In a room that smelled of wood and glue, carpenters moved several clay pots with firm, round breasts into boxes destined for Belgium. Now Belgian rather than Indian eyes will feast on these ritual Vedic pots, part of a mammoth treatise on ‘The Body In Indian Art’, displayed across eight galleries. As wood shavings flew into the air around them, workers prepared more than 350 pieces of Indian art from 56 different museums for the move to Brussels.
‘Indomania’, a Europalia-India exhibition, will be on display at the Bozar (as in ‘Beaux-Arts’) galleries for four months, through to the beginning of the new year. It’s part of a major festival of Indian arts and culture. President Pranab Mukherjee will inaugurate the festival on 4 October, alongside King Philippe.
The outer trappings of this massive display of Indian art may suggest political correctness. Beneath the surface, though, is the much more viscerally political and provocative idea that Indian culture cannot be pinned down to one kind of thing. That for every idea, its opposite also exists. That the images the cultural fascists of our times hold up as typically Hindu and typically Muslim do not fit those trumped-up categories. That the ideal man and woman and the heroic, ascetic and erotic have all changed through history and been part of cultural and religious crosscurrents that those fascists would find impossible to separate, if they ever had the conviction to try.
“The idea is to not let the audience come away with a singular vision of India, because there is no such thing,” says the professor and art historian Naman Ahuja. He has curated arguably the festival’s most important and intriguing exhibition, The Body in Indian Art.
Like the breast-fitted pots, much of this art, languishing in dusty, forgotten attics and the backrooms of museums, tells stories about us that we haven’t heard or seen before. The many and varied stories of the body in death, for instance, and the artwork those stories have inspired. The juxtapositions are startling, of work from different periods approaching the same universal themes. There is the 11th-century sculpture from the Baroda Museum, of an emaciated Bhairava, the Hindu god of annihilation, with his ribs exposed, flesh eaten away; alongside is a depiction of a similarly emaciated Inayat Khan, the Sufi saint, in a Mughal painting from 1618 AD.
Death is also seen in its delightfully ghoulish savagery in the 18th century Karni Bharni paintings where two devils chat nonchalantly as dead bodies dangle from their swords. The eyes of these dead bodies are eerily open and pleading as their torsos are being eaten away by dogs and crows. Gobs of blood are spattered everywhere over medieval art. But death is also deliverance. So Yama, the flesh and blood god of death, is depicted on the reverse side of one painting as transcendent. This is represented by a series of coloured discs that depict the energy circles of the universe as emanating from a single source. In our beginning is our end.
In short, the idea behind The Body In Indian Art is to bring to life conversations about the body that are rich and layered and, most of all, empowering at a time when our national (and international) conversation has been about shame, about rape and despair and cultural misogyny. Ahuja is acutely aware of the questions that have arisen out of this conversation – ‘How do we change the male gaze?’, ‘Do our films objectify women?’, ‘Can we get past stereotypes?’ — and has attempted answers by showing us another set of ideas around the body. Attempting to show that we as a people are creators as well as destroyers, as alive and resplendent as we are dark and visceral.
Ahuja, a professor of ancient Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is a believer in and advocate of the most vital attribute of our long, long history — eclecticism. The constant and continuous exposure to the visual tapestry of India that spans so many centuries, crosscurrents and contradictions has left him with a way into the Indian body that is like sitting on a flying carpet. This magic carpet takes you through the ancient equivalent of the X Men, Star Wars, King Kong and Basic Instinct all mashed up in the same fabulous, delirious space. Through images that are darker and stranger than Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and Pablo Picasso’s erotica and even Damien Hirst’s half-dissected bodies in formaldehyde.
It’s a vision where you see the essential erotica in how the universe was created. In the painting of Lord Vishnu in his avatar as the wild boar saving Bhudevi, the earth goddess, Vishnu is depicted as the macho man-boar who stomps on the head of the demon Hiranyaksha — his head floating in a sea of decapitated demons — holding up Bhudevi on his tusks. But this entire story swims within a giant, pink, plump cervix that takes up nearly a third of the painting, the inexorable vital, feminine force that is germane to everything. In the sequel to this painting on the creation myth, the very elongated, blue phallus of Lord Shiva penetrates the ripe, red centre of the Earth’s vagina. This creates two eggs, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu, and the entire universe rides out of this cervix to spread resplendently across the painting.
Eight broad themes play out in The Body in Indian Art: from the body as Death, to the aniconic or formless body, to birth, astrology, supernatural, heroic and ascetic forms, to the body in rapture. Placed like this, you see even our popular culture in the context of a long tradition. How the ‘Mother India’ in our films and posters and every textbook in every school comes down to us from ancient and medieval impressions of the Goddess Durga and of Lord Shiva. How a pop art portrait of Subhash Chandra Bose, of the nationalist leader holding his severed head in his hand, is in the same space as a tantric painting of Chinnamasta from 1790, in which a naked devi has cut her head off with scissors and is holding it in her hand. Fountains of blood gush out to fill the mouths of two devis standing on either side. All three naked devis are standing on top of a copulating couple.
It is a shocking, bold image. But equally shocking and revelatory are the imaginative connections between Islamic and Hindu art. For instance, the exhibition shows how the idea of religious worship as formless, without iconography or idols and pre-dates Islam with Vedic depictions of the formless body from as far back as the Bronze Age. And the reverse is equally true. In a thoroughly Islamic painting from 17th century Mughal India from the Golconda region’s Book of Divination, an artist depicts the form of the prophet riding a winged horse above the colourful cityscape of Mecca.
Another striking Mughal image, in this case of the body in rapture, is of a painting from 1725 in which a woman clutches her bare breast with one hand, a hookah in the other. Her feet are up on a plush footstool, as she gazes at her woman attendant with a look of absolute pleasure and abandon at the same time. They sit under an evening sky in an open courtyard set against the perfect crescent shaped moon. It isn’t the legacy of Islam in India that the spoilers of religion and culture, the instigators of riots, would be happy to acknowledge on either side of the hardline divide.
Where there is rapture, there is also Bollywood’s Saroj Khan. The creator of Sridevi’s and Madhuri Dixit’s voluptuous hip shimmies is seen in a fantastic black and white still from a film that never got released. It’s a scene that photographer Dayanita Singh captured, where Khan is seen only from the back, an agent provocateur. Doing her bidding is Rekha, dressed as a man with short hair and a moustache, as she caresses the ample breasts of Asha Sachdev pouring out of a milky white, laced corset. It is an image that is erotic, subversive and entirely in keeping with an exhibition that seeks to surprise with the sophistication, given our current prudery, of Indian understanding, and representation of, human bodies.
Putting together such an exhibition has been a mammoth task. On any given day, Ahuja could be seen tearing around his studio in South Delhi in sweat, trying to make the impossible happen. How, for example, do you fit a five-metre-long sculpture into an aeroplane? Find one with a hatch that opens at the back instead of the side, apparently. Then there’s accessing the collections themselves, even before the problem of getting the art to Belgium. “Some museums in India are under so much litigation that we had to get a court injunction just to be able to access their store rooms,” Ahuja says.
Which brings this story to its most crucial, gut-wrenching point: that an exhibition of this scale and imagination and nuance is to be enjoyed only outside India. It is people abroad who will marvel at the robust sexuality of a plump-breasted Putana feeding Lord Krishna and then dying. As Europe marvels at what we’ve created over centuries, back home, where this sort of historical understanding and nuance is most needed, we remain ignorant of our heritage. It’s this blank space that self-appointed champions of Hindu and Muslim culture rush to fill.
Ahuja agrees wholeheartedly. The space for these conversations must be made in India. But where and how? Putting this exhibition together in India will need the kind of administrative and financial support from an institution at home that such a show receives in Europe. There are few volunteers.
“We can’t do this kind of exhibition here because we simply don’t have the institutions to support it,” says the independent curator and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, his voice thick with regret and a little anger. “Europe and North America take their cultural institutions very seriously. If Germany has the Goethe Institut, France has the Alliance Francaise, and China has the Confucius Institute, what is our cultural equivalent?”
The artist Bose Krishnamachari, who created the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, held for the first time in December last year, is less dismissive. He praised MA Baby, the former culture minister of Kerala, for asking him to help set up the Biennale. Still, even with state support and funds from private enterprise and hundreds of thousands attending over two months, they are still over 2 crore in debt.
Why The Body In Indian Art is in Brussels and not India, finally boils down to one thing, argues Tasneem Mehta, “human resources or, rather, the lack thereof”. As the director of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, an institution she has made world class in the short span of five years — Mehta has dealt with every possible vicissitude in the business. And the picture she paints is of an often slow-moving bureaucracy powered by a culture ministry that does not have either the big ideas or the appetite needed.
Until we can pay museum curators more than Rs 30,000 a month. Until we can see how our institutions of culture collapse and die under the weight of half-hearted political patronage. And until we can join the dots back from this collapse of our national conversation to the hijacking of that conversation by cultural vandals, our great ideas and our great artistic tradition will continue to be for other people, on other shores.