The Body in Indian Art : Review of exhibition at National Museum, New Delhi, 2014

The Body in Indian Art : Review of exhibition at National Museum, New Delhi

Reviewed by Habiba Insaf

What happens when an exhibition is choreographed to weave a discourse within a complex history of a civilisation, that too around the most speculative and provocative subject of art- the body? A magnum opus that brings together 300 known and lesser-known masterpieces from provincial as well as private collections and state institutions to chronicle and celebrate the myriad representation of the body in Indian aesthetic thought. The corporeal plurality that results from the diversity of tradition, sociological and economic positions, the complex interaction between different faiths, and the expansive cultural geography of the country is revealed through monumental stone sculptures, bronzes, paintings, manuscripts, printed posters, reproductions, and video installations. The classical and the folk are set in dialogue with the popular and the contemporary to bear testimony to civilization and its unflagging meditation over the ideal representation of the body through time vis-à-vis ruptures, continuities, and challenges to established iconography.

Curated by Dr. Naman Ahuja, Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Body in Indian Art exhibition at the National Museum, New Delhi is a redesigned version of the exhibition by the same name shown earlier at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The original rectangular model was adapted to the circular gallery space of the National Museum to resemble a mandala with eight galleries each narrating a complex thematic position beginning with death and finishing with sensual and enraptured bodies.

In the exhibition catalog, Dr. Ahuja writes, “The body and its representation are revealed not only as of the subject of art but as the keeper of the values, preoccupations, and aspirations of times ancient, medieval and modern, popular as well as classical.” What substitutes the body in the wake of prescription or anxiety against bodily representation? Whose body is being privileged and how is the perfect body conveyed in Indian aesthetic thought? Are bodily responses controlled by autosuggestion or are they spontaneous?

The gallery on death begins with a Naga warrior and war memorials showing disemboweled bodies and a female warrior slitting her throat placed alongside a sati memorial from Andhra Pradesh. A Kangra painting depicts Shiva retrieving the charred body of Sati preceding the myth of her body falling in different parts to form the pilgrimage map of South Asia. The Karni Bharni system of reward and punishment is conveyed with virtuoso by the single hairbrush technique of the Guler school.

The body beyond the limits of form addresses the complex debate around the worship of images across different faiths. The Islamic proscription on image-making is confronted by the written word or calligraphy that becomes a talisman-like in the case of the Ab Khwura vessels from Hyderabad which have the Ayatul Kursi written on them or the 99 names of Allah inlaid in silver on copper pages of the book made for Emperor Aurangzeb. Aniconic symbols were in vogue not only in Buddhist philosophy but in Hinduism as well through the worship of Shalagrams, Vishnupada, and Paddukam [Ram’s sandals]. The mirror placed in Kerala temples to facilitate the darshan of not an external deity but of the self foregrounds the simultaneous counter impulse against image-making and worship.

[Re]birth Gallery

The [re]birth gallery discusses the myths of creation interpreted and absorbed in each age from the the story of hiranyagarbha (golden seed) in the Vedic times to the stainless steel cosmic egg of Subodh Gupta. The cyclical nature of birth, concepts of purusha and prakriti and cosmic evolution and involution is discussed through a series of abstract as well as narrative paintings. The notion of a male creator is met with an alternative from the Nath philosophy that privileges a female creator. The adjoining two rooms consider the concept of benign and dangerous mother vis-à-vis sculptures of Lajja Gauri, Saptamatrikas, Hariti and other Goddesses and miraculous birth stories in Islamic, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu tradition respectively.

Subodh Gupta, Untitled (Egg), 2010, stainless steel utensils

The role of the cosmos in determining the fate of the body is debated in the next gallery. The body of man is seen both as the microcosm as well as the microcosm of the universe while been situated in the universe itself. A magnificent 13th century Book of Talismans from the Raza library, Rampur illustrates magical spells to remedy a range of situation according to the sign of the zodiac. The Aṣṭadigpāla from the Bhubaneshwar Museum is a sculptural masterpiece while contemporary artist N Pushpamala’s ethnographic series depicts a new colonial system of taxonomy and regulation of the body.

A look at the depiction of the bodies of Gods and Goddesses raises fundamental questions regarding the iconometry and proportion system to articulate idealised, perfected bodies. The divine body has multiple attributes and supernatural features, is dwarfed, morphed, composite, anthropomorphic, blissful, transcendental, dangerous and ferocious. The skeletal figures surrounding the Chamunda and the snake skin treatment on the Naga Deva are stupendous in their execution. The expression of the heroic ideal in Hindu, Buddhist and Persianate tradition as well as in Indian folklore is examined in the next gallery.

Chamunda, 10th century AD, Hinglajgarh (Mandsaur), Madhya Pradesh, sandstone. Collection: Bhopal State Museum, Madhya Pradesh

Naga Deva( from a door jamb), 9th century Ad, Rajpur, sandstone. Collection: Bhopal State Museum, Madhya Pradesh

The proliferation of the hero archetype in popular comic book tradition as well as in colonial era prints appropriated to serve a political metaphor testifies to its continued assertion in public imagination.

A series of painted photographs,coloured prints and oleographs from the collection of Priya Paul

The ascetic body is encountered from several viewpoints like the militant asceticism of Sikhism, female asceticism, Sufi tradition of a fakir as well as Shaivite and Vaishnav depiction of sages and rishis. The final gallery enthrals the audience with the depiction of sensual, seductive bodies possessed by love, poetry and music. Sarasundaris from Khajuraho abound in subtle and sophisticated symbology that flirts with the viewer’s imagination. A woman depicted in the act of incising on paper has her body incised with marks of love.

Besides the immense art historical value of positioning the body in Indian art, the exhibition triumphs in its careful selection and sophisticated display of art works. Magnifying glasses, I-pads and projectors are used to ease the viewing experience and overcome restrictions over direct handling of precious manuscripts while special attention is given to the architecture and ambience of each gallery. The gallery displaying divine bodies resembles a temple corridor while a mythical landscape is re-created for bodies in rapture. Ragamala paintings are accompanied by an original soundtrack that corresponds to the musical note visually depicted. A series of video footage foregrounding the worship rituals and living practices averts the danger of de-contextualisation of sacred images as “secular” museumized works of art while relevant excerpts from puranasbhakti poems and illustration of Talamana or iconometric system enlivens the nature of aesthetic thought and debate.

Nirguna gallery

Bodies in Rapture Gallery

The exhibition is not just an aesthetician’s delight but has a great mass appeal although the complex circuit of religious, philosophical, cosmological, aesthetic and art historical references maybe befuddling and evasive at times. A guided tour followed by a solitary pensive afternoon is advised.


Carving of a squatting woman giving birth supported by two attendants, 18th century AD, South India, wood. Collection: National Museum, New Delhi
Pabuji ka phad, Rajasthan, pigment on cotton,139 x 370, Collection: Crafts museum, Delhi

Image Courtesy: Photographed by Habiba Insaf at National Museum.

The Body in Indian Art is on show at the National Museum in Janpath, New Delhi until June 7.