Artisans have perfected the traditional image of Durga over the years, but contemporary
THE image of Durga or Shakti is built every year in clay and craftspersons have perfected this art over hundreds of years. It is built with care and minute details, only to be submerged in the waters at the end of the Durga Puja festivities.
The dingy colony of Kumartuli in north Kolkata finds hundreds of artisans fixing the bamboo and straw frames many months in advance and these are filled out with clay and shola pith to create massive images excelling in beauty. This settlement is as old as the city and artisans spread out all over the country at puja time to create Maa Durga for the Bengali devotees. Clothes and embellishments come last. The image is installed in a pandal, where it is worshipped, and on the last day submerged with much fanfare. The art is handed down from one generation to the other and even though the artisans are not paid too well, they put their all into the creation. Of late, they often get some quirky demands to model the face to resemble an actor, a model or some other popular woman in public life. While some do so for survival, there are many who consider it a sacrilege to play thus with the Mother Goddess.
Craftpersons apart, the image of Durga has been popular in modern Indian art. Celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma, who is known to have given form to the Hindu gods and goddesses, raised hackles when he painted this deity. The most popular image of Durga is as Mahishasuramardini, in which she rides a lion and her eight arms carry weapons with which she slays the demon Mahishasura at the behest of Vishnu. However, his painting, Ashtabhuja Devi, caused a furore when, in December 1911, the British colonial government invoked the Indian Press Act and all prints of the painting were forfeited.
The painting was misinterpreted as an anti cow-killing representation because the authorities had been wary after the uprising of 1857. A memo from C.A. Kincaid, secretary to the Government of Bombay, said: "The Hindu Goddess called Ashtabhuja Devi is depicted riding a lion and furiously attacking two butchers, who have apparently just de-capacitated a cow...contains visible representation likely to incite acts of violence..."
The foreign gaze was probably unaware of the intricacies of the mythology. The terrible Mahishasur changed form many times as the Goddess tried to vanquish him. He first became a buffalo and was slain by the Goddess. Later, he took the form of an elephant, a lion and, finally, a man and all these were slain with grace by Durga.
A compromise was eventually reached with Fritz Scheileicher, a German lithographer, who had bought over the printing press from Varma. However, it is interesting to note that the image of Bharat Mata, which was to be all pervasive in the national struggle for Independence, had the eight arms eventually making place for just two.
It was Abanindranath Tagore who first painted Durga as Mother India, and later Nandalal Bose. Jamini Roy painted the Goddess as a nurturer with her child Ganesha in her lap. Much later, the inimitable M. F. Husain annoyed the liberals by painting Indira Gandhi as Durga during the Emergency and earned himself the label of a 'court' artist. His Durga turned bare-bodied in the late 1970s and in the new millennium, he earned the wrath of the fundamentalists by painting Bharat Mata sans her robes.
If you are an artist from Bengal, then there is no escape from painting the Devi, who is so deeply enshrined in the Bengali heart and soul. Master painter Bikash Bhattacharya dedicated an entire series of paintings to Durga, who, she said, was present in every woman. Ganesh Pyne, too, painted the deity as a representative figure, with all traditional embellishments featuring in his typical style and muted colours.
Shuvaprasanna made a series of paintings dedicated to icons and his delineation of Durga in abstract is very compelling to the eye. He says that the concept of Durga comes from painters. "The popular image of the Goddess did not come from photographs," says Shuvaprasanna. "Durga, after all, is a concept — and from times immemorial, it is artists who've interpreted concepts to give people the image they worship," he explains. "Realistic images came into households when Raja Ravi Varma painted the multi-armed and many-headed gods in oil."
Suhas Roy from among the younger brigade of Bengali artists sees Durga as the girl next door. However, many of the new-age artists are no longer satisfied with the representational depiction of the Goddess. Miniature paintings all over the country have drawn upon the Durga legend.
In the 1990s, the late Tyeb Mehta made a series of paintings on the theme of the Mahishasura. That was a time the country was rife with communal violence and many mutinies. The artist was disturbed with the violence associated with Durga. So, instead of showing the Goddess slaying the demon, it showed her holding the demon and soothing him to change with her calm touch.
Painted in his typical stark and stylised distortion, a painting of this series set a new record in 2005, when it was bought by a private collector of Indian origin for a whopping $1.584 million at a Christie's auction in New York. The collector, who lived in the United States, bid over the telephone for the painting. This was the highest amount then to be paid for a piece of contemporary Indian art. The purchase price was far in excess of the pre-sale estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 for Mehta's painting.
Of course, the auction
house benefitted because the work had been acquired for very little.
It brought a big boom in the contemporary art market. However, the sad
part was that most people talked more about what Tyeb's painting had
fetched and less about the wonderful reinterpretation of the myth.