The depiction of the body in Indian art goes far beyond the sensual, says the writer, who was in Brussels for Europalia’s India edition.
Europalia, the international art biennial in Brussels, celebrated India this time. As part of it, ‘The Body in Indian Art and Thought’, a four-month exhibition that concluded early this year, was one of the most significant shows of its kind in recent times. By bringing together some 250 masterpieces from about 50 Indian museums and collections, curator Naman P. Ahuja achieved a major coup of sorts.
The Western gaze, when thinking of the body in the Indian context, ticks the boxes of yoga, Kama Sutra and ayurveda. But Ahuja turned the concept on its head and allowed us to see the body outside these clichés. He did not ignore these boxes or cringe from them but wasn’t limited by these expectations — he explored the fundamentals of the body at another level.
The entrance to the exhibition had statues of Ganesha and Durga, both meant for ritual immersion, and the first gallery was on Death. Death, you tell yourself… very strange indeed… have I started at the end of the show? The effect is incredible. As you marvel at the rare virakals (hero stones), miniatures celebrating the rites of Dasaratha’s death, and a Mughal painting of the Descent from the Cross, you pause and reflect on the temporality of the body.
We then moved to the room of the body beyond form — aniconic representations of the Akash Purush — a cut-out Jain device that allows one to meditate on the body and its non-image, an allusion, as Ahuja says, to it “being filled with light, air, fragrance and nothingness”. Here are the feet of the Buddha, the gravestone of a Mughal princess, ritual terracotta vessels from Kerala echoing Vedic times of fertility and alams as well as svayambhu lingams and salagramas. One was almost forced to negate the image of the body into the abstract as one moved to the next gallery on Birth and Rebirth. Welcomed by a massive egg sculpture by Subodh Gupta, a coagulate of stainless steel utensils, it echoed the hiranayagarbha or cosmic golden egg.
The curatorial statement was precise, intelligent and stimulating. The interjection of the contemporary set off the syncretic dialogue between the traditional and modern in India, and the almost seamless presence of both allowed a conversation relevant and contextualised in the now and new in India. Surrogacy was represented by the Jain tirthankaras choosing their wombs, as represented by folio scenes from a Kalpasutra and a rare sculpture of Harinaigamesha who transports the eggs into the mothers. Several representations of the mother goddess — clay representations, statues of Lajja Gauri, and a very rare piece of Parvati as Vrishabha suckling Ganesha — were a treat. Contemporary works by Mrinalini Mukherjee and Mithu Sen evoked the sense of fullness, elevated energies, and were filled with an extraordinary sense of birthing possibilities.
Astrology, the cosmos and the supernatural came next, then heroism and asceticism, and finally the last gallery on rapture, where full-breasted Surasundaris enthused the very sensual imagery of nature allowing the sensorial in the voyeur.
Joyousness fills you when you reflect on the show, and its rare pieces sourced with great difficulty despite bureaucratic hurdles from several museums and private collectors, and you rethink your own sense of the body in Indian art and thought. From the sensual and the sexual to the aniconic, the body is experienced in multiple readings in this exhibition. A rare Chinnamasta depiction was seen in a Nationalist poster of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose head is exploding with the blood of nationalist fervour. This was one of the many clever ways in which the binary discourse of the traditional and the modern was pursued.
These parallel traditions may be paradoxical, but they are counter-points in a dialogue. In the final analysis, the wonder of the show was Ahuja, that rarest of academicians who has not only a fine mind’s eye but also a cerebral acuity that allows us to see ourselves in lights not discovered before.
A photograph by N. Pusphmala echoing the photo documentation and measuring of native people in colonial times stood alone on a threshold leading to the Heroism exhibit. The curator seemed to say — we will no more be measured, or colonised; the Indian body has formed its spine. It is not an object for amusement but a cosmos unto itself. The show celebrated just that.