Stories of the divine, good over evil, and the origin of the world have been orally transmitted since centuries in India. These stories were later written down which are now known to us as mythologies. The fascinating plethora has often inspired various artistic expressions adhering to either tradition or later, to individual art practices.
Today, as we talk about the goddess Kali, there are diverse sources that interpret in different forms adhering to the cultural fabric of the region. The name often evokes a general but distinct image; a dark skinned woman with four arms, bold bare body, wearing a necklace made of skulls, and her tongue protruding from her mouth. Her iconography should be understood for its symbolic value; her blackness symbolises her all embracive nature as nirguna(beyond all quality and form), her nudity represents her oneness with nature often described as sky-clad and so on.
Her mythology can be traced back to the Puranas, literally “old” texts that form the base of Hinduism today. The Markandeya Purana understands the ultimate reality as female. The Kalika Purana celebrates the power of the divine feminine in her various manifestations around a prime goddess Kalika. Kali is derived from Kaala (darkness and time),she ushers the force of time while representing the cycle of destruction and creation of life. She has since been an icon for empowerment and ferociousness that inspires many.
Mythological stories are as compelling today as they were when they were first recited. One can often find beguiling images in modern and contemporary art that are inspired by mythology. The interpretation is very individualistic in expression, the works are thus very different from each other in nature. The artist is greatly informed by their cultural environment and their works reflect the same. Although debatable, she is often represented as an icon that embodies freedom, fearlessness and individuality.
Ravi Varma is known for his exemplary fusions of European academic art in oil paint with Indian mythology and iconography. His representation of Kali pertains to the description in the Kala-tantra with fangs (ghora-damshtra), loose hair (mukta-kesha) and so on. Her presentation is striking emphasised by the golden aura she is shown to emit. His choice of depicting these subjects involved the greater mass of India with fine arts, through his prints.
Mrinalini Mukherjee’s best known artistic pursuit began when she found a hemp- rope at a market in Gujarat. She was greatly inspired by the energy of nature and made forms with iconic frontally. She explains that her sculptures strived for “the feeling of awe [you get] when you walk into the small sanctum of a temple [and] look up to be held by an iconic presence”(Mathai, 2019). Devi (1982)represents the female goddess, without iconographical attributions, evoking the essence of devi. Her representations are de-conventionalized and personal, not rooted in any specific culture. (Davis, 2019)
Princess Pea’s, very contemporary and edgy, Kali is a reimagining of gender stereotypes employing feminine mythological emblems. Her Kali is very toy-like and minimalistic, conceived of bold shapes. The object is very unlike general representations of the goddess, and not easily recognisable in an instant view. She detaches most iconographical elements, representing only the idea of Kali as a symbol of empowerment. Princess Pea explains, “My products elicit a sense of labor, of making and moulding each story into a sculpture; adapting to structure and situation as a demonstration of living and negotiating the world as a woman. I continue to excavate these stories and embed them into my work as well as involve the many women I meet as collaborators, friends, and co-artists.”(Talawadekar, 2020)
Images Source: Architectural Digest, V & A Museum, Vogue India, Google Arts and culture.