Chitika advt.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Beautiful Bodies at The National Museum

  The National Museum in Delhi is currently exhibiting probably their most seminal exhibition of the decade. It's an exhibition on the Body in Art and it's got exhibits from over 36 museums and has just come back from Brussels and is on its way to a number of other countries.  It takes up 8 rooms and almost the whole First Floor of the Museum. In fact, it actually takes up the entire area on that floor - except the shop (which is entirely Freudian to my way of thinking). It's got sections on sacrifice, heroism, motherhood, children, astrology, the supernatural, sainthood, rapture and some of the pieces date back to the 2nd Century BC, which is something that only India's ancient culture could throw up. 

The bad news is that it's a really confused exhibition, which it has to be, with such a broad theme. The unsubstantiated rumor is that the Museum had borrowed works from some museums abroad and rather than send them back, they extended the insurance and put together this exhibition. I have no idea if this rumor is true but I do know, when I asked the curator why he'd designed the exhibition like this, he didn't answer. Perhaps the answer involved an exploration of his psyche and was too complicated but I don't understand why he'd pick these topics in particular among the infinite topics that could come under this theme and I couldn't spot any literature on that. Which is why the theory that the exhibition grew around the pieces makes sense.

 The second problem is that it's an exhibition of all ages. There's modern stuff like the now-famous installation by Mrinalini Mukherjee called 'Basanti', mixed with ancient pieces from the Harappan civilization; and
photographs by Dayanita Singh and Pushpamala which posit Saroj Khan amidst exquisite sculptures of Durga and Buddha. Which leads directly to the next problem - the inclusion of contradictory and awkward pieces in themes e.g. A Shivling (but, what a Shivling!) taking pride of place in a room devoted to Mothers. I don't like the confusion!

But, having raised these issues, there's one word that makes the exhibition a must see. Exquisite!! The pieces are exquisite and the wealth of art filling out this exhibition is mind blowing. There are pieces from 42 museums and Naman Ahuja and his team have scoured museum after museum to get their hands on the best that each museum had to offer, including the National Museum, whose opened their storerooms and taken out the jewels lying in the locker (metaphorically) for this one.

It's also a huge exhibition that needs to be visited again and again to get the full impact. I've visited it twice so far, once alone and once on a curated walk. The first time, I concentrated on the pieces and the next, I listened to the curator but didn't get the time (or space. There were some 300 people on the curated walk) to look at the art. And in both cases, I could only focus till Room 5, after which I zoned out. It's simply too big to comprehend and assimilate. The next time I go, and there's definitely a next time, I'm going to start from the last room. Luckily, the exhibition is in a circular space and theoretically, it might make sense to end in the first room, simply because the theme of the room is death.

The first room is probably there for shock and awe reasons. It focuses on death and among the amazing pieces are head stones devoted to a Sati, a woman warrior and folk heroes, among others. It also has a gorgeous statue of Shiva in his Bhairava form. The next room is about saintliness or achieving nirvana and focuses on the various ways saints or those achieving nirvana across various religions are portrayed including the hand marks of Muslim saints that are carried during religious processions and the feet marks of Vishnu and Jain sages kept in temples down south. There is also a recurring series of paintings of achieving transcendence/nirvana/oneness with God through moving from the body to nothingness. After which comes two more nondescript rooms, one with a video installation of dances. And then, come the superlative four rooms that are stand outs!

 The first of these rooms is devoted to mothers/birth and it's probably the most problematic room for me (maybe because I know a bit about Goddesses and I can't really hold a learned arguement about astrology and vastu it taught me a whole lot more) and it contains the famous Shivling and the equally famous 'Basanti' (photo's above) which is composed of Hemp and invokes a woman's body. It also contains pieces ranging from the Harappan civilization to sculptures of the Goddess Jayeshta (the Goddess of misfortune worshipped from the 3rd century BC till the 10th century AD), Hariti (the Buddhist Ogress/Goddess who devoured children in her Zoroastrian avatar and then changed into a protector of women, children and families after joining Buddhist mythology), an intertwined Naga couple
and my personal favorite, the statue of Lajja Gauri (the classical statue of a woman squatting on a lotus in a birthing position with her face covered by a lotus flower which has been found from Mesopotamia till Southern India between the 1st and 3rd Century). Naman Ahuja had a theory about the Goddess being seen to represent disease (admittedly, also a kind of birth within the body) including the plague and being propitiated through worship till the disease is wiped out, which explains the short shelf life of these goddesses. For example, Lajja Gauri could have come to India along with the forces of Alexander the Great and could have occurred due to the decimation of his forces due to smallpox. 

The room after that pertains to birth. This (and the next room) would be the ones I would have loved more literature on because there were not only stunning pieces, they were also based on tales I don't know a lot about. For example, the story of the divine immaculate birth of Mother Mary is shown in a drawing in a beautiful old book. Similarly, I hadn't realized how many stories about adoption/surrogacy there are in Indian literature. Krishna, Kartikeya and Mahavir were all represented - which, according to Mr. Ahuja, was a sign of circumventing or breaking down the caste system (I'm not really convinced by this argument but heck, I'm not the expert)

The room after that is the room devoted to astrology. It's arranged as per a woman's vastu ( highly unusual. Usually, I've been told, there's only a vastu purush). There's graphic drawings of remedies to illnesses, sculptures of the various God's of astrology (arranged in the astrologically correct corners), a sculpture of Vishnu with all the symbols of astrology on his body 
 and even a snakes and ladder game exemplifying life as a game of chance. This is the fun room that I've never seen anything like before. In fact, personally, I'd have come to see the exhibition only for this and the next room which is the room dedicated to the supernatural bodies of God's.

This room is utterly different, although it's got the most usual topic. It's made in the shape of a temple, has the measurements to which every Buddhist and Vishnu statues should adhere,
a piece that shows the orignal lintel that Western scholars decided represented the perfect Indian body, statues of Buddha as king and monk and a fantastic statue of a Naga dwarpal (doorman) that. Is made from a stone that looks like snakeskin. And the room raises the question about whether the inside of the temple was only for the high castes and the outside of the building was decorated to be seen by the lower castes? And therefore, was the ideal of perfection different as well for different castes? Was that why the outside of temples are decorated with grotesque and the unshapely male figures and beautiful yakshis (and in certain cases, 'amorous friezes) because you were to aspire to (or  lust after) the  superhuman ripped abs of the Gods (or upper caste) bodies inside? 

You tend to reach Room 7 in a haze with your brain fried by staring at too much beauty, which is a pity, because this is the room dedicated to the warrior and it's filled with the most exquisite Gandhara art with every ripple of the the hair and robe beautifully delineated. I wish I could even start describing the rooms after this to you, but I genuinely can't. I just remember that they're dedicated to the ascetic and since there can be no women ascetic, the nearest there is, is a statue of an unknown woman ascetic with her head loped off (probably much later by Mughal marauders). She does, however, still have her plait. But the last thing I remember of the exhibition is Mr. Ahuja's story that Jainism says that an ascetic can change even their sex through pure devotion.

The exhibition is on till June and it's been covered in detail by a lot of newspapers and magazines, which makes it the first Indian exhibition I've seen to receive this kind of publicity. The budgets were, I believe, phenomenal. But, the exquisiteness of the pieces and their perfectly preserved state prove that art is timeless. I mean, what else has survived for us to understand e.g. the Harrappan civilization except art and architecture? This exhibition, with all it's flaws and abrupt changes into modern art, is THE national exhibition that shows you India's culture down the ages.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Raja Ravi Varma - Religion / art; beauty / kitsch?


1. Lady Holding Fruit - NGMA, Delhi   
2. Woman at Ball Game  - K.K.Varma Collection, Madras   
3.The Miser - NAG, Chennai 1901                                                          
4. Vishwamitra and Menaka - Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum,                                Lakshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara (Baroda), Gujarat.1890
5. Birth of Shakuntala  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shirdiwalle Sai Baba (Lab pe duayen, aakhon main aansoon)

They say that you only visit Dwarkamai (Sai Baba's masjid/home) when you're called by him. Since my sister seems to have a direct line to a lot of religious deities (Ajmer Sharif, Vaishno Devi and Tirupati included), she and her friends received the call four years ago. Since she started worshipping Baba later than mum or me; this was  vaguely problematic but actually getting to Shirdi involved work and yes, a call.  There was no urgency. 

Evidently, Baba must have got tired of my procrastination and over one excited dinner, I agreed to accompany the three ladies (and later on, also a 7 year old old-soul) to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves via Aurangabad. When the fabled trip unexpectedly materialized a month later and I was struggling to extricate myself, someone mentioned a possible sidetrip to Shirdi and I let myself get sucked in. Of course, I was entirely laid back (read lazy) and left it to them to fix the details, since they had all been there and had friends in high places. And I left town for another holiday. And the trip to Shirdi turned into a no-go. Nobody had a contact who wasn't on holiday and they couldn't get the website to work.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Requiem to Libraries

Ah Dilli! 

The image of Dilli and Dilliwallahs that I tend to have involve people lying in bed in muslin angarakhas and kurta's with the cooler spraying Khas laden air onto them, a steel glass of sherbet by their side as they listen to music and read. Or folks sitting in their suits and saris in front of a fireplace and reading, while the record player plays softly in the background and a glass of whiskey sits on the table besides them. Or, sitting with a warm cup of tea early in the morning, wrapped in their warm dressing gowns, as they read the newspaper before they start the day. Or the typically filmy vision of a Lutyens Delhi family sitting on their wide, green lawns with their tea, newspaper and dog. Or even the tiny green, bougenvilla-clad balconies overlooking the road in Vasant Kunj with a writer and a reader sitting close to each other because there simply isn't enough space. This is the civilized side of Dilli that I love. After all, Dilliwallahs take (or used to take) a lot of pride in being the city of Ghalib.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

NGMA and the Amrita Sher-Gill retrospective

If theres one painter from India people have heard of, chances are that it's Amrita Sher-Gill. She lived for only 28 years (1913- 1941) across two continents in four countries, was famous for her personal life (including her parents and her lifestyle choices), was an erudite letter writer and a glamorous dresser who's copied even today; but she did find the time to produce about a hundred and seventy five paintings, become the youngest artist to be elected as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933, became the most significant woman painter of early 20th century India and the highest selling woman artist ever in India and created figures and art styles that are instantly recognizable.
 Amrita - A Self-Portrait; 
NGMA, Delhi ( in the Tahitian style)

And everyone's a fan - from East European students doing their PhD on her work, to rich men and women who live on the street named after her and buy her works for some Rs. 42 crores per piece (Amrita Sher-Gil's 1931 'Untitled (Zebegeny Landscape)' was put up for sale by Saffronart in 2012 and the estimated bid was between Rs 3,24,00,000 to Rs 4,32,00,000 (US$600,000 to 800,000); to your average Joe who's grown up with posters of her works.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

True Love (a belated Valentines Day story)

My God has come home and all's right with my world for today. As usual, the moment he appears, I go into ecstasy. In fact, I can smell his wonderful aroma long before he arrives. It smells of sandalwood and sweat and it's my God's scent. I hate waiting for His return everyday but He has many mysterious and magical tasks to complete and people to look after before He comes home to me. But He returns to me at the end of the day and with that I'm content.