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Ganga Aarati In One's Solitude At Dashashvamedh
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Ganga Aarati In One's Solitude At Dashashvamedh
Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, home to no less than 2,000 temples of Hindu culture and tradition. The ghats and mandirs in this city provide ample opportunity to spiritually cleanse oneself, so strong is the presence in the city of all that is holy. Its patron deity is Kashi Vishvanath, whose temple is the biggest of all the ones located along the banks of the Ganga that flows through Varanasi. It attracts numerous pilgrims throughout the year, and houses one of the twelve jyotirlingas in the subcontinent. He is a manifestation of the Lord Shiva. The surrounding ghat, the Dashashvamedha Ghat, has its own legends. The name comes from the ten (das) horses sacrificed by Brahma in the Ashvamedha yajna that He performed here, having built the ghat to welcome Shiva to ihaloka (this realm). It is the largest and the liveliest of the ghat of Varanasi - with the fall of dusk, it comes alive with numberless aratis that are conducted by local priests in honour of the sacred river. This painting is aglow with one such aarati, the goblet being majestically swung by a priest at a relatively quiet spot on the Dashashvamedh Ghat.

The priest is in traditional saffron and ivory clothing. The sindoori rug he stands on is strewn with petals from the flowers of offerings he has made to the mother of all rivers. On a raised platform are arranged the stuff of traditional Hindu offering and aarati - a conch, a handheld bell, a bunch of fresh moist marigolds, and some libation contained in a jar. More lamps are placed at the side, from the earthen diyas to the traditional Indian lampstick and the crackling dhunuchi letting out the auspicious smoke. Note how naturalistic is the portrayal of the flames dancing in the winds brought forth from the Ganga. A number of rickety wooden boats are parked near where the dhoti-clad priest stands offering his arati, which one could make out against the inky blue of the Ganga by zooming in. The same is separated from the all-encompassing darkness of the nightsky by a film of black paint that constitutes the Varanasi cityline.

The Ethereal White Tara, Tibetan Buddhist Devi In Superfine Brocadeless Thangka
White Tara is one of the great Bodhisattvas who confers longevity on Her devotees. Her strange prowess was actually revealed to Vagishvarakirti, an Indian sage who then captured Her in a series of three texts called Cheating Death. He further passed these on to Atisha, a Buddhist master, who had these tajen to and translated into Tibetan in 1042. It is said that White Tara had always been Atisha's guardian deity, having looked after him since his childhood and appeared in his visions. Today, the White Tara practice comes to us through more than one lineages. Gampopa, Milarepa's disciple and founder of the Kagyupa Order, is one line of transmission; Gedundrup, the first Dalai Lama, is another. The thangka on this page is a picture of the devotion that She inspires in the hearts of the pure to this day.

The White Tara is the very picture of beauty and serenity. As if sculpted from a pearl, She is bedecked with gold and jewels, rubies and emeralds and turquoises no less. Her pastel-coloured silks and sashes float about Her body, setting off the graceful poorna-padmasana that She has assumed. Clouds and lotuses and wild Tibetan foliage, all quintessential elements of the traditional thangka, frame Her figure, seated as She is on a gorgeously coloured lotus in full bloom. The aureole that surrounds Her has been painted in intricate detail. The foresty green hue of Her halo, rimmed with gold lotus petals, sprouts shocks of ethereal greenery throughout the circumference. Beneath Her lotus-pedestal is a hint of the ocean's blue, at the mouth of which is a bunch of precious Buddhist offerings. Two wrathful deities surrounded by their respective flame-aureoles hold up to Her a plateful more of offerings each.

The beauteous countenance of Tara is framed by lengthened earlobes, and a tiara of gold, jewels, and flowers rests on Her brow. Her half-shut eyes radiate an otherworldly calm and collectedness possible only for a deity as powerful as She is. Note the eyes on the palms of Her hands as well as the soles of Her feet.

Haloed Parvati Seated On An Exquisite Pedestal, A Flower In Her Hand
Bronze is a select medium, somewhat of the elite as opposed to brass, in sculptural traditions across the world. Having flourished in the South under the patronage of the Chola dynasty rulers, it continues to be the medium of choice for sculptors devoted to spiritual art. In this seated depiction of the most popular of Hindu devies, bronze brings out the ethereal beauty of Parvati, the wife of Shiva who is responsible for the cyclical destruction of all creation post preservation. It has been handpicked from Swamimalai, the home of modern bronze art. Her long gracious limbs are arranged in the characteristic lalitasana; one hand supports Her frame on the inverted lotus asana (seat), while the other seemingly holds a flower. Her lissome proportions are matched by the typical Southern-style crown resting on Her haloed head, tri-layered with a lotus petal in the centre at the hem, with a generous proportion of Her gorgeous locks escaping from underneath. Note how the rays of Her halo resembles the petals of a freshly bloomed lily.

Her shringar is relatively simple but replete. A clutch of necklaces, a sash cascading down across Her distinctly maternal torso, a kamarband to hold the silken dhoti in place, and a profusion of bracelets all along Her arm and anklets and rings. Her sweet sharply featured face is framed by long, kundala-laden ears, the beautous brow dotted with an elongated bindi. Despite the minimalistic sculpture of the countenance, the radiance of wisdom and maternal calm pours forth from the composure. Note how the silk of the dhoti clings against Her superb musculature, revealing Her divine proportions. In fact, the hallmark of good sculpture lies in the precision with which the limbs and the digits are carved. The pedestal is atypical of Indian iconography - numerous layers, freshly blooming lotus, a world of intricate engraving in each layer.

The Intelligent Eyes Of Ganesha, Lover Of Laddoos And Son Of Shiva
There is much that is unique to the Madhubani painting tradition. A number of factors have contributed to its being accorded the Geographical Indication status. The skills required to produce something that is authentic and conforms to the highly specialised style is limited to the women of India's Mithila region found in present-day Bihar. Two-dimensional imagery is the primary characteristic of these paintings. The imageries are simplistic, the pigments employed plant-based (with the occasional inclusion of lampblack and ochre). These paintings are made using rudimentary twigs and brushes, sometimes nib-pens, and even matchsticks and fingers. In a bid to beautify their traditional mud-hut dwellings, the women of this highly compact geographical pocket have been making these paintings on their freshly plastered walls and floors. The Ganesha before you is a vivid example of this folk art form that conforms to the style and tradition of Mithila.

Madhubani paintings are evolving. Today they are not only the stuff of mud walls but also mobile works of art done on cloth, canvas, and handmade paper. This painting is done on handmade paper, and depicts a popular religious subject, Lord Ganesha, like most Madhubani paintings do. He is the boy-deity loved and worshipped by all for His inimitable innocence and generosity with divine boons. The laddoo-wielding trunk and the broad kundala-adorned ears are signature aspects of Ganesha. Superbly intelligent eyes and the Shaivite tilak indicative of His parentage complete the countenance. His shringar-laden and janeu-clad torso resembles that of a chubby child; the dhoti-draped limbs are no different either. A plateful of laddooes lies before Him, whilst He holds naother pot of His favourite Indian sweetmeat in one of His four hands. The remaining hands (in anticlockwise direction) bear a nutcracker, a mudra of blessing (this one is tattooed with the swastika), and a gorgeously blooming lotus. Unusually enough, jet black hair cascades down His back from beneath the rim of His crown, and the background resembles some sort of a darbar that He is holding.

The Incomparable Beauty Of Ganesha, Seated On An AUM Pedestal
Much has been written about Ganesha. As Hindu dharma's most adorable boy-deity, He has inspired countless artisans and painters and poets across the subcontinent since time immemorial; and how could He not? So overcome by love are His devotees - and so widespread His followers - that His form is ubiquitous on the streets, inside homes, and across commercial establishments in India. This is because He is generous with His blessings, so everyone set to begin some venture seeks His attention; and many find His childlike demeanour irresistible. The innocent yet wise elephant head, the form of a chubby little boy, and His undying love for laddoos are a few aspects that add to His demeanour. Folklore has numberless explanations for this one-of-a-kind anatomical quirk, each surpassing the other in terms of how reasonable it all sounds to us mere mortals. The long and the short of it is that Shiva-Parvati's son was born a very handsome baby but due to circumstances possible only within the parlokiya (heavenly) realm, He is now revered more for His svabhaava than svaroopa.

And what a svabhaava is contained within that svaroopa. With the mace He holds in His posterior right arm, He overpowers the adharmee; with the conch in His posterior left, He heralds the victory of dharma over adharma. His anterior right hand, its palm tattooed with the sacred AUM syllable, is raised in the eternal dispensing of blessings and boons. Between the remaining hand and the tip of His baby-trunk He cradles a freshly made laddoo, His favourite Indian sweetmeat without which His iconography is incomplete. This sculpture is a fine example of the Ganesha svaroopa. Luxuriant silks and shringar that cover almost entirely His bare torso, the intricately sculpted crown fit for a ruler of the divine realm, the characteristic halo. The charm of His countenance, set off by the trishool tilak that indicates His parentage and the beauteous engraving along the length of His trunk, lies on the painstakingly sculpted arch of His lifelike brow. Ganesha is the wisdom of a child personified.

The pedestal that Ganesha is sitting on in this composition is what sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill Ganesha murties. It consists of two platforms separated by two rows of petal engravings. A georgeous engraving of AUM constitutes the centre of the pedestal. To one side of it is a laden kalash, to the other is His vahana the mouse. Even the vahana also holds a laddoo for His lord in its little paws. The sincerity and attention to detail that have gone into this sculpture could be gauged from the photograph of the back of Ganesha. Note how the silk drapes across His shoulders, the gorgeous engraving on the back of His crown as well as the entirety of the halo, and the naturalistic musculature down to the tips of the limbs.

The Bhakti Of The Bharatnatyam Dancer
A warm, brilliantly hued saree. Expressively lined eyes. Captivating mudras accompanying the sonorous sound of ghungroos. The magic of bharatnatyam is not only in the dancer, but in her attire and her skill and her expressiveness. It is hands-down the crown jewel of the eight classical dances of India (the other seven being Odissi, Mohiniattam, Manipuri, Kathakali, Kathak, Kuchipudi, and Sattriya), and has overtones of Shaivism, Shaktism, and Vaishnavism unlike any of the others.

The painting that you see on this page is a stylised composition of a bharatnatyam dancer. Her form is sublime, of which depicted herewith are the mudra of her hands, the ghungroo on her feet, and the beauty of her face. Her hands and feet are dyed the vivid red of the alta, a locally made liquid derived from crushed hibiscus flowers. Gold bangles tinkle at her fair wrists, and pristine silver adornments grace her neck and her ears and the parting of her jet black hair.

She lowers her head ever so subtly. She is drawn in by the music, her eyes shut, a serene smile playing on the corners of her red-lipped mouth. A gracious red bindi surrounded by dots of sandalwood paste marks the location of the mythical ajna chakra. Against the statement gold backdrop of the composition, the dancer’s mudras and musculature seem to have a particularly lifelike quality.

Ten-Armed Durga Killing Demon Mahishasura
This pata-chitra – cloth painting, rendered in vertical format on a fine piece of cloth, a blend of mercerized cotton and silk, using primarily the blue and black and the subdued tones of yellow and green as subsidiary palette, represents the ten-armed Goddess Durga enshrining a magnificent sanctum. Typical of Orissa pata-chitra tradition, in the painting most of the forms and effects are line-drawn, the brush seems to have been used only for rendering background against which such forms are discovered or for rendering the thicker areas, though these could be both, the brush-work as also the densely drawn lines. The judiciously used colours attribute to the white of the background the status of yet another colour – the one like others, and perhaps more effective than any of them, for it is in its contrast that they all find a form, effect and their entire magic. The sanctum’s interior has been conceived with deep lustrous blue, and the sky above, with as dark black. In characteristic Oriya tradition a large number of miniaturized flower-plant-motifs scattered all over break the monotony of this deep blue interior, and the tiny cloud-motifs, rendered in light blue floating in the space above, of the sky. The Oriya pata-chitra painters are unparalleled in creating most delightful effects: a kind of lyricism and rhythmic vibrancy, out of a deep background in blue or even black, which could otherwise be monotonous, by sprinkling over it multiple repeats of any design-motif, even an irrelevant floral pattern, a dot, or whatever. The painting’s pata-chitra character, typical of Orissa tradition, reflects as powerfully in the style of its architecture, especially in the tiered temple-tower, pedestal and the sanctum’s arched opening with moderately deep corbels, and in the beautifully painted facade.

The ten-armed goddess is holding in her hands on the right side sword, trident, disc, lotus-bud and an arrow, and in those on the left, snake with shield, conch, mace, bow and in the fifth, the demon’s hair. In an astonishing move, she gets up from over her mount lion and while supporting her massive figure just on a single foot, set firmly on her mount’s back, she charges upon the demon with a mighty blow of her other foot, and another, that with her spear on his chest and the completely dismayed demon submits to her and to his destiny. Baffled by her blows as he is, the goddess catches hold of the demon’s hair and drags him close to her feet where her mount lion charges at him and tears his figure, and her ferocious snake, one of her attributes, shakes him with horror disabling his all mental faculties. The goddess rises into the space pervading it in entirety and the demon, overpowered by her blows, falls on the ground blow.

Installed in a sanctum the figure of the goddess, obviously the goddess Durga – the most widely worshipped female divinity and one of the most widely worshipped deities of Hindu pantheon, is essentially a sanctum image. Durga’s votive images, enshrining sanctums, are mostly in operative forms though at the same time she has a form that is all-pervasive, the act she is represented performing being just the most insignificant aspect of her being. She is usually represented as killing a demon, in most cases the buffalo demon Mahisha, known in the popular tradition as Mahishasura, and hence, the goddess, as Mahishasura-mardini – suppressor of the demon Mahisha. In popular sculptural/visual traditions Mahisha, meaning buffalo, is a figural blend of human and buffalo anatomies, mostly a human head emerging from a buffalo’s body; however, sometimes, as here in this powerful painting, he is also represented only with human anatomy. In myths and conventions of visual representations, it is mostly Mahishasura whose body the goddess’s lion is alluded to as tearing for accomplishing the goddess’s crusade against evil powers. Sword and shield are widely alluded to as being Mahishasura’s attributes. This determines the demon’s identity as Mahishasura.

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.

Abode Of The Devagana, The Cow
The cow is the very picture of all that India has traditionally valued - purity, selflessness, and resourcefulness. She consumes little, yet gives generously of what she has. She may live in the least-scrubbed of gaushalas (cow-sheds), off old hay and vegetation; yet just one of her is enough for a family to thrive on. Her fertile udders yield the purest of milks and butters. Even the wastes she gives off are rich with nutrients that enrich the medium we grow our food (crops) on, properties that benefit and arguably heal our bodies. The colour of the cow is as pristine as her maternal nature. She feeds the babies of the ungrateful human with as much fervour as she feeds her own calves. The cow has been revered in the subcontinent since her pivotal role in the days the Sarasvati Valley Civilisation flourished. It is of little wonder then that the peoples of the subcontinent venerate her as one would a senior member of the family, and consider gauseva (service of the cow) one's sacred duty.

This is a powerful work of art that could serve to overpower vastu-dosha in modern-day spaces. No matter the inconducive influences that beset your space, they have no power over the blessing of the cow. In this composition, the naturalistic musculature of India's most-loved pashu (animal) has been finished with a great degree of skill and a keen sense of aesthetics on the part of the brassworker. She stands with her head tilted sideways, while a calf and Gopala Himself nourish themselves at her teats. She has been bedecked with jewellery at her neck, horns, hump, and rump. Her limps are strong and concludes in a set of flawlessly sculpted hooves. Her tail is thick, the strands on its tip caresses her hooves. Numerous devas and devees of the Indian pantheon have been engraved on her skin in order to indicate that in her resides the entirety of Hindu divinity. The beauty of detail in each one is best observed by zooming in. The whole composition rests on an engraved pedestal resting on vine-clad legs. Note the peacock along the edge of the same that seemingly totters about the cow with its plumage down.

Haloed Standing Lakshmi Blesses You With A Steady Stream Of Plenty
The tall, beauteous, and stately Lakshmiji blesses the devotee with plenty. The wife of none other than the great Vishnu, She presides over wealth which is the necessary means to His function of preserving creation through destruction. She has been given the resplendent finish of pale gold, Her saree draped in modern-day urban North Indian style. On Her head sits a skillfully carved crown, from underneath the fitted rim of which emerges a sea of gorgeous tresses spread about Her shoulders. Note how superb the detailing of this cascade is at the back of the statue by zooming in on the length. Her heavenly shringar comprises of necklaces, kamarband, bangles, danglers, and anklets covered by the hem of Her saree. The necklace of coins reaches down to the pleats of the saree. It comprises of 108 coins, for the 108 names of the deity that dons them. The unusual countenance of the deity - the large eyes, the classically handsome nose, the full lips, and the lifelike composure - and the flawless sculpture of the hands are the marks of a fine artisan.

While the lotuses in Her posterior arms and the anterior palm opened outward in blessing are typical of Lakshmi iconography, what sets this portrayal apart is the amrit kalash that She supports at the waist. Myth has it that She was born of the nectar of immortality produced during the all-important samudra manthan episode of the Bhagavata Purana. From the hand that blesses emerges a steady stream of coins that gathers in the ornate, spacious patra at Her feet. To see the patra so full, all heaped up, almost overflowing with wealth is enough to inspire the onlooker with devotion to Her. She stands on a freshly bloomed lotus, the layered petals of which are as tender as Her feet.

The Gorgeous-Eyed Rajarajeshwari (Tripura Sundari)
The Devi Rajarajeshwari is known by the name Kamakshi down South where this exquisite bronze has been fashioned. In Sanskrit it means 'one possessing the eyes of love'. Her devotees find all the love and blessing they need in Her famous gaze, which is why none of Her four hands are in the popular abhaya or ashirvaad mudra. She bears a sprig of sugarcane in one hand, indicative of sweetness and nourishment. Her beauteous brow is set off by the sculpted length of Her sharp nose and the roseate lips where it ends. Her round full-cheeked face is complemented by the towering crown sitting on Her head, a typical characteristic of South Indian iconography. The sliver of moon attached to the same gives away her Shaivite lineage. The ribbed halo, a relatively austere aspect of this particular portrayal, is in stark contrast to the gorgeousness of Her shringar - gigantic kundalas, chunky necpieces, and lots of bangles. In one of Her hands She holds the signature sugracane. Unlike other female deities of the Hindu pantheon, Rajarajeshwari is sitting in moolbandha, the ample pleats of Her saree cascading down the inverted lotus pedestal.

The composition is such as to be more than an icon. It is a portable temple of the devi. The inverted lotus She is sitting on is placed on a layered platform that is highly aesthetically appealing. She is flanked by a couple of lions that gaze straight ahead with the same stateliness as their mistress. The aureole that seemingly contains the composition is adorned with traditional faunal motifs such as horses, elephants, and peacock, not to mention the ferocious kirtimukha carved at the very top. The unusual, jawless kirtimukha motif recurs in Indian visual art since the fourth century, and stands for the cyclical and destructive nature of time. Equally ornate legs hold the complete bronze structure in place.