Worshipper of the Body Divine - The New Indian Express

Worshipper of the Body Divine

Published: 01st June 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 31st May 2014 11:44 AM

This dynamic professor knows the art of creating a courageous multicultural dialogue. Through 300 artefacts that span 4,000 years of Indian history, Naman P Ahuja, the curator of Rupa Pratirupa: The Body in Indian Art, a landmark exhibition held at the National Museum, New Delhi, celebrates the corporeal, the spiritual, the sensuous and the sacred in the concept of “body”. He has tried to study the pluralistic approach to body and India. He says, “Normally, it takes three-four years minimum to pull such an exhibition together. I tried to do my best in 15 months. Because it was a temporary exhibition, I could take certain liberties with chronology that a permanent exhibition demands.” The artefacts in the “diachronic” exhibition that has also travelled to Brussels have been sourced from various museums and collectors across the country. Divided into eight sections and displayed in different galleries, the exhibition travels through the concepts of ‘Death’, ‘The Body Beyond the Limits of Form’, ‘Rebirth—‘Creation’, ‘Mothers’, ‘Miraculous Children’, ‘The Body in Cosmos’, ‘The Body Ideal: Supernatural’, ‘Heroic’, ‘Ascetic’ and ‘Rapture: The Body of Art’. It’s a fantasy field of unknown and lesser known artworks, interspersed with very familiar video narratives of folk rituals. The sculpture of Putana feeding Krishna is just one of the 300 works that demand a viewing of solid and static works as performing and not visual art. “The Putana sculpture is the capturing of time. There she is feeding him (Krishna), there she is dead. The body smells. Where am I going to get smell in a visual art exhibition?” Ahuja wants to study India outside religion through this exhibition. “I wanted to look at everyday men and women, not gods and goddesses only, from medieval India. Death made a powerful start.”

Ahuja, who teaches Art History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, starts with certain “burning questions”. Does Indian art show only voluptuous beauties? Is there any way of showing aging bodies, decrepitude and illness? Where are the sick people in Indian art? Are we a society that refuses to acknowledge our failings? “I had a hard time thinking. It was turning out to be pretty tough. In Greek art you see all the strong voluptuous and heroic men with their perfect bodies, if you study Indian art, where are the fabulous looking men? Why is Indian art so fundamentally patriarchal that it has no interest in showing the male body except in symbolic ways whereas the female is shown in a highly sexualised figure?” Kartikeya and Shiva come across as the heroes in a wide representation of male bodies. The figures of Kaumari, Lajja Gauri and Kinnara with a musical instrument engage you in a strong gender narrative. The physical merges and lingers out of metaphysical. Death, “the great leveler”, dispels the Western cliches and probes the Jain, Hindu and Islamic philosophies. The seductive curvaceous female bodies give way to the jolting, excruciating, scary depiction of death and Kankaal Bhairav. Before you tend to ask the voluptuous, beautiful woman in one of the seductive Khajuraho sculptures what prompted her to write, Ahuja throws light from his phone on its flowing back. The light  thrown on the stone sculpture reveals passion, the love-making endured during the night, the nail marks. “When I first learnt about it, I was so fascinated. Here is a woman who is so empowered. She is a literate woman who is writing. But the sculptor has done more than that. Look closely at that sculpture. Her entire back is covered with nail marks. Just as her body is incised, she too has been incised into something. It’s out of love that she is being motivated to write. That’s something so unusual.”

For Ahuja, one way of thinking of art was through mythology. But he wanted to break the trap for the cultural narrative. He adds, “We can think of Sita, Lakshmi, Durga, Draupadi archetypes in our myths. The gender questions come into play with regard to two or three powerful works, including the sculpture of a woman putting a blade to her throat—a woman warrior who is being remembered by her community. She is sacrificing herself for a cause. Right next to it, I have kept a Sati plaque in the background. I can’t deny the history of Sati or patriarchy. It’s there. I don’t wish to foreground it. You don’t ignore it. You don’t brush it (history) under the carpet.” Was the motive behind the “intellectually draining” exhibition to create a multi-cultural dialogue through the concept of body or to present a contrast between the medieval and “contemporary”? Ahuja says, “I was doing both. Contemporary has a very bad definition these days. It’s just not the work of Dayanita (Singh), Subodh (Gupta) and Pushpanmala  N who are urban studio artists. Contemporary is also Amarchitra Katha. Abanindra Nath’s work of Bharat Mata became a print. Gandhi becoming Markandya and the Bharat Mata pictures. That’s visual art affecting people’s lives. It’s art being used for political purposes. It was powerful art.” It’s performing art.

The Showstoppers

A squatting woman giving birth supported by two attendants. In wood, from South India.

Lajja Gauri depicts the process of giving birth. In sandstone, from Madhya Pradesh.

Independence is our birthright. Galaxy of Congress leaders... offset coloured print. From Priya Paul’s collection. 

A page from Shahnama showing the birth of Rustam. In Persian, Nastaliq.

Demoness Putana suckling Krishna. In wood, from Odisha. Double-sided carved relief Ardhanarishwara on one side, an old Tara/Lakshmi painted on the other. In stone, from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh.

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