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Kali's fierce appearances have been the subject of extensive descriptions in several earlier and modern works. Though her fierce form is filled with awe- inspiring symbols, their real meaning is not what it first appears- they have equivocal significance:
Kali's blackness symbolizes her all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because black is the color in which all other colors merge; black absorbs and dissolves them. 'Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her' (Mahanirvana Tantra). Or black is said to represent the total absence of color, again signifying the nature of Kali as ultimate reality. This in Sanskrit is named as nirguna (beyond all quality and form). Either way, Kali's black color symbolizes her transcendence of all form.
A devotee poet says:
"Is Kali, my Divine Mother, of a black complexion?
She appears black because She is viewed from a distance;
but when intimately known She is no longer so.
The sky appears blue at a distance, but look at it close by
and you will find that it has no colour.
The water of the ocean looks blue at a distance,
but when you go near and take it in your hand,
you find that it is colourless."
... Ramakrishna Paramhansa (1836-86)
Kali's nudity has a similar meaning. In many instances she is described as garbed in space or sky clad. In her absolute, primordial nakedness she is free from all covering of illusion. She is Nature (Prakriti in Sanskrit), stripped of 'clothes'. It symbolizes that she is completely beyond name and form, completely beyond the illusory effects of maya (false consciousness). Her nudity is said to represent totally illumined consciousness, unaffected by maya. Kali is the bright fire of truth, which cannot be hidden by the clothes of ignorance. Such truth simply burns them away.
She is full-breasted; her motherhood is a ceaseless creation. Her disheveled hair forms a curtain of illusion, the fabric of space - time which organizes matter out of the chaotic sea of quantum-foam. Her garland of fifty human heads, each representing one of the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes the repository of knowledge and wisdom. She wears a girdle of severed human hands- hands that are the principal instruments of work and so signify the action of karma. Thus the binding effects of this karma have been overcome, severed, as it were, by devotion to Kali. She has blessed the devotee by cutting him free from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth are symbolic of purity (Sans. Sattva), and her lolling tongue which is red dramatically depicts the fact that she consumes all things and denotes the act of tasting or enjoying what society regards as forbidden, i.e. her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world's "flavors".
Kali's four arms represent the complete circle of creation and destruction, which is contained within her. She represents the inherent creative and destructive rhythms of the cosmos. Her right hands, making the mudras of "fear not" and conferring boons, represent the creative aspect of Kali, while the left hands, holding a bloodied sword and a severed head represent her destructive aspect. The bloodied sword and severed head symbolize the destruction of ignorance and the dawning of knowledge. The sword is the sword of knowledge, that cuts the knots of ignorance and destroys false consciousness (the severed head). Kali opens the gates of freedom with this sword, having cut the eight bonds that bind human beings. Finally her three eyes represent the sun, moon, and fire, with which she is able to observe the three modes of time: past, present and future. This attribute is also the origin of the name Kali, which is the feminine form of 'Kala', the Sanskrit term for Time.
The image of a recumbent Shiva lying under the feet of Kali represents Shiva as the passive potential of creation and Kali as his Shakti. The generic term Shakti denotes the Universal feminine creative principle and the energizing force behind all male divinity including Shiva. Shakti is known by the general name Devi, from the root 'div', meaning to shine. She is the Shining One, who is given different names in different places and in different appearances, as the symbol of the life-giving powers of the Universe. It is she that powers him. This Shakti is expressed as the i in Shiva's name. Without this i, Shiva becomes Shva, which in Sanskrit means a corpse. Thus suggesting that without his Shakti, Shiva is powerless or inert.
Kali's boon is won when man confronts or accepts her and the realities she dramatically conveys to him. The image of Kali, in a variety of ways, teaches man that pain, sorrow, decay, death, and destruction are not to be overcome or conquered by denying them or explaining them away. Pain and sorrow are woven into the texture of man's life so thoroughly that to deny them is ultimately futile. For man to realize the fullness of his being, for man to exploit his potential as a human being, he must finally accept this dimension of existence. Kali's boon is freedom, the freedom of the child to revel in the moment, and it is won only after confrontation or acceptance of death. To ignore death, to pretend that one is physically immortal, to pretend that one's ego is the center of things, is to provoke Kali's mocking laughter. To confront or accept death, on the contrary, is to realize a mode of being that can delight and revel in the play of the gods. To accept one's mortality is to be able to let go, to be able to sing, dance, and shout. Kali is Mother to her devotees not because she protects them from the way things really are but because she reveals to them their mortality and thus releases them to act fully and freely, releases them from the incredible, binding web of "adult" pretence, practicality, and rationality.
This is a paata painting. Pata is a Sanskrit derivation which literally means canvas. The art of Pata Painting (or pata chitra) is practiced by the artists of Orissa, a state on the Eastern Coast of India.
The painter first chooses two pieces (generally tussar silk) of cloth and he sticks the pieces together by means of a paste prepared from tamarind seeds. They are then dried in the sun.
The tamarind paste is traditionally prepared as follows: The tamarind seeds are first kept in water for two to three days. When the seeds swell and become soft, these are ground with a pestle stone till the formation of a jelly like substance. In an earthen pot some water is poured along with this substance which is finally heated into a paste. The pieces of cloth thus pasted into one become a Patti.The Patti may be of an area of a few square meters. After the Patti is dried it is rolled up and from this roll, pieces of pata are cut and utilised for individual paintings.
The colors are hand prepared by the artists from natural ingredients like china-clay, soft clay(chalk), conch shell, red stone etc. The black color is prepared from charcoal powder. For white, the artists use sea shells which are available in plenty on the sea shores of Orissa, the home of pata paintings. The sea-shells are powdered and the powder is kept mixed with some water for two days.The mixture is stirred properly until it becomes soft and milky. This milky liquid is then heated with the gum of Kaitha fruit (Feromia Elephantum). The paste thus prepared is then dried in the sun to form a solid substance.
Black color is prepared by holding an earthen plate over the smoke of a burning wick. The soot thus collected at the bottom of the plate is thickened to a black substance. This is mixed with the gum of Kaitha fruit when used as black color in painting.
Green color typically is prepared from the juice of green leaves which is boiled and gum is mixed in the same proportion.
The materials used by these artists are totally of an indigenous character. To unite the colors they utilise wooden bowls made of dried coconut shells. The coarse brush is prepared from the root of a local plant called keya. Hairs of brushes are collected from a buffalo's neck, more fine brushes require the hair of mouse. These brushed are fixed to wooden handles. They are usually kept in the quivers made out of a hollow joint of a thick bamboo tree. The brushes may also be sometimes stored in leather cases or in dried pumpkin bowls.
It is truly said of these Pata paintings that " Strange is this world of Pata paintings, a world in itself, where every article and ornament keeps its unchanging shape, its place and importance, where every animal has its own stylized features, every personality its unerring marks of identification defined by the ancient texts, religious myths and local tradition. It is a world of myths and gods, but still more it is a world of folk imagination, the reflection of thinking and of the mental scope of millions of Indian peasants, fishermen and craftsmen, their joys, their hardships, binding faith and exacting beauty. So the paintings speak the language of their creators, they give realistic expression, a clear symbol, humorous details. They are familiar to the eye, close to the heart, bringing joy and expressing life".
Indeed the immensity of life and the diversity of the divine come together and stand in one in these Pata paintings.