Stories in Stone: Arjuna’s penance or descent of the Ganga?

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 [1]

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).

Mahabalipuram, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Arjuna's Penance, Descent Of Ganga, Relief Panel, Narrative Networks Continue reading

Chamba Rumals: Painted Embroideries or Embroidered Paintings?

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.

Chamba Rumal, Crafts of India, Art, Indian Aesthetics, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Delhi Crafts Council, Exhibition

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Mahisasuramardini: The slayer of the buffalo demon

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”.

Durga, Mahisasuramardini, Hindu Mythology, Indian Art, Indian AestheticsThe 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.

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Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus

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.

The museum? The Karakalpak Museum of Arts, which houses the Savitsky Collection.

Karakalpakstan Museum of Art Savitsky Museum Nukus

The Karakalpakstan Museum / Nukus Museum which houses the Savitsky Collection

The story of how this museum (known locally as the Nukus or Savitsky Museum) came to be is straight out of a “believe it or not”. Like most stories, it has:.

A protagonist: Igor Savitsky, an artist
An antagonist: the Communist Soviet government
A supporting cast: Several artists from Uzbekistan and Russia
A location: Karakalpakstan

Our story begins in 1950, when Igor Savitsky (1915–1984) joined the “Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition led by the world-famous scientist, Sergei P. Tolstov” as the artist for the expedition. Continue reading

Woven Wonders of Varanasi: A ‘beautiful’ disappointment

I love museums. Regular readers of this blog will know that museums have played a very important part in developing and furthering my interests and knowledge in art, culture, history and sometimes, even deciding where to travel to next. Though not all museums have been uniformly good, I have never left one without having learnt something new there, something that has added to my knowledge. Till recently, that is.

About 10 days back, I went to see an exhibition titled “Wonder Weaves of Varanasi” at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The aim of the exhibition was to showcase textiles and weaves from Benares / Varanasi as part of the larger ‘Make in India‘ campaign. It had been curated by Shaina NC, and was organised in association with the Ministry of Textiles of Government of India, and supported by Lakmé Fashion Week.

Prior to my visit, I had seen tantalising pictures of the exhibits on social media and then came across this newspaper report, which got me all intrigued about the exhibition. Since I knew next to nothing about weaves from Benares / Varanasi, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with them.

So, it was with great excitement that I arrived at the Museum, and my very first view of the exhibits justified that excitement.

Woven Wonders of Varanasi , Make in India, Shaina NC, Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mubai, Soecial Exhibition, Benarasi Weaves, Handlooms and Textiles

However, when I left the Museum after viewing the exhibition, my mood was very different — puzzled, disappointed and a little angry as well.

Let me elaborate.

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St+Art at Dharavi: Murals, water tank art and more

The conversation is not going the way I wanted.

“And why should I give the keys of the building terrace to you?”

“We want to see the art painted on the terrace of your building?”

“The terrace is not safe. You could fall over.”

“We’ll be very careful. We only want to see the art work there.”

“That is what everyone says.” The office bearer of the Nabi Nagar Co-op. Housing Society at Dharavi (Mumbai) glares at my friends and me and launches into a tirade about people pestering him for keys to the terrace all the time, how it was no longer safe for the building children as they wanted to go to the terrace, how it was a nuisance, etc.

We listen to him and commiserate with him and promise to be very careful and not allow any children up on the terrace with us. But he isn’t done ranting and after what seemed like a long time, he runs out of steam and grudgingly hands over the keys to us.

As we thank him, he says with a sly smile, “The lift doesn’t work. You’ll have to take the stairs all the way up to the terrace on the 9th floor.”

Dharavi St+Art, Mumbai. Street Art

Rainbow Art

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