by Shoma A. Chatterji
Mythifying a woman by bestowing her with divine status is a time-worn and recurring phenomenon in Indian society. Myths reduce a complex issue to a simplistic, easily understood formula and is repeatedly used with devastating effect in several areas of popular life. The British Council, in conjunction with the Multiple Action Research Group, Delhi, organized a brilliant exhibition called Woman/Goddess, which will tour Calcutta, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. The photographs, made by 25 male activists, anthropologists, and photo-journalists including Raghu Rai, Avinash Pasricha, Nemai Ghosh, Jyotindra Jain, Pablo Bartholomeo, Dayanita Singh, Sheeba Chachi, Arun Ganguly, Henri Cartier-Bresson, cover the period from the mid-50s to the present time, substantiating the wide prevalence and sustenance of the mass popularity of woman-as-goddess in the Indian psyche.
Art historian, curator, and critic Gayatri Sinha voices several questions raised by the gradual unfolding of the photographs. She says, "the question is - what effect does the concept of woman-as-a-goddess have on the status of women? Is it a form of manipulation? Does it enhance the status of women and empower them? What impact does the visual language have on the masses?"
It is divided into eight separate sections - the Ordinary and the Divine, Leader Deified, the Body as Sacrifice, the Canonisation of Mother Theresa, New Goddesses, Ascetism and Healing, Possession/Ritual Performance, and Performance and Cinema. The classification flows beautifully from one to the other, with seams essential to the understanding of the versatility of the use of the Mother Goddess in all her manifestations. "The representation of the Goddess in the Indian political culture, popular worship and cinematic invention speak of tensions within a contested area of debate. If the goddess image is the central figure, in close nexus is the Indian woman, in attitudes of deification, supplication and even marked absence. The photograph, the distilled moment in history, fixes these images in time and space," states Gayatri.
Just beneath the surface of gender engendered myths, lurks the ugly face of neglect of widows through some moving photographs of destitute widows that form part of the segment titled The Ordinary and The Divine. Juxtaposed against this are the photographs that demonstrate the canonisation of Mother Theresa after her demise. This contradiction proves that it is perhaps, easier to accept Mother Theresa being worshipped in dozens of roadside shrines in Kerala and West Bengal than to accept the idea of shakti or feminine energy being communicated by female and not male actors as is the tradition. This point is underscored through Naveen Kishore's photographs of Chapal Bhaduri, who performs Goddess Shitala in the streets of Calcutta. A still from a Hritwik Ghatak's film shows how a guru of Chhau folk form is dissuading a young girl from wearing a Chhau mask telling her that women are not permitted to wear the mask even if it is that of a Goddess! The emotionally poignant photographs of widows illustrates how the physical destruction of a widow's beauty is part of this "conspiracy" against women who are equated to the Goddess as a "front" to exploit them in real life.
Photographs by Sheeba Chachi and Dayanita Singh of women ascetics and students of the Kanyapeeth Ashram, extend this truth of rigorous denial through diabolic political manipulation of innocent young girls.
Leader Deified, offers a glorifying insight into how political propaganda makes use of the Goddess to deify political personalities such as Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Indira Gandhi, etc. Ram Rahman's 1989 photograph of the image of Indira Gandhi enshrined for worship in New Delhi is a case in point. George Francis (Scorp News) portrays Jayalalitha as the Goddess Kali on AIADMK's 25th anniversary - a brilliant documentation of the political ambience of hero-worship in Tamil Nadu. Painted in a vivid blue, she wears a garland of Karunanidhi's heads around her neck and strides over the political
rival crushed under her feet. Dilip Banerjee's 1989 colour photograph demonstrates women reaching out to touch the larger-than-life feet of Mayawati on an election hoarding. Performance and Cinema begins with performing arts like music and dance to move towards the dream-world of celluloid touching both upon the use and abuse of the goddess-icon in mainstream cinema and art house cinema. Nemai Ghosh's two B&W stills from Satyajit Ray's Devi juxtaposed against Mahasati Savitri, a 1955 mythological from the collection of Firoze Rangoonwalla are a case in point. As Gayatri so aptly states: "...In recent decades, cinema has made ample room for the "screen goddess," an image that is closer in time and pace to the modern Indian woman. In cinema, for the first time, women play the goddess in the public domain.
Typically, the character may assume, for a short period in the film, divine powers and attributes, and then slip back into the human situation. As in ritual theatre, the slippage from the human to the divine allows for acts of revenge, miraculous intervention, justice and retribution usually not possible within the human scale of things."
An exhibition like this encourages us to step into the world of "reading" photographs rather than just "looking" at them. It offers us a passage into the past, through the present, demonstrating the magical power of belief, superstition and religion in everyday life of a major section of the Indian populace.
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