On a pillar on the first floor of the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, there is an exquisite drawing by Ganesh Pyne. A sketch made with pen, ink and pastel on the page of a diary, it depicts the face of goddess Durga, seen in her most emblematic incarnation, spindly-eyed and rotund-faced, an icon anyone who has ever seen Durga Puja in a remotely Bengali context will instantly recognize. At the other end of the room, another familiar image draws the eye—K.C. Pyne’s oil on canvas, simply titled Kali—a replica of the statue of the goddess in Kolkata’s Kalighat, though less well-defined along the edges and charged with a brittle energy.

Most of us encounter depictions like these almost every day—as calendar art on our drawing-room walls, as graffiti in public spaces or on vehicles, as framed photographs selling in shacks outside temples or being thrust into our faces by people seeking alms as we wait for the traffic lights to change. But we almost never see them inside the white cube of the gallery.

Indian Divine—Gods & Goddesses in 19th And 20th Century Modern Art: Delhi Art Gallery, 368 pages, Rs 8000

These are some of the questions that DAG’s new exhibition, Indian Divine: Gods & Goddesses in 19th And 20th Century, inspires. Featuring more than 300 artworks by almost 80 artists, it is an ambitious project, and not simply for its extensive documentation of three centuries worth of material. By juxtaposing the legacies of artists belonging to different generations and shaped by very different cultures of creativity, the show makes us reflect on the nature and implications of “religious art" as a category in itself.

“How can we know if a work was made for aesthetic reasons or for the purposes of divine homage?" says Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions at the gallery, getting to the crux of the matter. The five essays in the accompanying catalogue—a handsomely produced tome with breathtaking visuals, though disappointingly cut-and-dried commentaries in contrast—grapple with this conundrum, giving us a long perspective on Western and Eastern traditions of religious iconography and their influence on the lived experiences of humanity. A close inspection of the paintings and sculptures, however, yields the vital clues, and perhaps in a manner that is more entertaining, if not edifying.

‘Kali’ by K.C. Pyne

Often the boundaries between seemingly opposed modes of representation are collapsed, through subtle inflections and suggestions. A curve or a line evokes an identity—Ganesh’s trunk and Kali’s protruding tongue are the easiest to decipher. Teasing, bordering on the droll, some of the works, such as Pushpamala N.’s stylized self-portraits included in the catalogue, confuse the human form with the divine.

The key to understanding these images is to figure out the approach the artist had adopted, says Singh. “Look at this depiction of goddess Lakshmi," he points to an oil painting by M.V. Dhurandhar, made in 1899, certainly one of the most arresting works on display. Responding to Raja Ravi Varma’s famous portrayal of the Hindu goddess of wealth, Dhurandhar lends a few twists to his own version. “Traditionally, Lakshmi wears red, not white, a colour that is reserved for Saraswati, the goddess of learning," Singh explains. “Lakshmi’s transparent sari, in this case, also heightens her figure, turning her into a more sexualized presence than, say, Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata." Lakshmi’s face, one may add, looks pensive, even a little crestfallen—as though she is lost in the densely forested backdrop of the painting. Dhurandhar, it would seem, had much more than piety on his mind.

This narrative tendency, which is somewhat blandly apparent in the paintings that chronicle episodes from the Buddha’s life, is a legacy of several schools of representation—Mughal miniatures, realist portraiture, European neoclassicism—though it finds its fullest expression in the early Bengal oil paintings.

‘Lakshmi’ by M.N. Dhurandhar;
‘Lakshmi’ by M.N. Dhurandhar;

In the vision of a later-day master like Bikash Bhattacharjee such anthropomorphism would attain a different complexity—for example, in his series reimagining goddess Durga as an ordinary woman going about her daily chores in an urban setting. A more recent example of the trope was the “bruised and battered goddesses" campaign last year, intended as a deterrent to violence against women, though heavily criticized for its crassness and misplaced good intentions. Thankfully, art, with its in-built resources of irony and inscrutability, is better insured against such lapses.

Indian Divine: Gods & Goddesses in 19th And 20th Century is on till 31 May, 10.30am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Delhi Art Gallery, 11, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi (46005300).