Portrait of Phoolan Devi, Oil on Canvas, 36"X48"- 2011

1963 to 2001- the short but tragically eventful life story of the so called Bandit Queen of India is the most explicit picture of the realities of a society, where being a woman, is doomed to be a lesser human being in itself, but if the unfortunate girl is born in a family which is not only at the bottom of the economic strata, but also falls in a category that is deprived of all human dignity, the family of the so called untouchables, the low caste; then the responsibility of making compromises to stay alive, lies solely with her.The ‘Dacoit Phoolan’, as she was introduced to the world, first by the Indian media during the days of her revengeful raids and ‘encounters’, her heroic surrender to the Indian authorities and later by Shekhar Kapoor’s celluloid, is not really what she deserves to be remembered as.  These headlines were only for the purpose of the marketing of the Phoolan brand, where a poor child-bride is sold to an adult husband who rapes her, in order to seek revenge she runs away and joins a gang of local petty criminals, she is kidnapped, gang-raped and paraded naked in the village by the rival gang, she finds a chance to settle the score and shoot all of them dead etc. etc.!  One can only have an idea of the realities of the horrific wounding of human dignity in India’s caste ridden (exploited by religion) social structure, when you peep through Phoolan’s autobiography “I Phoolan Devi”. You can only realize the level of degradation a society might have sunk to, when you learn how a low-caste father of a girl-child, supressed since centuries and made accustomed to believe in his fate, has no means to protest when he is ordered to produce his daughter to the high-caste feudal ‘lords’ of the village so that they could unburden their biological urge.There is considerably a lot more to the story of a Bandit, why she had to choose a path for her to be what she was branded as and was it her ‘choice’ in the first place? However, while painting her portrait, I concentrated particularly on the aspect of her being the ‘centre of attraction’ by the members of public who, in spite of witnessing the atrocities she suffered in the broad day light, are not prepared to speak out. The lotus, she stands in, is not only a symbol of the mockery of the Indian belief of giving the woman a status of the goddess, but also the downtrodden for whom she claimed to have took up the arms enacting Robin Hood of the Chambal, did consider her a divine sent force.  Literally too, the phrase Phoolan Devi does mean the goddess of the flowers!
– Kanwal Dhaliwal