The Power of the Feminine

Updated: Sep 28


by Ranjan Kaul


The Foundation Day of the Bihar Museum, Patna, on 7 August 2022 saw the opening of an enthralling temporary exhibition titled “Women and Deities”. Comprising 156 pieces culled from the vast repository of the museum, the show displays women in various forms and aspects – mythological figures, deities, or mere mortals – characterizing ancient and medieval Indian art and culture. The works show an unbroken tradition of 2,000 years of the representation of women and their prominence in Indian art and social history – ranging from sculptures and artefacts in terra cotta, bronze and stone to folk art and modern and contemporary painting. Owing to constraints of space and that it being well-nigh impossible to do justice to the vast array of exhibits, this review is confined to the sculptures, figurines and artefacts on display.


Established in August 2015, the Bihar Museum is a state-of-the-art museum designed by the world-renowned Japanese firm Maki and Associates, and executed in collaboration with the Mumbai-based OPALIS Architects. Ingeniously conceived as a dispersed yet inter-connected landscape of buildings that have natural lighting streaming in and exterior spaces, the complex is located over a generous 5.3 hectare plot a mere 10-minute drive from the airport alongside a main road. Besides telling the story of the ancient Pataliputra and other parts of Bihar from the earliest times to the 18th century, the museum has also been adding to its rich repository socio-historical artworks via exchanges with regional and national museums. In addition, the museum also has separate sections for exhibiting tribal arts, crafts and performing arts, and a beautifully conceptualized children’s section. The Bihar Museum grew out of the collections of the Patna Museum (established in 1917), which is commonly known as Jadu Ghar to the local residents. Given the constraints of space, outdated design and storage methods of the Patna Museum, the Bihar Museum was envisaged as a parallel museum using the latest available technologies. While much of the collections before the Battle of Buxar fought in 1764 was shifted to the Bihar Museum, the Patna Museum is now under renovation and is planned to be dedicated to explore the post-colonial modern history of Bihar and India. For visitors to have a seamless experience, construction is underway to connect the two museums through an underground passage.


Views of the Bihar Museum


Bihar Museum as seen from Bailey Road, Patna


The star attraction of the museum is the famed Didarganj Yakshi which is being exhibited in the show. While giving a guided walk-through of the exhibition, Shri Anjani Kumar Singh, Director-General, Bihar Museum, narrated an interesting anecdote of how the mesmerizing Yakshi (carved out of a single piece of sandstone and dating back to 3rd BC) was first discovered. The Yakshi was found mostly buried upside down on the banks of the river Ganga in October 1917; the local dhobis had been using the sculpture’s base for washing clothes. One day, while sighting and chasing snake entering a hole next to it, they chanced upon and unearthed the Yakshi. About the best-preserved sculpture (the high polish is still visible) of the Mauryan period, the Didarganj Yakshi epitomizes the ideals of Indian beauty – sensual and voluptuous, heavily bejewelled and dressed in diaphanous clothing, holding a chamara (fly whisk) in the right hand.


Shri Anjani Kumar Singh describes the Didarganj Yakshi; Ranjan Kaul is in the foreground


Didarganj Yakshi, Sandstone, 3rd century BCE (Mauryan period), Didarganj, Patna, Bihar – Arch 134


Lajja Gauri, 6th century CE, 20 cm (L) x 18 cm (H) x 7 cm (W), Kausambi, Uttar Pradesh – C.7716


The 25 terracotta works on display are fine examples of life and culture ancient Indian civilizations. Among them is Lajja Gauri, a small-sized figurine (18 cm x 20 cm) from the Harappan finds, also known as the ‘spreading goddess’. Art historian and Chief Curator of the show, Dr Alka Pande says that this figurine is the “springboard on which the exhibition rests.” Depicted in the posture of giving birth with her legs apart and hands held up on either side of the head, the sculpture has been described variously as the “shameless woman”, “nude-squatting goddess” or “mother goddess” and, since her historical name remains unknown, she has been ascribed names including Aditi, Renuka and Nagna Kabamba. The sculpture reflects the importance of fertility, sexuality and propitiation for crop abundance of that time.


Dr Alka Pande with Dr Anjani Kumar Singh


Similar to the terracotta figurines found in Kuli and Zhob (Balochistan) and in the Harappan civilization, the displayed terracotta finds from Bihar are also minimal and simplistic, such as the two tiny sculptures shown below belonging to the Mauryan period (2nd century BCE), conspicuous by their elaborate head gear. In the Smiling Girl we see lateral horns rising from the covered coiffure, one end of which has an ornamental large clip. The Dancing Girl (reminiscent of the well-known Harappan dancing girl in the National Museum, New Delhi) is a delicately modelled figurine wearing an ornate costume and ornaments, again with a sumptuous head gear.


Left: Smiling Girl, Terracotta, 2nd century BCE (Mauryan period), 16 cm x 13 cm x 7 cm – Arch 4178;

Right Dancing Girl, Terracotta, 2nd century BCE (Mauryan period), 30 cm x 17 cm x 8 cm – Arch 4177


Two tiny terracotta female heads dated to the Mauryan period and sourced from Buxar, Bihar, capture my attention owing to their simple stylization: one with a smiling, oval face with a turban-like headdress and long earrings, the other with round ear-plaques and cup-shaped earrings. Both works carry incision marks – leaf motifs, zig-zag and line patterns. An intriguing, deliberately stylized exhibit roughly of the same period is a rough-hewn bust with a flat face, an elongated neck, large eyes, a carved flower motif on the earring, a hint of the nose, but no mouth. Another arresting work of about the same period is that of a couple in an amorous posture with the woman’s head turned shyly away while the man reaches for her breast.


Left: Female Head, Terracotta, 3rd to 2nd century BCE, 8 cm (L) x 4 cm (H) x 4 cm (W), Buxar, Bihar– Arch 6584; Centre: Female Head, Terracotta, 3rd century to 2nd century BCE, 6 cm (L) x 4 cm (H) x 3 cm (W), Buxar, Bihar – Arch 6693; Right: Female Bust, Terracotta, 3rd – 2nd century BCE, 12 cm (L) x 8 cm (H) x 5 cm (W), Buxar, Bihar – Arch 6643


Amorous Couple, Sandstone, 1st – 3rd century BCE, 50 cm x 25 cm x 12.5 cm, Sungma Period, Dholpura, Patna, Bihar – Arch 8178


A total of 31 select stone sculptures are on display, ranging from the Mauryan and Shunga periods to the medieval Pala and other empires, not only from Bihar (such as Ganga from Ranighat, Patna) but from other Indian states as well, including Bhu-devi (Chennai, Tamil Nadu) and Khadirvani Tara (Ratnagiri, Odisha).


Tara became a popular deity with the rise of Tibetan Buddhism that evolved with the post-Mauryan shift of Indian Buddhism to Tibet after the ascendancy of the Shunga dynasty, which over time began to be worshipped as a female counterpart to boddhisattva and regarded as the goddess of mercy in Buddhism, as may be seen in the images of Tara found in Odisha. Khadiravani Tara, seated on a double lotus, is accompanied by Asokakanta and Ekajata seated on separate lotuses, while female attendants can be seen flying on clouds in the corners. In another image, Tara (6502) stands in a slight tribhanga pose; on the sides of the slab are various scenes, including the eight perils or ashtamahabhaya, which the goddess is a saviour. Five Dhyani Buddhas in a row on top and Vidyadhara couples on clouds are also visible at the top corners. The beautifully decked image of Tara from Khadiravani (Ratnagiri, Odisha) is seated on a double lotus with her right hand in varada mudra, conveying the idea of assurance.


Left: Khadiravani Tara, Khondalite (Red sandstone), 150 cm x 80 cm x 35 cm, 8th century, Cuttack, Odisha – Arch 3745

Right: Tara, Khondalite (laterite stone), 150 cm x 79 cm x 35 cm, 8th century, Cuttack, Odisha, Kurkihar, Bihar) – Arch 6502


Left: Khadirvani Tara, 8th century, Stone, 52 cm (L) x 36 cm (H) x 25 cm (W),

Ratnagiri, Odisha – Arch 6504

Right: Chunda, Khondalite (laterite stone), 8th century AD, 140 cm x 91 m x 35 cm,

Cuttack, Odisha – Arch 6500


The twelve-armed Chunda, another Budhhist female deity from the state of Odisha, is also on display. Seated in lalitasana, her two main hands are in dhyanamudra (meditative pose) holding a bowl, while the other hands hold various symbolic objects, such as a lotus with a book, serpent, kamanadulu, noose, etc. The deity wears ornaments, including chains with a pendant falling between and below the breasts.


What is notable in the female deities in Buddhist art is that they are depicted as slender and curvaceous. wearing diaphanous garments and richly adorned with jewels. As Dr Pande remarks, “This is very typical of the rendition of women in Indian art where there are dissolving boundaries between the sacred and the secular.”

Bhu-Devi, regarded as a personification of the earth, sourced from Chennai and dating back to the 14th century, is a captivating exhibit. She wears a high hair-do, long earrings and heavy ornaments around the neck, waist and on the arms. Another personified image is that of Ganga, standing on a stylized Makara or crocodile (which also dates back to circa 14th century), holding a lotus bud and a wreath in her hands. To her right is an attendant holding a chauri (fly whisk), while on her left is a parasol.


Bhu-Devi, 14th century, Stone, 100 cm (L) x 50 cm (H) x 20 cm (W), Kadampur, Chennai – Arch 10562


Ganga, 14th century, Stone, 69 (L) x 23 (H), W (10 cm), Ranighat, Bihar – Accession no. 11397


Female Figurine, Bronze, 14th century, 22 cm (H) x 7 cm x 7 cm, 14th century, In exchange from the Government Museum, Chennai – Arch 10964


Kali, 15th century, Bronze, 19 cm x 16 cm x 7 cm, Nepal – Arch 10603


There are a total of 24 bronze sculptures on display, including the Female Figurine sourced from the Government Museum, Chennai. Standing in the typical tribhanga mudra pose, the figurine has a pronounced feminine form with a narrow waist and fullness of breasts and hips with a centre-parted hairdo and a tilted high bun. An exquisitely crafted bronze sculpture is that of a power-radiating Kali from Nepal (dated to the 15th century) holding a sword and shield and wearing a munda-mala (garland of skulls).


Displays of sculptures and artefacts in the show (Photos by Ranjan Kaul)


Gallery views of the exhibition


Group photo with Shri Anjani Kumar Singh, Chief Curator Dr Alka Pande, the other curators –

Dr Ranbeer Singh Rajput, Nand Gopal Kumar, Moumita Singh – and others who worked behind the scenes for putting up the exhibition


Imaginatively curated with focused lighting, the exhibition is so designed as to ensure seamless continuity from one section to the next that enhances viewing experience. The vast range of exhibits are an invaluable source to learn about India’s rich, diverse and plural cultural heritage. We see continuity and change in the representation of women over the ages – variously depicted as powerful, divine and symbols of fertility. The material differences are equally apparent, from the simplified and relatively crude handmade pre-historic terracotta works to the exquisitely crafted and stylized stone and bronze works of the Mauryan and post-Mauryan periods as also from other parts of India and from Nepal.


Finally, I take the opportunity to draw attention to the planned relocation of the National Museum currently situated on Janpath, New Delhi. This grand complex has been a landmark building of India’s post-independence architecture with its circular corridors and high-ceilinged thematic gallery spaces. The National Museum since its founding (its construction started in 1955 and was completed in 1960) has been a seat of learning and enjoyment for laypersons, students, art historians, artists, researchers alike. Apparently, the Museum is being relocated to the North and South Blocks on Raisina Hill. What needs to be noted here is that while these colonial buildings were only designed to serve as offices, the building of the National Museum was specifically designed as a museum, so it’ll be a great pity if this heritage building is no longer used as a museum. One can only hope that the decision makers at the centre will take a leaf from Bihar and retain the old structure as a museum while building the new National Museum (as has been done in the case of the Bihar and Patna Museums).


The exhibition, “Women and Deities” will remain open till 7 October 2022.



(All images are courtesy of the Bihar Museum unless otherwise stated.)



 

Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.

website: www.ranjankaul.com; insta: @ranjan_creates


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