The Sacred and The Secular

Hibiscus River by Smriti Dixit

As one enters the section titled ‘The Sacred Everyday: Embracing the Risk of Difference,’ curated by Ranjit Hoskote, at the Adil Shah Palace, in Goa, one is confronted by the slightly kitschy albeit original oil painted version of calendar art that depicts the Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus Christ to her bosom. This is immediately juxtaposed with the fabulously robust, larger-than-life shadow puppet of Hanuman. Stylistically these works could not be more different, even though content-wise they dovetail since they are both religious demi-gods from the spectrum of Christian and Hindu mythology. They come together sharing the same temporal and physical space, at Hoskote’s behest to make a statement about India’s plurality, which includes Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Sikh, and other desi traditions.

The exhibition, which is an important section of the Serendipity Arts Festival, plays upon India’s ‘syncretic and kaleidoscopic culture’, and it could not have been timed better given the resurgence of the progressive mindset on the election front. It reaffirms that India is a country of multiple faiths, with a plethora of Gods, Goddesses and practices that move in multiple directions, whether it is playful, formal, vernacular or straight up Brahmanical. Thankfully there is more of the former than the latter.

“At a time when religion has been weaponised into a top-down, authoritarian means of stifling dissent, it is salutary to remember that the religious imagination in India has always been sustained by festive, playful, bottom-up impulses of improvisation,” says Hoskote.

Dutch Bengal Painting: Photo courtesy Swaraj Art Archive.

The exhibition sources itself from 11 collections and 4 individual artists; it is an evolving project that began in 2016 and plans to continue into 2019 as well. Some of the important collections it has sourced works from are, The Jyotindra and Jutta Jain Collection, New Delhi, The Leonard and Naomi Menezes Collection, Goa, The Charles Correa Foundation, the Sunaparanta ‒ Goa Centre for the Arts, Swaraj Art Archive, Noida to name a few of the 11 collections. The four individual artists featured in the show are, Smriti Dixit, Vidya Kamat, Youdhisthir Maharjan and G R Santosh.

“This exhibition explores the interrelationship between the sacred – the domain of the divine, iconic, cosmic and sublime – on one hand, and the every day – the realm of the human, intimate, individual and domestic – on the other,” says Hoskote. We see this interplay through the works that sit next to each other holding private conversations.

In the next room, one is captivated by a set of paintings that appear to be a hybrid between the Mughal Miniatures and Dutch Renaissance paintings. Hoskote informs us that this is a school of painting that came to be known as the Dutch Bengal, which originated in the provenance of Chinsurah, that housed merchants, traders and painters. “The painters from the Mughal School atelier found that Mughal patronage was waning and they moved on to a style that was popular among the Dutch East India Company that had settled in Bengal,” says Hoskote. This gave rise to a hybrid style that combined Indian and European ideas and idioms.

The works on display are a battle scene between the thousand-armed king Kartavirya Arjuna and Parashurama, an enraged sage. The formal frontality of the Miniatures meets the dexterous modelling of bodies and glowing landscapes that characterise the early Renaissance. The other painting depicts the well-known tale of Vasudeva crossing the ocean with baby Krishna upon his head. It’s rendered as a beautiful warm glowing Dutch Renaissance landscape, with thunderclouds and a highly stylised Shesh-Nag that comes straight from the Miniatures.

In the contemporary section, Dixit and Kamat bring in the feminist concerns of women whose involvement with the sacred is a contested terrain. While Dixit’s provocative large installation speaks of the inner sanctum, which celebrates the red flowering of the feminine cycle of a woman’s period, Vidya Kamat examines the Kumari Culture that is practised in Nepal. “Vidya shared her trauma with me regarding the Kumari custom where before she reaches puberty a woman is made to feel special and worshipped as a ‘Goddess’ each year in October. However, once she ‘becomes a woman’, the custom is discarded. This fall from grace, can be quite traumatic for a young girl as she transitions from that delicate stage of girlhood to womanhood,” says Hoskote.

The artist plays out the scenario through a large photo-installation where the adult Kamat morphs from a venerated and plumed Goddess to an everyday woman.

photo: Khorshed Deboo

Hoskote earmarks yet another misinterpretation by certain factions around which huge controversy has sprouted in the past. “Ayyappa is perhaps best-known today for being the deity at the epicentre of the Sabarimala Temple controversy. Legend has it that he is the son of Shiva and Mohini, the female avatar of Vishnu, born to slay the indestructible Mahishi,” says Hoskote. He goes on to point out that The Sabarimala Temple complex, when it was first conceived was actually pluralistic since it includes a shrine of a Muslim deity, Vavar Swami, as well as the Arthunkal Church. It is also believed by some Buddhists that Ayyappa was an incarnation of Nilakantha Avalokiteswara. “We see the temple complex now villainized as exclusive, was actually the epicentre of all faiths,” says Hoskote.
In another section of the exhibition, we catch sight of Youdhisthir Maharjan, whose ‘book art’ is a minimalist take on sacred geometry and cosmic sublimity. These works are placed in relation to Charles Correa and G R Santosh bringing into play the neo-Tantric meditative painting with Jain mandala cosmology that invokes various paradigms of the sacred architecture in the stellar oeuvre of Charles Correa.

One may exit this fine exhibition, contemplating the collection of Antonio Piedade da Cruz, which juxtaposes naturalist portraiture of Jesus Christ and with that of Mahatma Gandhi, who act as book-ends for this intense and detailed conversation with the sacred and the secular.

All images used with permission.