Exclusive: Meet the Indian artist showcasing her works for Dior at Paris Fashion Week



“I did not do the work specially for Dior’s Paris Fashion Week 2024 as it is impossible to do nine armours in two months. One of the Dior directors happened to walk into my gallery on Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai – sometime in March/April 2023 – during the exhibition of my drawings ‘Quieter than Silence – Compilation of Short Stories’. He saw my catalogues of juloos and of body armour and cages and gave it to Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of Christian Dior, and it all began to move,” says Shakuntala Kulkarni, who was part of the showcasing, a first for any Indian artist. “I never have an idea till something triggers off a concept or an image, hence there is always a difficult and challenging blank space,” she explains.

For the uninitiated, juloos, as she calls it, is about the film ‘Julus’, which is a declaration of the vision that each person has an equal right and freedom as an individual, and as part of a community. “I have dived into the memory archive and histories and taken reference from the terracotta warriors from China, to address my concerns. They stand and sit holding a spear or a sword (which is now not visible and needs to be imagined). As individuals these warriors speak of power, grace, and valour, standing together as a group, as a battalion, they also speak of strength and togetherness. I pose as the warrior, unstoppable, fearless, powerful, and free,” she says on her website.

“When I had a conversation with Maria Grazia, we discovered common concerns; we both were speaking about women empowerment and freedom. She was looking at the new woman, and so was I, or rather the possibility of who she could become, or who she is. Strength and energy, grace, and dignity too. Maria Grazia used fabric, while I used cane to protect (the body). I love movement. I use body language in my films and installations. Hence the models walking in choreographed movements are appealing. I was offered a solo. The designing and technical teams were excellent. In fact, all the teams were great. It was a great experience working together and an opportunity to create an installation in the huge space in Paris. It was very challenging and exciting,” says the 74-year-old multimedia artist.


Born in 1950, in Karnataka, Shakuntala is a Bombay-based artist, who was trained at the Sir JJ School of Art, MSU Baroda, as well as Santiniketan. Tutored by Somnath Hore in mural painting, Shakuntala moved to sculpture and performance. She recalls her childhood and says she experienced no restrictions at home. Her family was very welcoming of her choices. Only when she went to college, “out in the world I experienced discrimination. In personal and shared experiences, in literature, theatre, and films, I felt anxiety within the community of women, sometimes subtly, sometimes loudly,” says Shakuntala.

In the late 80s and early 90s, she abandoned abstract paintings, and started drawing human figures. She later shifted to female spaces and started expressing the status of women within the parameters of domesticity. “I also shifted my medium from water colours to installations using different mediums, and disciplines. Theatre has been a huge influence on my work, especially ‘intimate’ theatre. Hence, I started inviting viewers to participate in the work, and experience the fear women experience within society, which is essentially patriarchal,” she adds.

Body politics was approached and addressed in different ways – the gaze, right to marry, and bear children, and other issues like abortion and equal status were each handled differently. Shakuntala has used her body as a medium to express all this through videos, photographs, live performances, installations, drawings, and also by using cane for an armour.

“When drops of tar fell on me while walking in a crowded place in Mumbai, the burns on my body triggered the need for protection in public spaces. When I read about rapes in India, where little girls and children were also being molested, I felt responsible to address it. Thus, the idea of protecting the body from atrocities and violence came up. I designed the armour in such a way that it was a metaphor for protection as well as a cage-like structure that trapped the body within it. Marriages, which are supposed to protect a girl, are many times routes to atrocities, honour killing, dowry deaths, objectification et al,” she confesses. “The police and defence forces are for our protection, but they can also be vicious and violent. There are instances of custodial rape as well.”


“I experimented with different materials, but it did not work. So, before abandoning the project, I tried experimenting with the cane chairs and curtains I had. I have always loved cane. Cane looks delicate, but it is tenacious. When joined together, it can deflect the gaze. It is flexible and can be bent and twisted when heated. It is monochromatic in colour and has shades of black, which is interesting,” says Shakuntala on why cane is her favourite material.

Between 2010 and 2012, Shakuntala did 11 armours; 2013/14 three armours; they all belonged to the project ‘Of bodies armour and cages’. In 2015, she indulged in parts of cane armour, cane jewellery and objects for the four projection, and synchronised video juloos. In 2022, she made five armour projects called ‘Amour for the brides’.

Shakuntala says, “I started researching head gears/ dresses, and looked at masks from various countries and cultures as I did not want any one nationality or culture. So, I experimented with hairdos from Roman sculptures to Bollywood hairstyles of the 60s and 70s which I loved; dresses from Rajasthani ghagras to Manipuri and Kathakali costumes to colonial dresses; wedding dresses to miniskirts my daughter wore, to dungarees worn by my son. Each armour is different and can take anywhere from one month to three months, or more, depending on the complexity of the armour.”

Shakuntala continues: “I have a fondness for clothing and textiles. My babies were wrapped in soft cloth and were covered by quilts made by my grandmother and mother. My mother stitched dresses for me and my children. Hence, I have a tender feeling towards cloth, and prefer cotton. I love to collect saris from the loom, and if possible traditional saris from different parts of India; my collection of lungis are from various countries such as Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka, India and Bhutan. It was a great experience to see my armour as dresses on models.”

Threats on women continue, she says. “Though many are economically independent and confident, most are still struggling. Hence, the need to address these concerns still linger.” – Asmita Aggarwal is Fashion & Lifestyle Editor of Nrifocus.com


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.