Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Didarganj Yakshi

Anarchists are dead against the accumulation of wealth as it leads to inequalities and inequities of all kinds and not least to the hubris that everything can be bought including mother nature. That is why the adivasis all over the world, the quintessential anarchists, have traditionally had norms in place to prevent the accumulation of wealth. However, the accumulation of wealth does have some benefits. One of them is the creation of works of art of a high quality which would not have been possible on a lower material base. There was a time about three centuries before the christian era when the first great empire in India was set up by the Mauryan dynasty which peaked under the rule of Asoka and it was headquartered at what is now Patna in Bihar. This period is also famous for its great works of art, the most visible and talked about examples being the Asokan pillars whose lion figure embellished capitals have been used in currency notes and the chakra or spoked wheel in the national flag. However, the piece of sculpture, that puts all other ancient Indian art in the shade is the Didarganj Yakshi shown below.

Wealth needs to be secured. Those who are poor will naturally try to get at the accumulated wealth and so it has to be guarded. There are numerous legends in India which talk about minor gods and goddesses being deployed to guard wealth. Such divine men were called yakshas and women yakshis. There was immense wealth accumulated in the city of Pataliputra as Patna was known in Mauryan times and so the legends of the yakshas and yakshis too must have proliferated. The Didarganj Yakshi is the result of a happy admixture of the art of sculpture and the fantasies of mythology in those ancient times.
The photo above does not do justice to the mesmerising quality of this piece of art as it stands majestically tall at 6 feet eight inches on its pedestal shining in the light focussed on it because of the exquisite polish on the sandstone from which it has been sculpted. Despite its nose being broken as well as one of its arms this beautifully carved figure of a voluptiously breasted semi-nude woman with a fly whisk is so captivating that one can spend hours standing and watching it.
I first came to hear about it in the late nineteen eighties as a youth when it was transported to exhibitions abroad and won international acclaim. Ever since then I had thought of getting a first hand look at it. However, I could not manage a trip to Patna, where it is kept in the museum. It was first discovered by a villager in the sand on the banks of the Ganges river in Didarganj near Patna in 1917. It was soon moved to the museum by the Archaeological Survey of India and over the years it has become an icon of Indian art nationalism. Indian art historians have contended that this sculpture is visible proof that ancient Indian art had its own moorings independent of west Asian or Hellenic influences.
Luckily for me it so happened that I got a consultancy assignment that required me to spend two months in Patna in May and June and I seized this opportunity to fulfil my youthful tryst with the famous Yakshi on the threshold of old age. The entrance to the Patna museum is dark but as soon as you take the left turn into the sculpture gallery the first thing you see is the wistfully smiling and big breasted Yakshi welcoming you in all its splendour. A poem in stone. I used to have my Sundays free initially before the pressure of work built up and I would walk down to the museum which was about a kilometre and a half from my hotel and spend an hour viewing the Yakshi from various angles always ending up gazing at the welcoming smile on its face.
Feminist art historians have raised the issue of why nude and semi nude figures of women have been the subject of great sculpture in India from the ancient times to the medieval ages. Obviously the artists were labouring under a patriarchal mindset. Similarly it is a fact that the Mauryan empire and Asoka's dominance were built on the decimation of tribals. A process that has continued to gain momentum over the centuries since. Nevertheless it is impossible to ignore the artistic excellence of this culture as symbolised by the Didarganj Yakshi just because it was exploitative of tribals and women. This contradiction between the forward march of civilisation and the decimation of tribals and subordination of women which is so poignantly symbolised in the figure of the Yakshi also made me ponder over the distance I have travelled from my days as a young penniless activist living a de-classed life among the tribals in Jhabua and my present status as a money earning development consultant. Life is always grey instead of being black and white and so it is best to enjoy the luminous beauty of the Didarganj Yakshi without delving too much into the darkness that is there beneath it.


Anonymous said...

Didar ei Yakshi is well written, one accumulates for a plan or due to an insecurity and sure enough each hoarding needs some security measure to save the collection for control of the person who made the effort to set the wealth aside..but what is the connection between decimation of tribals and subordination of women and this Yakshi. Your photo could not capture her smile, perhaps she smiled just for you?

Rahul Banerjee said...

the authorities of the patna museum do not allow visitors to photograph the yakshi and so I have uploaded a stock photo of low resolution available on the net. The Yakshi has a mysterious smile just around her lips like that of Mona Lisa and it is visible to anyone who has even a little bit of a romantic.
this kind of art is the product of a civilisational level with a material base that had been accumulated by the decimation of tribals. even though not much is definitively known about ancient Indian history it has been more or less ascertained that tribals were pushed back from the indo-gangetic plain into the hilly forests.
the feminist historian gerda lerner has shown that the civilisational progress of human beings was predicated on the domination of women by men. This is reflected in ancient indian art also in which the depiction of semi nude and nude women is rampant. if women are being portrayed as objects of sexual desire by the artists then it is definitely an expression of the patriarchal mindset of the men of the society.

Arvind Kumar, Foundation for Art, Culture, Ethics & Science said...

Your analysis is very much flawed, lacking of the facts related to the Mauryan history and evolution of Indian civilization. In fact, the the opinion put forward by you regarding origin, style and modelling of Didarganj Image is just contrary to the facts of history. Feminism doesn't mean baselessly accusing men of female exploitation.
Harsh patriarchal system of recent past is the 'bruise' left on the face of Indian civilization by Muslim dominance over the centuries. The worship of female figures in Indian culture and the semi-matriarchal system in Mahabharata era, are the proof that Indian civilization was based on the man-woman equality. Depiction of semi-nude women as well as of semi-nude men as in Didarganj Yakshi and Lohanipur Yaksha respectively (both preserved at Patna Museum) are meant not for nudity but for quite deeper artistic sense. Therefore please add some more facts to your beautiful account of Chauri-Bearer. You may refer to: Karl Khandalavala: ‘Didarganj Chauri-Bearer - Another View Point’ , Lalit Kala, Ed. Karl Khandalavala , No.23, New Delhi : Lalit KalaAkademi , pp. 12-14.
Vasudev Sharan Agrawal : Bhartiya Kala (Hindi) , Ed. Prithvi Kumar Agrawal, Varanasi : Prithvi Prakashan, 1987 (reprint) , pp. 122-130.
Ram Prasad Chanda: The Beginings ofArt in Eastern India With Special Reference to Sculptures in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, No. 30, New Delhi : Indological Book Corporation, 1978 — reprint.
Jitendra Nath Banerjea: The Development of Hindu Iconography , Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1956, pp. 97-105.
Nihar Ranjan Ray: Maurya and Poat Mourayan Art, New Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research. 1975, pp. 40-41.
Prashant Kumar Jayaswal : ‘Yakshi aur Striratna’ (Hindi) , Bharat Vani — The Spirit oflndia, Smt. Indira GandhiAbhinandan Granth , 4 Vols. , Ed. B.N. Pandey and others , Bombay et al : Asia Publishing House, 1975, Vol. III , pp.251 -245.

Rahul Banerjee said...

DEar Arvind, the fact is that women were portrayed in the seminude or nude. Why they were so portrayed is a matter of opinion. While you think that Mauryan civilisation was not patriarchal there is enough evidence to suggest that it was and so the likelihood is high that the male sculptors were of a patriarchal mindset. That is my opinion and I am entitled to it even if you disagree with it because it is your opinion against mine. In fact not only ancient indian society but all of human society has been patriarchal for over 15 thousand years now.