By Fariha Róisín
Preetika Rajgariah is obsessed with longing.
She tells me this over Zoom, adding that she is obsessed with love, romantic relationships and the ardent satisfaction that a lover’s embrace can reward you with, the way a body can be a salvation against another’s. How aching love can feel so good, and how deliciously it can quench a thirst that’s been trapped inside, lusting for a way out.
This is an important part of Rajgariah’s milieu. She was raised between Bombay and Delhi, so it’s both a reflection of her love of Bollywood and her reverence for one of the most famous actors alive, Shah Rukh Khan, but it’s also what she herself is invested in: stories about love. I am drawn to Rajgariah’s verve for sharing patterns of passion through her art, as this is the energy she brings to the pieces she creates. It’s the same pulpy passion that she has for life in general. Is it queer expression, the playfulness that she exhibits, the camp and drag? Or is it also the decided reflection of a woman in her own making, rapturous and orbited around herself, using that perspective to make work that’s layered; beauty and cheek all at once?
These works, entitled Between Frustration & Fulfilment, are a powerful instruction on embodiment, as every piece is a snapshot of a moment captured in time. Laced together in a collage of recycled materials – mainly her mother’s sari fabrics and old yoga mats – they are pastiched together with acrylic and latex paint. The use of the yoga mat as a canvas came to Rajgariah during the pandemic, after she had collected up to ninety mats for another performance the previous year. The idea for using the mats came to her via scenes of her hybridised life in the United States; as she began creating each image like an altar, an homage to some specific moment, they became more defined, realised and fully formed.
In depicting a snapshot of Khan placing his hand on the forehead of his subjugated, virginal lover (the also incredibly famous Aishwarya Rai) in the iconic film Devdas (2002), Rajgariah entitles her own depiction of that scene in which she plays both Rai and Khan, as “she came to tell her beloved”. The painting “my heart is behind my blouse, my heart is behind my veil” depicts a moment between two faceless dancers (or are they strippers, she asks) draped in saris with dollar bills floating in the abyss around them. Rajgariah holds us in a firm insistent gaze – we are locked in by the trance-like images of her body, or the many bodies – which is exactly where she wants us. It is part of her artistic transaction; to be seen, you must have an audience, even if it’s your own locked stare, as that is part of the dance.
In all our stories and lore, the heroine is always posited as a dormant figure, trapped by our own weak imagination of what she could be, or what she is thinking. That avatar remains stagnant beyond time, never fully comprehensible to us. But that woman is wild and raging in her complexities, the multiple selves of being. She is the merging of many, the goddess and the heroine and, as Rajgariah understands her, she comprehends what it means to “Find me, myself and I in every shot”. She explains that her work is a “tangential performance of being a Brown immigrant woman” in a country like the USA where, unfortunately, such dimensions are still blurred and undiscovered. There’s still so little personification of what an Indian American woman is, and so Rajgariah is in the discovery process of that as well, simultaneously unearthing her own history to determine a new cosmic future. Trying to see yourself in the muddied reflections of white supremacy takes action, it takes a concerted kind of nurturing. These artworks are a result of this, as the artist processes her reality: she is like the goddess and the heroine, but this time she is the auteur as well as the muse.
Rajgariah’s journey through art has been discursive, but has brought her exactly to this point of resolution. After being disappointed by the limited feedback on her grad work, she embarked on a journey of finding herself “in the center”, and her most recent work is a reflection of that. The artist explains that this is also an act of desiring herself. It’s about putting her own body in a position where South Asian bodies are so rarely seen: in front of the camera, naked and raw. This work is generous, it’s hungry, it’s gnawing and it’s challenging. The yoga mat is also a remark on sustainability – in an overly saturated market of wellness, what does it mean that Hindu and Indian spirituality has been cannibalised by the dominant culture? Rajgariah is asking questions about her current place in order to understand and conceive her future; Between Frustration & Fulfilment is a beautiful and satisfying play on that very reality.
Fariha Róisín is a multidisciplinary artist who was born in Ontario, raised in Sydney, and now based in Los Angeles. As a Muslim queer Bangladeshi, she is interested in the margins, liminality, otherness and the mercurial nature of being. Her work has explored wellness, contemporary Islam and queer identities, appearing in The New York Times, Guardian, Village Voice and Al Jazeera, among others. Róisín has published two books of poetry, How To Cure A Ghost (Abrams, 2019) and Survival Takes A Wild Imagination (Andrews McMeel, 2023); the journal Being In Your Body (Abrams, 2019); the novel Like A Bird (Unnamed Press, 2020); and the non-fiction Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who it Leaves Behind (HarperWave, 2022).