Stories in Stone is all about sculptures — either standalone or entire narrative panels. Each post in this series showcase one such sculpture, look beyond its iconography and deconstruct the details in an attempt to understand the idea and/or the story it conveys.
The Government Museum at Jhalawar has a stunning collection of sculptures on display. With a few exceptions, most sculptures are in good condition and easily recognisable for what/who they represent.
One large room/gallery is crammed with sculptures found from the nearby areas of Chandrabhaga, Jhalrapatan, Kakuni, etc.; more sculptures are exhibited in the corridor outside. Knowing how museums function, I’m pretty sure that only a fraction of the Museum’s collection is actually exhibited; there would be many more sculptures in storage.
There are dikpalas (or guardians of the directions), various forms of Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi, and some very interesting composite sculptures. But the sculpture which stood out for me, and is the topic of today’s post, was a poorly preserved, but recognisable sculpture of Chamunda (see photo on the left) placed in the corridor.
Before we get into the details of this sculpture, let us place Chamunda in context through her creation myth, associated stories and standard iconography.
When I stepped into the paintings gallery of the Government Museum at the Gadh Mahal in Jhalawar, a depressing sight greeted me — flickering fluorescent lights, dusty glass-fronted cabinets, and a general air of neglect. All this combined to ensure that the visibility of the exhibits was poor. The saving grace was the pops of colour on the walls from where the paintings were mounted.
I must admit that I was tempted to turn back without seeing the paintings, but then decided to do a quick round of the gallery — there was always the chance that there would something interesting lurking in the room somewhere. The first set of paintings I saw was a Baramasa, or a set of 12 paintings that depicted a mood and emotion for each month of the year. They were nice, but not particularly exceptional, and I moved on to the next display, a set of four paintings.
And realised immediately that I was seeing something extraordinary and unusual. So much so that I read and re-read the labels accompanying the paintings to reassure myself that the paintings were indeed a pictorial representation of the Vedas — Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva — in (zoo) anthropomorphic forms.
Stories in Stone is all about sculptures — either standalone or entire narrative panels. Each post in this series will showcase one such sculpture, look beyond its iconography and deconstruct the details in an attempt to understand the idea and/or the story it conveys.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is extraordinary for the sheer number and variety of monuments, as well as their scale and design. Rock-cut temples, structural temples, relief panels and more vie for attention, each one more captivating than the rest. Though a fair number of the monuments are incomplete or unfinished and weathered, their beauty is not diminished.
The monuments at Mahabalipuram have been the subject of many a study, but none more so than a large relief panel carved on a granite cliff. It is a panel that has led to debates and divisions among art historians over what it depicts or denotes or refers to — Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of Ganga 
Before I narrate their stories and discuss why the panel could be one or both or maybe neither, let us take a close look at the various elements that make up this panel. A real close look beginning with photograph below (please click on the picture to see a full size version).
It was serendipity that led me to the exhibition on ‘Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art’ at the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDL Museum) one Saturday evening earlier this month! I call it serendipity for till that afternoon, I had neither aware of the existence of something like the Chamba Rumal nor of the exhibition.
It all started in my Indian Aesthetics class on Krishna Shringara by Prof. Harsha Dehejia. While giving examples of the depiction of Krishna Shringara in art, the embroidered Chamba Rumal was one of the things he mentioned and showed in his presentation. Ruta, one of my coursemates (and who was probably aware of my love for museums), told me about the exhibition on Chamba Rumal during the break. And of course, this meant that I had to go see the exhibition that very evening after class. 🙂
When I walked into the Special Projects Area of the BDL Museum and where the exhibition on Chamba Rumal was being held, the first thing I noticed was the display — large framed pieces hung on bamboo stands. The cool whitewashed walls, and the gleaming kota flooring was just perfect for the vibrant exhibits, which looked like paintings from a distance, but were actually exquisitely embroidered pieces, the Chamba Rumals.
Today is Vijaya Dashami or Bijoya. Today is the day when the Goddess Durga defeated Mahisasura or the buffalo demon, after a fierce battle that lasted 9 days and 9 nights. After killing him on the 10th day, Durga came to known as Mahisasuramardini or “she who killed the buffalo demon”.
The story of Mahisasuramardini (which you can read here or here) is perhaps one of the best known in Hindu mythology, and its associated imagery is one of the most recognisable.
I was introduced to the story of Mahisasuramardini by my grandmothers, and also my mother’s recitation of the Mahisasuramardini Stotram. Like most children of the 1970s, I was introduced to the popular imagery of Mahisasuramardini through Amar Chitra Katha’s “Tales of Durga” (see picture on the left).
It was this image of Mahisasuramardini that stayed with me till 1997 when I visited Mahabalipuram. I saw Indian sculptural art in a ‘natural’ setting for the first time, including this depiction of Mahisasuramardini. That was when I realised the immensity, beauty and power of the narratives I had heard and read from the time I was a kid.
That visit also marked the beginning of my interest in Hindu mythology expanding to include its representation in classical Indian art. And Mahisasuramardini fascinated me like no other, which, thanks to my travels in India, I came across in Aihole, Ellora, Patan, Vadnagar and Nalla Sopara. Artiistically and stylistically, each one of the relief sculptures were very different, and yet unmistakably that of Mahisasuramardini.
I love museums and they are an integral part of all my travels. The trip to Uzbekistan was no different and I visited quite a few museums there. In the case of one museum, I took it one step further — I added one destination to my Uzbekistan itinerary, only because of that museum.
The destination? Nukus, in the remote Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan.