This exhibition has been borne out of two areas of related enquiry: the representation of the goddess and the corresponding status of women in India. While some studies addressed the history of issues of gender, representation and patronage, few have visually documented the history of their passage in politics, religion and popular culture.
In this context, the burgeoning medium of photography appeared particulary apt. these photographs date from the early 1950's to 1999 and with the exception of the picture of the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, none of them have been specifically created for the exhibition. Most of these pictures were taken for their newsworthiness, or within the context of a social or cultural imperative. Their usage within the context of this exhibition, if anything, expands the scope of their interpretation.
Within a period of nearly five decades, these images have documented the ingenious ways in which one of the most recognizable images in the country is presented, altered, reinvented. The goddess has become a freefloating symbols, pulled out of its iconographic associations for expedient use. It would perhaps not be wrong to say that there have been more willful definitions and appropriations of her image in the last hundred years, than in the preceding centuries. In this central images the conflating of politics, religion, popular and folk culture, desire and morality, and indeed the construction of the nation as a feminine entity is marked. Cinema stars and politicians are projected as figures that approximate divinity, exceeding the human scale in their larger than life size. Alternatively images of the goddess made in plastic, aluminum and paper proliferate in the market place, rendering the image common, dispensible, easily renewable.
The thread that links the selection of these different images in the ubiquitous Indian woman who is both participant and recipient in the process of this construction. Her involvement in the public sphere and her religious role models-or her rejection of them are inevitably affected by the larger machinery of cinema and folk entertainment and Indian politics, and their symbiotic effect on each other.
The grouping of the photographs reflects the easy co-opting of images, and the tensions that concomitantly arise. The deification of women in politics and the lightening switchover of roles between the divine and the ordinary in cinema are among the most widely recognized images. This is an are of license and imagination, that reflects the compulsions of the hour, perhaps an election, or the box office take at the cinema. The larger, more amorphous area of the ordinary woman and modes of worship, reveals a tender and familial aspect to the relationship. Here the goddess is viewed as daughter, mother, auspicious visitant. It is women who form the largest constituents of worshippers, who actively collaborate in the mass worship of new and old goddesses, who are the bhaktas of matajis and devis, who endorse beliefs in divine visitations. However, the participation of male actors and shamans in ritual theatre enactments of possession and healing raises questions about the denial of such an empowering role to women in public performance. The section on women and asceticism also addresses contradictory issues, of both self-denial and a deliberate rejection of the marks of femininity, of a life outside the accepted roles of feminine engagement.
In this process the questions that inevitably arise are, does the proliferation of the goddess images enhance the status of women? By sheer dint of sharing the feminine space, is any significant relationship between these two entities established?
The representations of the goddess in the Indian political culture, popular worship and cinematic invention speak of the tensions within this contested area of debate. If the goddess image is the central figure, in close nexus is the Indian woman, in attitudes of deification, supplication and even marked absence. The photograph, the distilled moment in history, fixed these images in time and space. With the goddess, it performs the function of traversing what Regis Debray describes as the three eras of historical transmission in his essay, The Three Eras of Looking. These eras are of the logosphere, which traces in the broadest sense from the era of idols and extends from the invention of writing to the age of printing; the graphosphere, or the era of art from the time of the printing press to colour television, to the videosphere or the era of the visual (Cours de Methodologie Generale). An exhibition of photographs of a subject that is known and yet new, which retains its classicism even as it mutates, traverses these three eras of looking, in a reflection of some of the complexities of contemporary Indian life.
In the writings in the catalogue, Raghu Rai's piece a note on contemporary Indian photography broadly comments on the challenges and achievements of present day photography. Dr. Jyotindra Jain in The Goddess and the Buffalo focuses on the immense plasticity of the goddess tradition, quoting folk sources from the Rajasthan-Gujarat region. He also emphasizes the virility of the folk tradition that often runs in contradistinction to the Sanskrit cannon. Dr. Madhu Khanna in her essay The Idea of Shakti describes the significance of goddess worship in the Vedas, Puranas and the Tantras and the influence of Tantra philosophy on the status of women. Finally, the essay Woman/Goddess concentrates on contemporary aspects of this interrelationship, with specific reference to the exhibition material.
About the Author: Gayatri Sinha (born 1957) has written extensively on the arts and is currently art critic with the Hindu, New Delhi. She has curated the seminal exhibition for Gallery Espace of Indian women artists, the self and the World at the National Gallery of Modern Art (1997). She has edited the volume,"Expressions and Evocations - Contemporary Indian women Artists" published by Marg (1997). In the same year she curated an exhibition for the National Gallery of Modern Art for the festival of India in Bangladesh. In 1996, she received a senior fellowship from the Department of Culture to write a monograph on the eminent artist, Krishen Khanna. The publication of the book by Vadehra Art Gallery is Forthcoming.
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