A massive exhibition of art probing the significance of the human body in Indian thought will mark the inauguration of Europalia India 2013 in Brussels.

A human body that has often inspired creativity, encouraged enquiry and caused intrigue, has come to form the core of an enormous exercise ‘The Body in Indian Art’, an exhibition that is to take place at the Bozar Galleries in Brussels next month. Curatorially led by Naman Ahuja, Associate Professor of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the exhibition comprising around 350 objects selected from 55 museums and private collections all over the world and displayed in 22,500 square feet of space, represents body as contemplated in Indian culture.

Seven thematics — death, the end of the body; birth and re-birth; the place of astrology and cosmology in determining the fortunes of the body; the nature of divine bodies; heroism and ideal bodies; asceticism and the development of practices of healing and yoga; it explores the body in rapture, possessed, by art, by nature — unravel the layers. Naman Ahuja, elaborates on the entire process.

The end of the body - the first gallery

It’s like an entire museum. It’s probably the largest exhibition of Indian art in the last 30 years. A very specialised book which accompanies it looks at Indian civilization. It comes out in English Dutch and French in three editions. It’s lavishly illustrated and with all the art works…It isn’t a conventional book because the exhibition itself isn’t conventional. It’s not like a chronological display. The European obsession with the body is such that I thought Europeans celebrate making the body so much but in India we have a really fundamental belief that the body is only a temporary vessel so the first room that you enter into is about death, the end of the body. It deals with death in a very complex way by comparing everyday beliefs about death along with ancient beliefs. How do we deal with death in Islam versus how do we deal with it in Vedic culture or in Puranic culture. How do Jains deal with it? What is the concept of sallekhana where Jains go away to die or how do you deal with the fact that Buddhists commemorate the relics of the Buddha inside a stupa and those become subjects of worship.

Idea of nothingness — second gallery

The second gallery is about how the body itself is something that many Indians don’t worship…many belief systems don’t worship. There is this cliché and assumption all over the world that India is a polytheistic society which worships so many gods and goddesses but equally there are belief systems in India which are nirakaar, nirgun and aroop. So when you are not worshipping the physical body or when you aren’t representing the physical body, what substitutes the body for those people? .It looks at it in Islamic perspective again and how the written word can occupy that status. We have specially had made an entire series of pots which were used in the most ancient Vedic agnicayana ritual and these are shaped like the pot or the kumbha.

Diversity of material

One of the great pieces that is coming to the gallery number 2 is from the Royal collection of Maharaja of Jodhpur which is a massive miniature painting about going from materiality to immaterial nothings. It is a painting made in 1780; it has a blank canvas. It is a conceptual painting of nothingness.

There are works in terracotta, ivory, bronze, different type of stones, objects from Gandhara, Mathura, Chola sculptures, early bronzes, Pallava sculptures. When you enter the exhibition, for instance, the whole façade of the museum seems like you are entering India through the Ganga and the façade of the museum has a view from Satyajit Ray’s “Aparajito” going on and inside the doorway when you enter it’s the shot taken from the boat where he is looking at the ghats of Banaras. So symbolically you are in India, entering Banaras and the first gallery is on death in any case.

Because we are celebrating 100 years of cinema, I wanted to enter through the great icon of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray. That’s another kind of contemporary art. Bringing Indian cinema into it. There is a lot of traditional Indian art as well. Pabuji ka phad is there in the gallery of heroism. There are bhuta figures of Karnataka and one of them is as high as 23 feet.

Representing Indian culture in a single exhibition, you can’t leave out the performing arts traditions, the tribal cultures. So what we have got is a large number of documentary films, video installations all through the exhibition so that becomes interactive. There is a seventh century sculpture of dancing Ganesh and we have got ancient dhrupad prabandh that deals with laykari of the way in which Ganesh would have danced. It is nice to be able to team up pieces of music with pieces of art and explore that. With certain ragmaala paintings, we did a lot of research on actually tying up specific ragmaala paintings with the way in which that raga would have been rendered in the 18th century. My grandmother (Shanno Khurana) trained an entire orchestra to record a special soundtrack. Sangeet Natak Akademi and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts have lent us lot of video footage of many dance and music traditions. So I was able to curate from those to complement the art works.

A dialogue between the ancient and the contemporary

In each gallery I have tried to insert one or two contemporary art works to show a dialogue between contemporary and modern India as well as counterpoint. For instance, in the gallery on rapture, I have a fantastic photograph by Dayanita Singh. It’s an unpublished photograph where she has studied master ji Saroj Khan.

In the gallery of Birth, the third gallery, there is a work by Subodh Gupta, ‘Brahmaand’, the universe which is made as an egg with bartans, a famous rope sculpture that has been loaned by National Gallery of Modern Artby Mrinalini Mukherjee,

Preservation and better documentation

We have taken work from several museums like Madras Museum, Little Museum in Guntur, Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum, Ashutosh Museum, Kolkata, Gurusaday Dutt Museum, Kolkata, Kannauj Museum, Mathura Museum, Bharatpur Museum, Rajputana Museum of Ajmer, Red Fort Museum, and many more. There are many things that we in India and our institutions need to take more seriously about the preservation of these which is why a lot of my focus has been to bring attention to the provincial museums of India and the treasures that are lying in many of the smaller museums. It will hopefully have a positive effect on these institutions that will make them more amenable and available for research and better documentation will take place. Even if the exhibition is not being seen here it will help these institutions in making their collections, design and display better.

(The Body in Indian Art will be inaugurated on October 4 at the Bozar Galleries in Brussels. It will mark the inauguration of Europalia.India 2013 and conclude on January 5, 2014. This is an ICCR JNU Project which has also got the support of National Museum)

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