I am a feminist, and I am an atheist; I am attracted to ritualistic and religious objects sans their religious dictums. I have very strong opinions about misogynistic practices. But during Covid, there was a change. There was no room for opinion; instead, the focus was on day-to-day survival. Time was taken up with cooking, health, and caregiving. All this meant that I went back to art in a more therapeutic way. The act of repetition is mundane, yet calming, and several of the things that I have used in these works stem from that. I spent hours covering ordinary wicks (thousands of them) with synthetic paint, which gave me comfort by quieting the mind.

My earlier works were more hard-hitting. For instance, one piece started with the labor “shops” at street corners near my house, where men and women who wanted work would stand to be picked up by contractors. They would carry their tools with them to identify their profession. Human beings were being shopped at a price. I approached a couple of these workers, paid them their wages, and tried to cast their hands with their tools alongside. The experiment was not very successful because a metal worker lunged at me. That experience gave rise to my work on breasts, what they connote, and how they are a focus of sexual urges and needs. In another work, I fixed nipples across the face of a woman, asking whether the same sexual passion would still be aroused. I also wondered what it would mean to be without breasts. Are they a nurturing base, which nature has bestowed, or a hindrance to women?

Many of my earlier works explored societal emphasis on the development of women’s bodies—puberty and menstruation, when they are not considered pure. In India, on the eighth day of Navratri, it is customary to wash and adore young girls’ feet. As a child, I happily went to all the houses; I enjoyed being pampered, eating goodies, and receiving gifts. The moment I reached puberty, however, I was no longer allowed to go. It was a huge disappointment, and I felt how a natural occurrence in the body became a taboo. My initial works used a lot of red—for me, the color of women’s sexuality and gender—and the “Red Series” is ongoing. I question many aspects of gender, including biology and performativity.

Untitled, 2022. Site-specific installation with PU-coated fragrance-free incense sticks (Agarbatti), dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy Studio Art and Megha Joshi

CB: How did you begin as an artist?
I studied art at MS University, Baroda, and specialized in sculpture, focusing on bronze. I had a strong figurative language. Then, I returned to Delhi, where my boyfriend, to whom I am happily married today, was a TV director, and he would constantly ask me to help design sets. I worked hands-on with the carpenters and set creators. Slowly, I was drawn into set design—it was well-paying, and we needed the money. Once we were settled as a family, my husband encouraged me to return to my first love—art—and I began again, consciously, in 2009. The only training I had retained was my ability to sketch. The rest, I started over from scratch. Set design brought me into touch with a lot of materials, which I worked with my own hands, so, for me, materials were not a challenge. I could work with almost anything and had become versatile. I am happier working with a multitude of mediums, and I do better justice to my ideas when I pick up materials as the work requires rather than keeping to a fixed one.

Dwaar/Darwaaza, 2021–22. Acrylic and cotton on MDF, fabric: 96 x 48 in. each. Photo: Courtesy Studio Art and Megha Joshi

CB: Why are you so fascinated with religious and ritualistic objects?
It began with my interest in how religion views gender. The positive or negative status of women in a society is closely linked with its religious beliefs and practices. Beliefs are difficult to work with, but practices open themselves up to experimentation. So, I started working with the symbolic elements of the practices.

I have tried to find meanings in religious objects and their use beyond conventional practice. I see the need for religion. The main religions in India—Hinduism and Islam— are considered divided, but when you move the symbols that represent them outside a religious context, they blend. In Dwar and Darwaaza (2021–22), I employed the wicks used in lamps all over the country. The design of the doors is from the tomb of Nizamuddin in Delhi. Some of my earliest memories are of playing there as a child. I don’t know why the floating layers of doors came to me. Probably, during the pandemic, the heart wanted to go back to the comfort of childhood. On the wooden base, I drew patterns in acrylic paint, which I borrowed from the vocabulary of henna artists. This raises the question of whether henna is a symbol of Islam or of Hinduism. Both communities use it at weddings.

A lot of the ritualistic objects I use are made by women. Lamps and their wicks, as well as incense sticks, are often made by women at home or in small cottage industries. By using these things in my work, I am indirectly providing a source of income for these women.

I have used incense sticks without their smell, weaving them into new forms and then installing them. The shapes are not dictated by design; they are just intuitive and arbitrary. The intent is to provoke the question of whether an incense stick without smell can have any meaning. Incense sticks are burned as offerings, and their religious or ritual meaning/function lies in the scent they give off. When I take that away, making them just sticks, do they then lose all significance?