Friday, September 16, 2011

The Goddess with weapons in her hair

New York City

The "Mother India" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan is a must-see. This finite, elegantly curated gathering of Goddess images from India opens us to the almost infinite, ever-changing forms of the Great Mother: as creator and destroyer, as life-giver and death-bringer, as warrior and source of regeneration.
    The largest group of images are of Durga as protector and demon-slayer, riding to battle on a tiger or lion against Mahisha, the buffalo demon, and legions of his cohorts. Or simply standing, primed and ready for action, with weapons brandished in her many (often eighteen) arms or bristling from her hair. I loved the miniature statue of Durga in copper alloy from the Ganges basin, from the 2nd or 1st century BCE, with the ultimate spiked hairdo. The hairstyle remained in vogue for centuries, as other figures reveal.
     Pages from the Devi Mahatmya show Durga, often accompanied by a lean and hungry Kali, putting the demon armies to rout. One of the most interesting drawings, from Rajasthan and dated c.1760, shows Mahisha's human form - that of a soft and pampered maharajah - emerging from his vast buffalo body after Durga has cut off the animal head.

To balance all the fighting goddess images, we have voluptuous yakshi - this one is identified as a tree spirit - curvaceous celestial maidens, generous Lakshmi figures pouring gifts from cornucopias, and an absolutely beautiful Saraswati, giver of knowledge and music, playing the vina. This Saraswati was painted in 1947-8 by Y.G. Srimati.

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