Over a hundred personifications of womanhood hold centrestage, demanding attention from every visitor who enters the large hall of Temporary Exhibitions at Bihar Museum in Patna.
Wide-ranging in shape and size and wrought of materials as diverse as terracotta, metal, stone and paint, the exhibits, 166 in all, cover the centuries, and display every mood, from the spiritual to the sublime, the social to the erotic.
“The idea of an exhibition to showcase some of the treasures from the museum storage transformed into one centring on women and deities when the curators discovered these pieces of varying styles and ages to fill an entire room,” says Alka Pande, the driving force behind the ‘Women and Deities’ exhibition, launched as part of the museum’s Foundation Day celebrations in August.
To the perceptive visitor, the exhibition speaks eloquently, and not just about the artistry intrinsic in the works displayed. Imagine the dexterity required to shape the intricate features and headdress of a 5 cm terracotta figure, or the imagination that gives shape to the Ganga in stone, and the first layer of wonder is revealed. Look beyond the obvious craftsmanship, and you see the message each of these artefacts sends out.
The fact that, except for a few of the miniatures, none of the feminine figures holds a bashful stance could well be a mirror to the status women held at that time.
Goddesses and dancing girls, a Lajja Gauri with outspread thighs, and a calm-faced Kali with Shiva squirming under her feet, share space with representations of ordinary women.
“Many of the 45 terracotta figurines are of women from daily life, not just of women from the upper echelons of society, and they raise a plethora of questions about who they were, what spurred the creation of the figure,” Dr. Pande says. Indeed, a closer look shows some with headdresses that could easily be African or Mayan, and in clothes that seem Western.
While many terracotta figures were created as toys or for rituals, the fact that most of it originated in the region is an eloquent testimony of the rich culture of Bihar and the life of the common people of the region.
And indeed, that is what the focus of the Bihar Museum has been since its inception in 2015. “To showcase the rich heritage of Bihar that over the centuries has been layered with influences that enriched art and learning,” says Anjani Kumar Singh, Director General of the museum.
With its long corridors and artfully created galleries, the museum reaches out to embrace visitors’ minds, piquing their curiosity, beguiling them with stories both exotic and familiar, and leading them on a journey from the Harappan age to the modern, that also includes a section on the Bihari diaspora.
Not surprisingly, the ‘Women and Deities’ exhibition draws a crowd, a serious one. Art students make rough sketches even as scholars and historians look for new stories among the works.
There’s also inspiration in plenty as one moves from the miniatures, classified according to the schools they belong to, to the stone and metal images of deities along the walls, to the terracotta figurines in the centre.
The quiet assertion of womanly grace and power is perceptible — in the medieval stone-carved Ganga, and in the personification of the river as a goddess by Jayasri Burman. The gaze shifts as we come to Ravindra Reddy’s wide-eyed woman’s head.
If the 2,300-year-old sandstone Didarganj Yakshi, standing tall and shining in glorious detail, is the Bihar Museum’s salute to the State’s art heritage, the ‘Women and Deities’ exhibition is an acknowledgement of the contribution of women to the legacy of the land. And it provides a chance to re-look at works excavated from antiquity to find new meaning in modern times.
‘Women and Deities’ is on display at Bihar Museum, Patna, till October 7.
The writer is an editor and author with biographies of Guru Dutt, Jagjit Singh and S.D. Burman to her credit.