Madhubani paintings are evolving. Today they are not only the stuff of mud walls but also mobile works of art done on cloth, canvas, and handmade paper. This painting is done on handmade paper, and depicts a popular religious subject, Lord Ganesha, like most Madhubani paintings do. He is the boy-deity loved and worshipped by all for His inimitable innocence and generosity with divine boons. The laddoo-wielding trunk and the broad kundala-adorned ears are signature aspects of Ganesha. Superbly intelligent eyes and the Shaivite tilak indicative of His parentage complete the countenance. His shringar-laden and janeu-clad torso resembles that of a chubby child; the dhoti-draped limbs are no different either. A plateful of laddooes lies before Him, whilst He holds naother pot of His favourite Indian sweetmeat in one of His four hands. The remaining hands (in anticlockwise direction) bear a nutcracker, a mudra of blessing (this one is tattooed with the swastika), and a gorgeously blooming lotus. Unusually enough, jet black hair cascades down His back from beneath the rim of His crown, and the background resembles some sort of a darbar that He is holding.
The painting that you see on this page is a stylised composition of a bharatnatyam dancer. Her form is sublime, of which depicted herewith are the mudra of her hands, the ghungroo on her feet, and the beauty of her face. Her hands and feet are dyed the vivid red of the alta, a locally made liquid derived from crushed hibiscus flowers. Gold bangles tinkle at her fair wrists, and pristine silver adornments grace her neck and her ears and the parting of her jet black hair.
She lowers her head ever so subtly. She is drawn in by the music, her eyes shut, a serene smile playing on the corners of her red-lipped mouth. A gracious red bindi surrounded by dots of sandalwood paste marks the location of the mythical ajna chakra. Against the statement gold backdrop of the composition, the dancer’s mudras and musculature seem to have a particularly lifelike quality.
The ten-armed goddess is holding in her hands on the right side sword, trident, disc, lotus-bud and an arrow, and in those on the left, snake with shield, conch, mace, bow and in the fifth, the demon’s hair. In an astonishing move, she gets up from over her mount lion and while supporting her massive figure just on a single foot, set firmly on her mount’s back, she charges upon the demon with a mighty blow of her other foot, and another, that with her spear on his chest and the completely dismayed demon submits to her and to his destiny. Baffled by her blows as he is, the goddess catches hold of the demon’s hair and drags him close to her feet where her mount lion charges at him and tears his figure, and her ferocious snake, one of her attributes, shakes him with horror disabling his all mental faculties. The goddess rises into the space pervading it in entirety and the demon, overpowered by her blows, falls on the ground blow.
Installed in a sanctum the figure of the goddess, obviously the goddess Durga – the most widely worshipped female divinity and one of the most widely worshipped deities of Hindu pantheon, is essentially a sanctum image. Durga’s votive images, enshrining sanctums, are mostly in operative forms though at the same time she has a form that is all-pervasive, the act she is represented performing being just the most insignificant aspect of her being. She is usually represented as killing a demon, in most cases the buffalo demon Mahisha, known in the popular tradition as Mahishasura, and hence, the goddess, as Mahishasura-mardini – suppressor of the demon Mahisha. In popular sculptural/visual traditions Mahisha, meaning buffalo, is a figural blend of human and buffalo anatomies, mostly a human head emerging from a buffalo’s body; however, sometimes, as here in this powerful painting, he is also represented only with human anatomy. In myths and conventions of visual representations, it is mostly Mahishasura whose body the goddess’s lion is alluded to as tearing for accomplishing the goddess’s crusade against evil powers. Sword and shield are widely alluded to as being Mahishasura’s attributes. This determines the demon’s identity as Mahishasura.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.
There is so much about this unusual composition that conforms to the iconography of this much-venerated deity. His dense locks are gathered atop His head, upon which is the distinct roop of Devi Ganga, and secured with a sliver of the moon. Myth has it that She descended onto the North Indian plains from the tresses of the lord, sweeping it with abundance and fertility. The hem of the loincloth grazes His knee, leaving the rest of the legs bare. In one hand is the characteristic trishool, the all-important damroo in the other. Beneath His dancing feet is the skin of a tiger brought to its knees by the lord. Note the snakes that are coiled around His ankles and neck, the stripes of vibhooti that grace His brow, and the superbly pronounced composure of countenance, putting together a picture of overpowering ferocity.
Despite the fearsome iconography, Kali Devi is not devoid of beauty. Her musculature is lissome; Her tresses so luscious it is enough to clothe Her usually naked person. Her shringar becomes Her status as the wife of Shiva - chunky amulets and wristlets for each of Her ten arms, anklets that weigh upon the torso of Shiva beneath Her feet, and ample necklaces and kundalas. The dharmic devotee discovers on Her stern brow the solace of maternal protection. Note how Her third eye has been engraved onto Her forehead, right below the hem of the haloed crown. A dual-layered aureole frames the composition, with a layer of lotus petals jutting outwards and a sequence of waves along the inner edges. The calm Shiva lies outstretched on a thick lotus pedestal, a panel engraved with wave-like curves separating Him from the petals.
The rest of His iconography is replete with the usual details that set the Indian iconography apart from the rest of the world. Shiva performs the Rudratandava upon the skilfully engraved base of an inverted lotus. He is dressed in a short dhoti that sits snugly around the thigh, a richly embroidered sash from which emerges down to the pedestal. This single garment is held in place by an ornate taselled kamarband that He wears right below the navel. The janeu cascades diagonially down His handsome torso, while a clutch of necklaces spread about His neck and shoulders. The multiple bracelets on each of His arms and the anklets on His dancing feet complete His divine shringar. The most striking aspect of this composition is the awe-inspiring composure of countenance - superbly graceful features are complemented by the symmetry of the face and the large kundala-adorned ears. The magnificent, slender crown that towers atop His brow sets off the roundness of the same.
Also known as Haryardhamurti, the origins of this deity have been propounded in the Vamanapurana. When the devas gathered before Vishnu in their search for Shiva, Vishnu had revealed this form to them. Harihara could have also been formed to vanquish the arrogant demon Guhasura whom Brahma had given a boon. The boon in question stated that neither Hari (Vishnu) nor Hara (Shiva) would be able to kill him. Harihara is the deity to have overpowered and slayed Him; the place where this happened in Chitradurga, Karnataka, is now named after this deity and houses a lovely Shankaranarayana temple (Shankara is another name for Shiva; Narayana, for Vishnu). The iconography in question could be traced to centuries ago, specifically to the Kusana period of Indian history.
A serene stance characterises Vajrasattva. There is untold bliss on His flawlessly sculpted brow. Resplendent gold marks the base of His crown and kundalas, the hairline, the tapering necklace and the bracelts on His arm and the kamarband, and the hem of His robe. With His right hand He holds a vajra to His heart; in His left, a vajraghanta ('ghanta' is Sanskrit for 'bell') symbolic of wisdom. Together these two implements stand for the fusion of polarities - masculine and feminine, perfection and imperfection, conducive and inconducive - into a singular experience of enlightenment. The sumptuous silks and jewels of His shringar have been inlaid with rich colours. Vajrasattva is the union of the mandalas of all five Buddhas. Contemplating on His radiant gaze long enough would transform the devotee's universe.
Vajrasattva is a practice, a visual meditational aid. Alienated from our essential nature, we wallow in self-pity in this realm of existence. The hundred-syllable mantra of this deity enables us to get in touch with our fundamentally true and pure nature, and claim our spiritual inheritance. It begins thus: Om vajrasattva samayam anupalaya (Om Vajrasattva, preserve the bond). Meditating on Vajrasattva does away with all the inessential elements of our being and fills us with an irreplacable newness. He is a reflex form of Akshobhya, the vajra-yielding Buddha of the east, associated with the pure essential newness of dawn.
At the juncture of awakening, when the former prince of a North Indian warring clan transitioned from the hungering acetic to the Buddha Himself, He touched (sparsha) a finger to the earth (bhumi), invoking it as His witness. The sootras narrate how the grahas (planets) came to a standstill and the entirety of jivas (living creatures) made their obeisance to Him. Despite being beyond the scope of art and literature, the superb brasswork captures the glamour of Shakyamuni's unsurpassed awakening. "Do not look to me," Shakyamuni had said, "but to the enlightenment state."
The Buddha's lobes droop with the weight of His karnaphool, an indication of His supreme wisdom. There is untold bliss writ on His brow, three characteristic curves of the conch on His sweet throat. His gracious torso and limbs emerge from underneath a robe containing the ashtamangalas in dense, complex patterns, which gathers in luxuriant folds beneath Him. The drape that covers the entirety of the Buddha's back has been sculpted exquisitely with motifs of great spiritual significance in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For example, beneath the seated Shakyamuni's waist is a couple of deers on either side of a golden dharmachakra, symbolic of fidelity and harmony. At the centre of the spine is the dragon, which represents the masculine principle (yang) inclusive of creative and transformative energies. The snow-lion between His shoulders is the national animal of Tibet and is said to preside over its snow-capped mountains, lending to Buddha the name of Shakyasimha.
From time to time, His omnipresent force manifests Itself into an earthly form or avatara. The avatara is almost exclusively the modus operandi of this particular deity. A lovely male sleeps peacefully upon a celestial serpent as He dreams the universe into being. A ferocious leonine creature bursts forth from a seemingly lifeless pillar and ravages the entrails of a demon. A superbly collected prince enlists an army of monkeys to rescue His wife held captive. An adorable baby sneaks into the churns of milkmaids. Vishnu's many avataras reveal His superlative compassion and concern for the universe He projects; His intellectual, physical, and ethical powers. This despite the fact that some of His avataras are downright formidable and frenzied.
This murti of Vishnu comes in two different finishes to suit your space. The full features of His countenance are radiant (tejasvi) with divinity. The composition is placed on a characteristic pedestal: inverted golden lotus atop a dual-layered base with the lower level engraved with petals. Note how the head of the humungous goad touches the surface of the pedestal between the deity's feet.
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