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An exhibition about the many forms of Kali

The exhibition shows the evolution of the deity’s iconography in the context of events between 18th-21st centuries

’Procession De La Deesse Kali’ by Prince Alexis Soltykoff, engraved by Louis Henri de Rudder. All images: Courtesy DAG
’Procession De La Deesse Kali’ by Prince Alexis Soltykoff, engraved by Louis Henri de Rudder. All images: Courtesy DAG

The ongoing exhibition, Kali: Reverence & Rebellion, at DAG, Delhi, is one of discovery. As you walk through the gallery, taking in the nearly 100 works on display, it seems fantastical to see the myriad representations of a single deity over time—from the earliest representation as described in the 6th century text, Devi Mahatmya, and paintings by miniature artists to terracotta sculptures from Kerala, ceramic figurines and glass paintings.

The most fascinating, at least to me, are the representations of Kali’s links with subalternity, as the goddess of the people from the margins. Art historian Gayatri Sinha, who has curated Kali: Reverence & Rebellion, writes in the publication accompanying the show: “Kali’s eventual absorption into the Brahmanical fold does not impede her ability to be repeatedly invoked by those at the margins of society. Historically, her continued association with the darker aspects of reality—death, destruction, oblivion, intoxication, nudity—have allowed for her to be a symbol of rebellion through the affirmation of qualities and practices stigmatised by Brahmanical mores.”

The exhibition and the publication, which have been more than a year in the making, showcase not just different aspects from mythology but also how different groups—devotees, nationalists, tribal communities, and social collectives—have perceived and co-opted her iconography. “An exhibition on Kali had been part of the plans for years, and it all came together when Gayatri Sinha expressed her desire to work on such an exhibition. All the artworks, barring one, have been sourced from DAG’s own collection,” says Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director, DAG.

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These works on display show the evolution of Kali’s iconography from the 18th to the 21st centuries, from the time the sun set on the Mughal empire and India came under colonial rule to the rise of the nationalist movement across the country, and after. So, you will see the goddess as perceived by the Europeans at the time in works such as Procession De La Deese Kali based on an 1841 painting by Russian artist Prince Alexis Soltykoff. It depicts a nocturnal procession with the goddess wearing a garland of skulls and a raised hand bearing a sickle. The colonial officials and travellers at the time associated Kali as the goddess of thugs, and this print seems in sync with that belief.

The 19th century was marked by Kalighat paintings made by artists from the Patua community to be sold as religious souvenirs outside temples. Around the same time, one began to see paper works and prints created by unidentified artists showcasing the different forms of Kali—especially as the 10 avatars, such as Tara, Rajrajeshwari, Bhuvaneshwari and Bhairavi. Lithography presses in the 19th-20th centuries led to this mass production of the imagery to tap into religious and devotional fervour across the country.

The iconography of Kali has always been part of sociopolitical constructs, and she became associated with the rising feeling of nationalism among people in the 20th century. In the exhibition, you see different renditions of Chhinnamasta (a form of the goddess), be it the miniature paintings or calendar art, but the one that stands out is Jai Hind by an unidentified artist and published by National Press Cawnpore. “In this particular print, against the Indian tricolour with a charkha at its centre (symbolising the Swadeshi movement) is Subhash Chandra Bose, rendered in Chhinnamasta’s iconography—presenting his own head in one hand while wielding a sword in the other,” states the description.

'Kali on Mahishasur' by Madhvi Parekh
'Kali on Mahishasur' by Madhvi Parekh

Kali also became associated with everyday objects, appearing in posters and advertisements for matchboxes. “From the opening of the Indian markets to imported goods, Kali served a dual role of leading the nationalist vanguard, even as her image ‘sold’ baby food, cigarettes and matches. Very often, the two causes of a nationalist struggle and popular advertisements easily melded,” writes Sinha in her essay in the publication accompanying the exhibition. An example is a matchbox advertisement for A.M. Essabhoy Durga Safety Matches, which shows a cross-cultural exchange with Mahishasurmardini and her two attendants rendered in a visibly Japanese aesthetic.

“The box conveys the dynamics between an Indian Parsi trading firm, A.M. Essabhoy and their settlement in the Japanese city, Yokohama, during the late nineteenth century,” reads the description. According to Anand, for the Europeans and Japanese particularly, objects with such iconography or images of deities were not being circulated for their cultural, nationalistic or religious significance but for their “exotic” nature in the form of curio-objects. “The same can be said for the German porcelain sculptures, prints made in Italy and Switzerland on display—the popularity of the deity inspired so many artisans and craftspeople, across geographies, to create imagery for profit-making as well, given how popular she was,” he adds.

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The iconography of Kali undergoes a transformation yet again in the 21st century as modern and contemporary artists reimagine the deity, removing her from popular devotional and textual representations. However, the layers of social and political events continue to inform their works. So you have Prahlad Karmakar’s realistic rendering, Village Kali Puja (1938), which shows a nocturnal gathering of villagers in a makeshift pandal. It was made in context of the peasant movements in 1930s Bengal against excessive rent. The exhibition prompts you to keep going back to different works in a bid to make connections. Karmakar’s quiet image of a community gathering stands in stark contrast to the frenzied atmosphere of Procession De La Deese Kali.

Also interesting are Nirode Mazumdar’s abstract renditions of the goddess in his typical cubist style. Yet another abstract work that catches the eye is Reddeppa Naidu’sDeity(1971), which draws inspiration from the popular image of theugragoddess. A sense of calm pervades G.R. Santosh’s untitled works, which are an example of the Neo-Tantra movement in art, have a deep meditative sense to them. Gogi Saroj Pal presents Kali from a feminist lens, showing her in a state of ‘carefree motion’.

According to Anand, the show is in sync with the art institution’s vision to highlight different facets of India’s art history. “All of our shows have been curated with a view to unearthing something deeper and more profound about Indian art and its development over the last few centuries,” he says.

On view at DAG, New Delhi, till 30 March.

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