By Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
Friday, October 25, 2013
In two recent gallery shows in New York female artists of Indian heritage emphasized the universal appeal and power of female Hindu deities. In India, taking such artistic license can stir controversy over crossing a religious line.
Credit: Courtesy of Taproot India
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--When the Indian ad agency Taproot released an "Abused Goddesses" campaign in India in September, Jasmine Wahi, an American curator of Indian descent, had a two-part reaction.
First she liked it; then she didn't.
In the campaign, photographs are taken of women dressed according to depictions of Hindu goddesses, but marred by bruises and open wounds. "Pray that we never see this day," reads the accompanying message. "Today, more than 68 percent of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to."
"Initially I liked the campaign because it brought to light a lot of the social hypocrisy," Wahi said in a recent phone interview. "But then when I thought about, the less I liked it. It removes autonomy from women and makes the issue male-centric. They are targeting the abuser. They are saying: This is what you're doing to our women. This message further objectifies women and the ads weaken the goddess figure."
The subject of who can tap Hindu goddess imagery and for what reasons has been stirring rising discussion, particularly in India, where some female artists are invoking goddess power in a year of notoriously brutal gang rapes.
Here in New York, Wahi and artist, Manjari Sharma, recently held overlapping gallery shows that removed the Hindu goddesses from sacred religious ceremonies and invited the universal appreciation of anyone who walked in.
At Wahi's exhibit, "The Least Orthodox Goddess," held at Gallery 151 in Manhattan from July 18 through Sept. 22, white walls were dotted with contemporary paintings, word-art and a solid white box with a hole, that if looked into, revealed an old-fashioned Hindi film actress, mid-song, with a cathedral in the backdrop.
A few blocks away, at the ClampArt gallery, Sharma produced a very different atmosphere in her Sept. 12 to Oct. 12 show "Darshan," a Sanskrit word used to describe a connection between a deity and a mortal. Vedic verses, texts extracted from Hindu holy scriptures, permeated the air and were punctuated by the anecdotal crackling of oil lamps. Vibrant photographs depicting Hindu deities--four gods and four goddesses--occupied their own dark gray walls where the shadows of the flames are enhanced. The eight god and goddesses were chosen by Sharma herself, according to her own darshan, or idea of the personality and appearance of the god or goddess.
In a phone interview, Sharma said that the relics that she used in the show are "meant to inspire moments of greatness from within us."
Credit: Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
Such a liberal concept can be easier for an artist to explore in New York City than in India, where Hinduism, the country's foremost religion, celebrates goddesses in such major holidays as Diwali, which falls on Nov. 3 this year, and reveres Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. In her honor, doors and windows are left open to welcome success and prosperity. Her altar is decorated with money and images of material items desired.
In the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Shakila Sheikh, a housewife of humble means who creates collages of Hindu goddesses in an effort to empower women, has met with opposition because she is a Muslim, The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 10.
In April, artist Eleena Banik, based in Kolkata, in West Bengal, painted images of the goddess Kali baring breasts, which are usually covered by a garland of skulls. Banik, who is a Hindu, said she wanted to relate the irony of a place where goddesses are respected with so much reverence and yet women continue to be raped.
Banik received death threats by Hindus in India who were reported by NDTV as saying that women "cannot be compared to goddesses." Banik's paintings were taken down from the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai prematurely and she received police protection.
In New York, Wahi staunchly defended the rights of artists such as Banik to use their own renditions of goddesses and not be constrained by the defensive reactions of religious adherents. "I cannot stand it when people say that someone does not have the authority to utilize cultural artifacts. Frequently, the people who do subscribe to those cultural images use them for their own gains."
As an example of selectively choosing when artistic representation of religious deities is and isn't right, Wahi referred to the acceptability of "Hindu iconography seen on tote bags around Soho."
Cinematographic artistic displays of the Hindu goddess Durga in the 2012 Hindi blockbuster, "Kahaani," met with far less criticism, despite being presented on a far larger scale than Sheikh's paper mâché collages. A possible explanation for that is the overwhelmingly Indian composition of Hindi cinema's audience, while art in museums and galleries can expose the society to outside criticism from a global public.
The female protagonist of the film is dressed in a traditional red and white sari, worn by women who worship the nine forms of Durga, when she kills the antagonist. The scene is an interpretation of Durga killing an evil demon in Hindu mythology.
The scene following the murder involves the immersion of a life-size replica of Durga into a body of water, the climax of a nine-day celebration in her honor. During this scene, the narrator says, "Sometimes gods even make mistakes, gods created demons and bestowed them with power, but when they started abusing that power, gods created Mother Durga. It's said that goddess Durga was created by gathering the strength of all mothers."
The theme of Hindu goddesses coming to the rescue of contemporary women's struggles has been underway for years, with often obvious current-day anti-discrimination messages.
In a 2009 Hindi film, an actress plays a talented cricketer who is barred from joining the existing all male cricket teams. She shows up at the tryouts regardless and is threatened to be slapped by the security guard. At that moment a procession of worshippers holding a goddess Durga idol passes by. The security guard and the men in line bow their heads in reverence, praying for the Divine Mother's blessings. The actress then tells the security guard, "She who you turn into an idol and worship, when she is human, you crush her – shame."
Reshmi Kaur Oberoi is an editorial intern with Women's eNews and is a
New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @ReshmiKO
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