Portrayal of Indian womanhood in various hues

New Delhi, Apr.28: Seething with anger at the Kauravas who have tried to disrobe her, Draupadi unlocks her long wavy tresses with a vow that she will tie it again only after smearing it with the blood of Dushasan, the main culprit.

The flowing hair, a two-metre-long work of threads and metal hooks and interspersed with glistening red beads symbolising blood of her tormentor, lies in a glass case at an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum.

Barely some distance away, a curvaceous celestial beauty (10th century sandstone Apsara from Khajuraho) stands under a tree, scribbling a note of love on parchment. There are nail-marks on her back – a sort of inscription of her lover’s passionate lovemaking the night before.

These are among the stirring images of Indian womanhood that filter into your mindscape as you make a round of “The Body in Indian Art”, a mammoth eight-gallery exhibition that depicts the single theme of the body with multiple expressions of art.

Significantly, these images tend to break the stereotypes of Indian womanhood, which has mostly oscillated between the two extremes of divinity (Sita, Ahalya) and sensuous physicality (Khajuraho, Kamasutra). India does celebrate the varied shade of aesthetics of femininity, but this exhibition is an incredible depiction of womanhood in its scale and depth.

Curated by Dr Naman Ahuja, Associate Professor of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the exhibition (titled ‘Roop-Pratiroop’ in Hindi) goes beyond the cliched images and patterns to depict the Indian womanhood in all its shades – ugly and serene, shame and honour, valour and servility – expressed through images of making love, seeking revenge, committing Sati, and becoming an ascetic, among others.

The female figures are not pertinent to the aesthetics of a particular era or faith or region or culture. Overall, they encompass looks ranging from serene to violent, from sensuous to divine, thus portraying concepts and emotions as vast as heroism, asceticism, adoption, fertility, eroticism and rancour, among others.

The 11-week (March 14 to June 7) show has been arranged in conformity with the idea of depicting the thesis along with the antithesis in each of the eight specially-designed galleries. The trail follows no chronological order; instead it goes by themes such as death, birth, rebirth, heroism, asceticism and rapture.

Some of the exhibits depicting the womanhood are ‘Virasati’ (commemorating a woman warrior from 13th century AD); a textile installation (of the female genital) by new-age artist Mrinalini Mukherjee; an 18th-century wooden sculpture of a squatting woman giving birth to a baby; the Mother Goddesses from Harappa; demoness Putana suckling Krishna; Mallinatha (the Jain woman ascetic); Saptamatrika or The Seven Mothers (a 2nd or 3rd century AD terracotta work from Patna Museum); and Surasundaris (a celebration of the body).

“The body is the bedrock of the studies of art and civilisation in India. The exhibition seeks to portray the images of women as perceived by different communities and religions spanning four millennia of Indian civilization,” Dr. Ahuja says about his magnum opus, which comes to India after enthralling the audiences at Brussels as part of the famed Europalia art show. The event in the Belgian capital attracted an audience of over one million people.

There is a section of the exhibition that looks at the birth of key figures from various religions, among them Krishna, Buddha, Ram and Jesus. All these figures were born as a result of an Immaculate Conception or miraculous event – a phenomenon that makes them divine. Krishna was given up for adoption while Jain leader Mahavira was transferred – as an embryo – from the womb of his biological mother to another womb. Significantly, these age-old mythic stories have compelling resonance in modern times in the concepts of adoption, surrogacy and in-vitro fertilisation.

Dr Ahuja says there is no linear way to express femininity. While the apsara sculpture from Khajuraho celebrates the erotic power of the body, the imperfection is portrayed in the mid-20th century wooden carving of the demoness Putana, who is trying to kill the infant Krishna by smearing her breasts with poison.

There is a statue of a woman warrior from the Kakatiya period (1083-1323 AD) who is severing her head with a sharp weapon. “It is rare to find examples of women warriors being commemorated, and it could find a reflection in modern-day women suicide bombers,” observes the curator. “Women were also commemorated for their valour and fidelity. This was more commonly done for those who committed sati, which is reflected in two 13th century sati memorial stones.”

Contemporary Indian art has also found a place in the exhibition, which weaves the subjects of birth, death and rapture into the making of a civilisation. Sheela Gowda brings back to the exhibition her 1997 work “Draupadi’s Vow”; photo artist N.Pushpamala lends a picture from her collection ‘Native Women’(2000-2004) to visually analyze women’s submission to cultural codes of India’s colonial rulers.

“This exhibition is a watershed,” says National Museum Director General Dr Venu V. “It is more than double the size of the biggest exhibition we have ever had. Nearly a quarter of the objects have never been shown before.” (ANI)