The complicated relationship between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ is another territory that needs exploration while looking through Hariharan’s work. These words are often used interchangeably, especially by those in the fields of art, literature and social sciences. However, the difference between the two is like an elephant in the room. The female body is often a soft target during political violence across the world. Hariharan states that the ‘Barbecue Republic’ is his reaction to the brutality of political violence faced by women in different parts of the world, including Nazi Germany, Congo and Gujarat. The words ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ could be alternately read as the targets of emotional and physical violence, respectively, towards women during these carnages. The role of photography in making the world empathize with suffering and injustice is unquestionable. However, the use of photography in healing wounds is less discussed. British photographer Jo Spence (1934-1992) , known as the pioneer of therapeutic photography, created self-portraits about her own fight with breast cancer in an attempt to subvert society’s ideas about the ideal female body. She firmly believed that photography could be used to make visible the cultural norms that surround us and make us sick. As we sail into the second quarter of the technology-driven 21st century, where gender norms are likely to be more fluid, artists, irrespective of their gender, are expected to ask more questions about themselves while portraying another person’s body.
Any modern-day discussion on the portrayal of the female body will be incomplete without the words of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). The author of Second Sex, one of the most influential works on feminism, considered the body as more than an object. “The body is not a thing; it is a situation. It is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” The virtual world we currently inhabit offers multiple realities to its citizens. We have options to reconfigure or alter our appearances in these realities. People are eager to present a better/more beautiful version of themselves in the online world. Most of us hesitate to post our own photos online without a stroke of retouching. This digitization of appearances focuses on beautifying certain parts or aspects of the body. This can range from merely changing the complexion of the skin to altering the size of body parts. This happens amid the wealthiest of society surgically altering their body parts to suit the contemporary concepts of beauty. However, for the masses, the digital makeover is the only solace as of now. Academics are increasingly using the word ‘digitized dysmorphia’ to understand the trend of people altering their own body images to suit the online world. Here too, it is the women who become the torch-bearers and victims at the same time. It seems the burden on women to appear beautiful is not waning. As we continue to set new criteria for defining beauty and ugliness, if Umberto Eco is true, the exact opposite is also automatically reinventing itself. ‘Barbecue Republic’, through its improbable distortion of the female body, indirectly unveils the insurmountable summit a woman awaits in our world.
As I try to deconstruct the emotions that I felt at the hospital, I am reminded of peeling the onion. A trip to the inner layers could bring up uncomforting questions about the self and the unknown forces that constantly reshape it. Yet, such questions also help us navigate the labyrinth which we call life.