At a time when the Durga Puja has become embroiled in the politics of West Bengal, a unique exhibition at the Indian Museum in Kolkata shifts the focus away from politics and provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of Durga from “divine mother” to a “warrior goddess” from a historical and sociological perspective.
The exhibition traced the line of evolution of Durga through a collection of artefacts dating from the Harappan times to the present day. It showcased the development of the tradition of worshipping female principles representing fertility, motherhood, and creation, which finally “evolved” into the worship of Durga in the form of “matrirupena” and “shaktirupena”.
Speaking to Frontline, Satyakam Sen, curator of the archaeological wing of the Indian Museum, said: “We were studying the genesis and the evolution of the form of Durga and the form of worship. We found that from the Neolithic phase there were terracotta figurines which were worshipped for fertility. It is easily understandable how from this the mother goddess took the form of various aspects like the Lajja-Gauri, associated with fertility and sexuality; and the cult of the Saptamatrika, which celebrates the benevolent compassionate mother figure.”
Durga in various forms
With more than 20 artefacts and paintings, the exhibition provided an interesting insight into the image of the goddess in its various forms from 3000 BC onwards. One of the earliest representations of Durga as Mahishasuramardini was a sandstone carving from the first century, depicting a four-armed goddess slaying a buffalo.
A gold coin during the reign of Chandragupta I (4th century Gupta age) depicted a goddess riding a lion; on the other side of the coin was an image of Chandragupta I with his wife Kumaradevi. The iconography of the coin could also be compared to the lion-riding Babylonian-Iranian goddess Nana, who appeared on Kushana coins.
The image of Mahishasuramardini itself appears to have undergone several changes over the centuries. From a four-armed goddess in the first century, a 12th century stone statue from Mukhed village in Hyderabad represented her as an eight-armed goddess; and later in the 18th century as a 10-armed figure.
Tanoy Sengupta, a young professional archaeologist who played a key role in setting up the exhibition, said: “The first representations of Durga was with two hands, which was found in Nagar Rajasthan from around 1st century CE. Then we see Durga with four arms during the Kushana period (Ist-3rd century). Then in the 12th and 13th centuries we see Durga with eight arms; and subsequently, the present-day form of Durga with 10 arms.”
Another interesting representation of the goddess was under the “Purusa and Prakrti” section of the exhibition. Purusa and Prakrti are the manifestation of the single self within the universe—Purusa is Siva and Prakrti is Parvati. It is the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies as represented in the 11th century Ardhanariswara statue from Markanda, Madhya Pradesh. Sen pointed out that the exhibits were arranged according to the form of the goddess rather than chronologically.
From maternal figures to warrior images, the forms of Durga in the exhibition were rich in their diversity and unique to the various regions from which they have come.
Among the various images were a 3rd century terracotta statue from Mathura; a 10th century statue of a seated devi with child from Bihar; a Saptamartika panel of stone from the same period from Uttar Pradesh; a stone statue of Sarvani; an 11th century statue of Chandi from Bihar; 18th century sandalwood carvings from Mysore; a 19th century mixed metal temple lamp from Nepal; a Shila Devi figurine in painted marble from Rajasthan from the same era; and 20th century intricate ivory carvings from Murshidabad in Bengal.
Most of the artefacts on display had never been exhibited before. Alongside the statues and figurines, the exhibition also displayed paintings of Durga in various styles and traditions, including Pahari paintings, 18th century chromolithographs, and Kalighat Patachitra.
In the last few years, Durga Puja has become inextricably linked with the politics of West Bengal. Be it the State government’s controversial decision to extend a whopping Rs.258 crore to clubs to organise the Puja, in spite of a depleted exchequer, or the outrage over a radical Hindutva group depicting Mahatma Gandhi as an asura, or the proprietorial politics over Durga Puja being included in UNESCO’s catalogue of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, political wrangling and one-upmanship have been eroding the essential nature and characteristics of this most popular festival of Bengalis.
In the prevalent situation, the Indian Museum exhibition could not have taken place at a better time.