One of the joys this fall for me was taking a short online course through Oxford University’s Continuing Studies program on Indian Art History, with tutor Malani Roy, Head of Visual Arts at the British Library. For ten weeks, I joined more than fifty students from all over the world online to read about Buddhist stupas and sculpture; Mughal paintings; and Colonial architecture. It wasa broad overview, a brief introduction to a large subject, but the ten weeks were filled with exercises, dialogue with participants, and papers.
Since I was in my teens, i’ve harbored a wish to study at Oxford. I sent away for the prospectus in high-school. It arrived with onion-skin paper, ennumerating requirements methodically. What a contrast to the Goddard College newsletter, which arrived like a hippie notebook, on stapled construction paper, complete with doodles and non sequitors. Two roads, but I chose a third. I went to study in India, and I found myself studying art history at stella Maris College in Madras (now Chennai.) After a year, I transferred to Vassar, and straight into the English Department. To return to my old subject, and through the umbrella of continuing ed (no requirements or prerequisites needed) is a dream.
Here is my final paper for the course, as requested by a few friends and family.
Earlier this year, the BBC reported that 15th Century temple statues stolen from a South Indian village in 1978 were recovered. S. Vijaykumar, cofounder of an organization that recovers stolen temple idols said “To me, they are priceless. They were never meant to be objects of art. They are meant to be worshipped. It pains the original custodians to see their gods being reduced to showpiece curios.”
It is this distinction that divides temple sculpture viewed in museums from those viewed at a temple. For this paper, I would like to compare and contrast the sculpture of Tripurasundari, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Parvati, as seen both as a museum piece at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and as a festival idol in the Sri Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India.
Tripurasundari is translated as a beautiful woman (sundari) of three worlds (tri-pura) of earth, sky, and air. Her birth was a result of a need for a being to conquer Bhandasura, a demon who was created from the resurrected ashes of the God of Love, Kama. Kama was commanded by the gods to strike an arrow at the mediating Shiva so that the ascetic god could fall in love with Parvati. The gods needed Parvati to produce a child who was to kill another demon, but when the arrow struck, Shiva’s third eye opened and destroyed Kama. Kama’s distraught wife begged Shiva to bring her husband back, but in an ironic twist, Love was reborn as a dire demon bent on destroying the world. Thus, Parvati was reborn as Kameshwari Tripurasundari to slay this demon. The Hindu world balances perilously on good destroying the bad that often good creates.
Let us first visit The Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco. Pre-Covid-19, we may have waited in line for an hour to get in, chattering to neighbors, accompanied by car horns, a musical busker, sounds of construction. Entering, we purchase tickets, hang up our coats. Inside, the atmosphere is hushed, voices lowered. Our eyes adjust to the artificial lights. We pass dim corridors, brightly-lit atriums. The museum shop beckons like a gaudy package, and the cafe is buzzing with noise. We head for the third floor, and as we move, the population lessens. We enter a room, nod at the museum guard. Slowly, we make a pradaksham around the room, looking at statues ensconced in alcoves or free standing on platforms. We come to Tripurasundari.
There is it, a small statue inches shy of two feet, made of a coarse-grained igneous rock called gabbro, made sometime in 16c-18th c in Southern India, belonging to the Vijayanagar Dynasty or the Nayaka. It is a beautifully formed seated figure, with round face, with breasts each almost large as the face, with a tiny waist featuring the requisite stomach paunch indicative of beauty. The legs clothed in a nine-yard sari are slender, with soles pointing heavenward in a yogic lotus pose. The statue features four arms, two of which each grasp weapons: a noose (pusha) and an elephant goad (ankush), to battle the demon for which she was created into being. The other two hands are expressively sculpted to trace elegant palm lines and articulated fingers; the right hand is held in a mudra (hand gesture) offering protection , with the palm facing up and outward in abhaya mudra to protect from fear, and the left is in varadara mudra, denoting a bestowal or giving.
In the museum, we can walk around the statue, seeing the goddess from all angles. From the back, we see her elaborate crown and hair decoration, and her clothed backside. Curiously, the back of her ears which from the front suggest they are part of a molded edifice, are rubbed away from either the extraction of the statue from its original niche, or from age. In the temple, unless this image was used for processionals, her back would not be seen.
In a recent interview with Sculpture magazine, artist Shazia Sikander describes her process in creating a life-size bronze, Promiscuous Intimacies( currently on display at the Sean Kelly Gallery in NYC) using both a model from the 11thcentury Dancing Girl Devata in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection as well as Bronzino’s Venus, highlighting the use of color in original statuary vs how we see ancient sculpture in monochromatic terms. So the viewer must keep in mind original intent while viewing what is collected in a museum. The carefully cleaned-up presentation of stone, dust-free and placed in a filtered and appropriately lit artificial environment is not necessarily an accurate representation of such a work in a living temple, as we shall see later on in this essay.
We attend museums to see something of a culture we might not know much about, to see something rare and exotic, something precious and far from ordinary. King Tut, the Elgin marbles, and here in San Francisco, Tripurasundari. Tripurasundari was part of an exhibit called “Deities in Stone” and the accompanying catalogue describes the role the sculpture played in the past. There is mention of the notion of “darshan”—the simultaneous viewing of a divinity idol and in turn being viewed by the divinity. Yet though we read and understand the explanation, and examine the statue, the experience of visiting the statue in its original context is quite different.
The Kanchi Kamakshi Amman temple is located in Kanchipuram, South India, and was likely built by the Pallavas in the early 4th to 9th centuries. The Kamakshi statue I’d like to look at here is the one used in processions, installed in a shrine within the temple complex. She is seated carrying the noose and goad, but here she is dressed and adorned with flowers and jewelry.
A video of a festival processional in which the idol is carried on a chariot through the town was made by the Reitberg Museum in Switzerland for a 2008 exhibit on Shiva Nataraja. The video shows the small Kamakshi Utsava (festival) idol pulled through the streets, and the subsequent rest and viewing after she returns to the temple. One is struck of the physical adornment of the stature. Wearing a colorful carefully pleated, heavily embroidered kanjeevarum sari, she is draped in garlands of jasmine and other flowers, effectively hiding the form. Heavily decorated with jewelry, she bears marks of kungamum on her forehead. A cadre of priests attend to her, pulling her chariot through town, and later receiving her back home, Musicians pound drums to announce her arrival as well as ward off any inauspicious words or sounds. On her return, the priests perform ablutions and prayers, finally pulling a curtain around the image so the goddess can rest. After, she is given flowers from her worshippers, which the priests will drape on her body, and later offer some back as prasadam to the worshippers. She is treated as a living goddess, one to whose needs must be attended. It is a noisy, exuberant, reverent worship. Worshippers crowd to catch a glimpse, to see and be seen. In her essay “Songs of Love, Images of Memory,” Saskia Kersenboon lists sixteen steps of the festival procession in which the goddess inspects her town. They encompass the preparation of the site and the idol, the display of her decorations, offering light, and accompanying ablutions. The procession is steeped in ritual, from how it is conducted, to the actions of the devotees, in order to bring prosperity to the town, temple, priests, and onlookers.
A visit to the temple website offers many photographs of this Kamakshi Utsava idol, draped in many colorful saris, and adorned with garlands of flowers. One goes to the temple as a devotee of the goddess, asking for blessings from her, and gain darshan. From the temple outskirts, one can purchase fruit, sweets, and flowers which are then given to the priest together with a fee in order to get a prayer for a loved one or cause. After the puja, in which prayers are recited, and a lamp lit by camphor is both passed around the deity and offered to the devotees who will ceremoniously cup the flames and touch their own eyes, a portion of the offerings are given back to the devotee as prasadam, being blessed by the goddess. So, the goddess is then not examined as in a museum to glean information about a culture or custom, but to grant wishes and blessings. If a kitchen is available onsite, one goes to eat after prayers, and perhaps visit a historical display at the temple itself if it is a heritage site. I smiled in consulting TripAdvisor which informs me that this particular temple can be quite crowded, and travelers advise that it might be difficult to obtain darshan, and even prasadam on those crowded days, while others say it is very clean and quiet, and getting darshan is easy. Some temple-goers believe that in the fervor of their prayers, the idol’s eyes will move. One goes to a museum to see a statue, but only in a temple will a statue look back at one.
 Aesthetics in Performance: Formations of Symbolic Construction and Experience, edited by Angela Hobart and Bruce Kapferer (Berghan Books, 2005), available as eBook in Google Books.