Body language

A walk through The Body in Indian Art exhibit with curator Naman Ahuja, as he guides visitors through 4,000 years of corporeal depictions

(This piece was first published in BW|Businessworld)

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi 'Lakulisha' at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

A 4th Century depiction of Dvilingi ‘Lakulisha’ at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum.

 

The thing about being culturally inclined – but clueless – and attending an art exhibition is that one walks through the gallery feeling amazed but lost. Over the past month, I’ve managed to visit the Subodh Gupta Retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, gaze at Amrita Shergill’s revolutionary work also exhibited there, and take a walk through history and the understanding of the human body in art over centuries at the Body in Indian Art exhibition currently on at the National Museum in New Delhi.
But the differentiating factor between my visits to the first two exhibitions (countless ones before them) and the Body in Indian Art was that my walk-through in the latter was led by the show curator Naman Ahuja, who is also an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. And, quite honestly, that’s what made a universe of a difference.
How else would one appreciate the layout of the exhibition across 14,000 sq. ft in a circular fashion, as a body that’s wrapped around you? Starting an exhibition on the body with a display on ‘death’ may be counterintuitive to most, but all art is in some way a record of death, says Ahuja as he stands between two memorial stones at the entrance to the exhibition on the first floor of the museum. “Every work, after all, is a death of the artist. A moment that can’t be recreated,” he says.
The exhibit explores the artist’s interpretation of the body in death, birth/re-birth, in rapture, or even what may be the Indian equivalent of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The whole exhibition is divided into eight galleries — (1) death, and the end of the body, (2) birth and re-birth, (3) how astrology and cosmology determine the fortunes of the body, (4) the nature of divine bodies, (5) heroism and ideal bodies, (6) asceticism and the development of practices of healing and yoga, (7) the body in rapture or possessed, and (8) the body as a symbol.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee's stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed -- on birth and rebirth -- was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee’s stunning work in dyed hemp, called Basanti, at The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum. The gallery where it was displayed — on birth and rebirth — was inspired by the womb of a yogini temple.

It was fascinating to hear the thought behind the conception of the exhibit, which starts with memorial stones — first, an evocative sculpture of a warrior disembowelling himself with a sword (reminiscent of Japanese warriors performing Harakiri), and alongside is a rather rare sculptor of a female warrior performing a similar ritual, both being serenaded by apsaras.
As one moves to the gallery of death of the body, and remembrance, there is a huge Sanjhi Tree cut out by Payal Khurana that arrests your attention. Take a walk through the various symbolisms of ‘death of the body but the continuance of the soul’ — from a beautifully craved crypt, to a series of Buddha footprints, etched, painted or sculpted, spread across the centuries that act as a substitution of the physical being, just like Rama’s slippers were kept on the throne while he was on vanavas in the epic Ramayana.
What strikes a chord with the viewer is the juxtaposition of sculptures and paintings cutting across centuries, religion and gender. Ahuja talks of the birth and rebirth gallery as being designed to resonate a woman’s womb, with all the energy directing you towards Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Basanti — a powerful vision in dyed hemp, weaved suggestively as a flower or even representative of a woman’s reproductive organ. This is contrasted with the strangely erotic ancient goddess Lajja Gouri giving birth with her legs spread wide and a 2nd century red sandstone headless sculpture of Hariti — the Iranian ogress who turned from eating babies to a protector of children.
Leading us to the third gallery, crossing imageries of the happy families of Shiva-Durga-Ganesh-Kartik, Yashodhara-Krishna-Nanda, among others, Ahuja commented on the irony of such iconic families of Indian mythology actually being quite unconventional in their formation — with the birth of the children in the first family happening during the absence of the father, and the latter of a child living with foster parents. As Ahuja said, “There is no norm in mythology as to what constitutes a happy family.” Now, although, these are summations that would seem fairly obvious to some, for others — such as myself — one has to admit to the deeper insight gained due to these observations by the curator, whose “‘thing’ is supposed to be his vast knowledge of which artwork is housed by which museum across the country”, according to one of the organisers.
From birth to cosmology and the divine, the exhibition evokes the mysteriousness of the body and that of the universe. From the corporeal to the spiritual — what controls us? WHat is the role of destiny? One can debate the existence of free will as influences from Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Tantric schools of thought are represented through the human form so as to contain the whole universe within it. Which is probably why, then, there is a rather easy transition to that of the ‘ideal’ form — that of the supernaturals — gods and deities. Though, Ahuja does take a sceptical point of view on the immortals, saying: “Gods aren’t just immortal, public relations turn them into immortals”, while simultaneously and appreciatively pointing out the nuances of the imagery, down to the reasoning behind the selection of a particular stone that would naturally look like flakes for a sculpture of Nagaraj.

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

Naman Ahuja, curator of The Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum

The iconography is further accentuated as one walks through walls covered with graphic depictions of superheroes in the 21st century in comics, and their ‘ancestors’ as humans or ‘mere mortals’ who were immortalised in ‘stone and paint’ as Heroes. From the evocative video of a towering Buddha statue being bathed to the quiet and meditative, headless nude female yogini Mallinatha — shorn of all accessories — strategically ‘facing’ the Dvilingi Lakulisha, it’s amusing to be a participant or voyeur to the various silent conversations Ahuja has initiated between the art pieces.
The Body in Indian Art exhibition is by every means vast, but Ahuja does achieve what he sets out to do — steadily depict the echoing of similar concepts of death, birth, sex and existentialism across the ages and in varied vocabularies. In end, if it’s the pure rapture in a woman’s ‘angrai’ or the attempt to search a commonality between ragas that have been recorded to accompany the 16-17th century raagmala paintings, the exhibition is a journey that is definitely worth experiencing for yourself.

The Body in Indian Art is on till 7 June, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi. There are regular walks conducted by the museum, which is highly recommended, and another curator’s walk with Naman Ahuja is scheduled for 9 May 2014. Call 011-23019272 (extn 273) for timings and further details.

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The Fasting-Feasting Month

The Jama Masjid is brightly lit up at night

The Jama Masjid is brightly lit up at night

It’s funny how certain events mean completely different things for different people. Take, for instance, the month of Ramzan. For Muslims it’s 30 days of sombre remembrance and spiritual reverence. They fast all through the day, and eat only after sundown and after doing their namaz/maghrib prayer. For me, and there is absolutely no disrespect meant, it’s about “iftaar” — the first meal of the day. This is ironic because it’s never the first meal of the day for me, but then who bothers with technicalities.

But then, given the fancy iftaar parties that grace the numerous Page Threes and Fours and Fives, at least I’m not the only one with the following ‘chemical’ equation:

Ramazan = AWESOME FOOD!

There's nothing to beat the traditional Tandoori Roti and Korma!

There’s nothing to beat the traditional Tandoori Roti and Korma!

 

Traditionally, the fast is broken by consuming dates (because Prophet Mohammad was supposed to have broken his fast with three dates), following which there is a feast of the most delectable kinds of foods, had together in a social gathering of sorts. So, in a way, it’s actually 30 fancy dinner parties in a row!

This makes it all the more imperative for a true foodie to visit the brightly lit gully of Matia Mahal, in front of Delhi’s imposing Jama Masjid as the angled rays of the sun give way to the blue hour. The evening azaan pierces through the air, calling out to devotees who scramble across the vast courtyard of the 357-year-old mosque offering their prayers. Within minutes, though, the same courtyard is filled with numerous picnic spreads.

After the maghrib prayer, there's a whole community picnic, where families spread out to break the day's fast together.

After the maghrib prayer, there’s a whole community picnic, where families spread out to break the day’s fast together.

Friends get together to chat before the maghrib prayer

Friends get together to chat before the maghrib prayer

Step out, and the entrance of the famous Matia Mahal (of Karim fame, among other things) is brightly lit up to rival Diwali, as people call out to each other — wishing them, hugging them, crowds gathering around the various hotels shouting out their orders, the air full of the delicious smells of chicken fry and mutton qorma (that is also SO characteristically Old Delhi), towers of soft and fluffy tandoori rotis grace the countertops, the sizzle of marinated meats being tossed into massive woks of bubbling hot oil, mounds of freshly fried, golden brown, succulent chicken wings glisten in the festive lights — beckoning, making your mouth salivate.

There are different types of tikkas available for your choosing

There are different types of tikkas available for your choosing

Succulent meat balls are freshly fried and served piping hot!

Succulent meat balls are freshly fried and served piping hot!

As you cut through the stream of bodies, adopt the robot pose (both arms on the side with the fore-arm jutting out like an L), keep a lookout for anything and everything that strikes our eye, and triggers the palate in anticipation.

Ideally I would recommend the vegetarians to stay away from this part of town, especially during Ramazan because, let’s face it, there isn’t much to have. Except for the absolutely brilliant Shahi Tukda. If Marie Antoinette had savoured this delicacy, let’s just say, history would have been a tad bit different. Made from the rather proletarian bread, bumped up the tasting order with a generous dosage of ghee and malai and all things nice, these bites of heaven simply melt in your mouth (while the calories head straight down south!). There are, of course, quite a selection of dry fruits, a fusion version of the roti with coconut filling and fresh hot pakoras to choose from as well. Although, be warned that the latter just about lasts 20 minutes after the evening maghrib prayer. So you’ll have to stand ready to jump at them the minute they’re up for sale.

Take your pick from potato, spinach masala, paneer and a host of other pakodas

Take your pick from potato, spinach masala, paneer and a host of other pakodas

Give in to the hevenly taste of the Shahi Tukda

Give in to the hevenly taste of the Shahi Tukda

During this month, Matia Mahal is open till the wee hours of the morning as the smells of haleem waft through the air — the traditional “suhoor” fare, which is had just before dawn. Of course, the festivities keep ascending in lights, choices and decibel levels closer to Eid, but that just means you can pace yourself and your stomach out over an entire month.

So, as-salamu aleikum and bon apetit!

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