Upstairs, on the first floor of the National Museum in New Delhi, above the heads of the tourists and ambling day trippers, all is tumult. Everywhere, bodies in purposeful motion. On 14 March, the museum opened The Body in Indian Art, an exhibition that knits together skeins of thought and dialogue over thousands of years to make whole our cultural preoccupation with the corporeal.

Two days earlier, walking with Naman Ahuja, an art historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and curator of The Body in Indian Art, through half-finished sections, past crates and on floors covered in tarpaulin, it seemed remarkable that the show would open at all. “We’ve done in three weeks what should take six months," said Venu Vasudevan, the director general of the National Museum, unruffled and casual in a pink shirt, sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows. Ahuja, although distracted by a missing file, was just as serene.

Lajja Gauri giving birth

Neither man is prepared to say how much it cost, though Vasudevan does say later in an email that he works with an annual budget of 10 crore, excluding salaries, “the normal cost of putting on a single major exhibition, so the National Museum is working under severe constraints". With any luck, enough people will see the show to whet the museum’s appetite for taking similarly ambitious risks in the future. Ahuja is a fine curator, blessed with a roving but judicious eye and a gift for making connections that seem obvious when he makes them for you.

What Ahuja is asking of visitors, in a show that one of the museum’s curators calls unabashedly “cerebral", is to see how profound, how wide-ranging Indian conversation on the body has been. He houses the work on display in eight different chambers—serendipitously, the 14,000 sq. ft space the museum has devoted to the exhibition is circular, wrapping around the building, and in its roundness representative of a key concept in Indian philosophy.

An 18th century painting of Radha and Krishna

Repellent, cadaverous, his ribs sticking out and his face shorn of flesh, this Bhairava is very different from the apsaras on display elsewhere with their odalisque curves and the studied shapeliness of their poses. That is one version of the Indian body, opulent, full, but there is, we are reminded, another, half-starved and horrifying. The juxtaposition, surely, is not odd when it is the juxtaposition on any Indian street.

“All art," Ahuja says, as we move towards another part of the exhibition, “is in some ways a record of a death." Artists, whether writers or painters or sculptors or dancers or musicians, lose something of themselves in every work. A portion of them, Ahuja argues, dies, “that’s why we begin the show with death". Perhaps. But there is also, in creating something new, a birth.

A fifth century Dvilinga Lakulisa sculpture from Madhya Pradesh
A fifth century Dvilinga Lakulisa sculpture from Madhya Pradesh

The bringing together in startling conjunction of the very old and the quite new is a motif throughout the show. For instance, the putting together of the Hiranyagarbha, the golden womb (or egg) which splits into the heavens and earth, and an egg made by the sculptor Subodh Gupta with his signature pots and pans and steel tumblers. Ahuja’s point is clear. Whether a Pahari painting or a contemporary sculpture, the discussion, and the ideas that stimulate that discussion, that underpin it, are ongoing. The vocabulary and forms of expression might be different but we’re still exercised by the same things we’ve always been—birth, death, the world, sex, where we come from, where we’re going, what we’re doing here.

Other juxtapositions are not so easy. In India, even in an exhibition concerned with the corporeal, room must be made for the spiritual. Who or what controls our bodies? Do we have full control, free will, if you like? What role do the stars play? Or is it both, are we caught between our own desires and astrological influence? In Jain cosmology, in Lok Purush paintings, we see their conception of heaven and hell (different from mainstream Hindu belief in karma with its perennial cycles of birth and death in the world) and man’s place at the navel.

Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculpture ‘Basanti’
Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculpture ‘Basanti’

Is there an echo too in an 18th century painting of the Tantric goddess Chinnamasta, her severed head in her hand, and 1940s poster art in which the nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose holds his own decapitated head, the blood still gushing from his neck? These are the exhibition’s incidental pleasures, synchronicities for the viewer to look for and find in unlikely places. The larger connections are already made apparent by Ahuja’s careful curation. The connection, for instance, between Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist refusal to depict the body, to not locate the spiritual in the physical, to not reduce it to human dimensions.

It is a hopeless task to attempt to summarize the breadth of The Body in Indian Art. To discuss in so few words, for instance, the role of rapture, of pleasure. Ahuja does this through Ragamala paintings, that 16th and 17th century attempt to personify or anthropomorphize music, to give figures and life to musical notes and moods. For the purposes of this article though, it is enough to say, go to the National Museum, listen to the music, look at the art and experience it, process it and think about it for yourself.

The Body in Indian Art is on till 7 June, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at the National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi. Entry, 10 for Indians, 300 for foreigners and 1 for students.

Sagolsem Snehprabha contributed to this story.

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