Body eclectic

5 Apr

Timeless beauty: Naman Ahuja flanked by the ‘Flying Celestials’ from 8th century Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Kamal Narang



An exhibition in the Capital places Indian art and its experiments with the human body front and centre

Currently hosted at the National Museum in Delhi (till June 7), ‘The Body in Indian Art’ showcases over 300 artworks, sourced from 44 museums across the country and attempts to cover the timeline of Indian art history — from ancient to contemporary — through the human body. It also underscores various belief systems from Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions through sculptures, paintings, masks and jewellery.

Ahuja, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, drew upon his familiarity with Indian museums, visited over 20 odd years, to put together this extensive show in a record time of one year. “When I was told that I would have to represent the entire gamut of Indian art, I decided I wouldn’t fall back on the time-tested chronological method of showing artworks historically. Rather, I wanted to approach it thematically, from death to rapture. Which is why, I chose to explore history through the body, because in Indian art, that is perhaps the most celebrated form,” says Ahuja.



The exhibition looks at the body as a source of beauty, as a shrine, in relation to the larger universe. The body with all its imperfections and flaws. The erotic undercurrent that marks corporal interpretations in Indian art is ever-present as well, but in this instance, it is not entirely spelt out; giving the viewers, the agency to delve through the layers of history and derive their own meanings.



“I began with death because I wanted a universal subject that would draw out the specific manner in which Indian culture approaches death. As you see from the rare contemporary woodcarving of a Naga Warrior and the Sati stones, death is often lionised not just lamented,” says Ahuja. A point that is also well illustrated by other artworks commemorating death, like an ancient sculpture of Yama, the god of death, and Lord Buddha’s Pari-Nirvana that celebrates his ascension to heaven and freedom from the cycle of rebirth.

The section on birth on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the early mother goddess figurines discovered at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa as also an extremely rare Indus Valley depiction of the eight Shaktis known as the Saptamatrikas. A frieze depicting the birth of Lord Buddha as well as a Mughal manuscript portraying the birth of Jesus Christ dwells on the notion of miraculous beginnings. “It is really the story of Mother Mary’s immaculate conception that is celebrated in the nativity, for Mary was also born of Anna, through the Holy Spirit,” says Ahuja. Hence alongside the nativity, there is also a Mughal painting of the birth of Mary, based on an engraving by the Dutch engraver and draughts-man Cornelis Cort (around 1735).



Moving away from the worldly incarnations of divinity, yet another section of the exhibition highlights the body in relation to celestial forms. A rare exhibit here is the Akbari Tarjama-sirr al-makhtum or the Book of Talismans, commissioned by Akbar to map the zodiac, and a giant sculpture of Shiva manifesting the cosmos and the planets.

But despite the plenitude of historical artefacts, there’s room too for a tight selection of contemporary art from the studios of Subodh Gupta, Sheela Gowda and Pushpamala N, among others. “I have also chosen contemporary tribal and folk art, because I did not want to make a distinction between what is considered avant garde contemporary art and the living tradition of tribal art,” says Ahuja.

A sublime 10th century Chola bronze, of Saint Manikkavacakar, depicts a figure dressed in the bare essentials — perhaps, more enticing than the ornate Nataraja, included in the section on rapture. Another notable work is the playful Ragamala painting of Radha and Krishna, donning each other’s clothes in an act of love.

From the beautiful sandstone sculpture of Surasundari from 10th century Khajuraho, of a woman writing a love note after a night of passion, the nail marks still fresh on her back, to a monumental 9th century Naga Deva from the Bhopal Museum, covered in snake skin, here beauty finds expression in a range of disparate forms.

“In Brussels, the exhibition was appreciated for its aesthetics, but in India, what I enjoy is that people will get the story behind the works,” says Ahuja, as new visitors trickle in.

(Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer)

(This article was published on March 28, 2014) 



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