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 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.
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.
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.
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.
There is so much about this unusual composition that conforms to the iconography of this much-venerated deity. His dense locks are gathered atop His head, upon which is the distinct roop of Devi Ganga and secured with a sliver of the moon. Myth has it that She descended onto the North Indian plains from the tresses of the lord, sweeping it with abundance and fertility. The hem of the loincloth grazes His knee, leaving the rest of the legs bare. On one hand is the characteristic trishool, the all-important damroo in the other. Beneath His dancing feet is the skin of a tiger brought to its knees by the lord. Note the snakes that are coiled around His ankles and neck, the stripes of vibhooti that grace His brow, and the superbly pronounced composure of countenance, putting together a picture of overpowering ferocity.
Despite the fearsome iconography, Kali Devi is not devoid of beauty. Her musculature is lissome; Her tresses so luscious it is enough to clothe Her usually naked person. Her shringar becomes Her status as the wife of Shiva - chunky amulets and wristlets for each of Her ten arms, anklets that weigh upon the torso of Shiva beneath Her feet, and ample necklaces and kundalas. The dharmic devotee discovers on Her stern brow the solace of maternal protection. Note how Her third eye has been engraved onto Her forehead, right below the hem of the haloed crown. A dual-layered aureole frames the composition, with a layer of lotus petals jutting outwards and a sequence of waves along the inner edges. The calm Shiva lies outstretched on a thick lotus pedestal, a panel engraved with wave-like curves separating Him from the petals.
The rest of His iconography is replete with the usual details that set the Indian iconography apart from the rest of the world. Shiva performs the Rudratandava upon the skilfully engraved base of an inverted lotus. He is dressed in a short dhoti that sits snugly around the thigh, a richly embroidered sash from which emerges down to the pedestal. This single garment is held in place by an ornate taselled kamarband that He wears right below the navel. The janeu cascades diagonially down His handsome torso, while a clutch of necklaces spread about His neck and shoulders. The multiple bracelets on each of His arms and the anklets on His dancing feet complete His divine shringar. The most striking aspect of this composition is the awe-inspiring composure of countenance - superbly graceful features are complemented by the symmetry of the face and the large kundala-adorned ears. The magnificent, slender crown that towers atop His brow sets off the roundness of the same.
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