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Allysa B. Peyton, Assistant Curator of Asian Art
October 16, 2020
On a positive note regarding the year 2020, and on the occasion of the Harn Museum of Art’s 30th Anniversary, we are celebrating women artists throughout all of the collecting areas and throughout the galleries. (Please see the exhibition Breaking the Frame: Women Artists in the Harn Collections.) While researching this topic along with the rest of the curatorial team, I had the idea to include one of the most archetypal symbols of feminine power (shakti) to top it off: the goddess. In particular, the most badass version of the goddess, Durga, is now on view in the Asian wing galleries.
In the Hindu tradition, epics and artistic traditions have represented the struggle between good and evil for centuries—namely, the gods (devas, plural) and demons (asuras). A battle waged by a Buffalo Demon against the gods was not going well as the demon had special immunity from the powers of the male gods. The gods came up with a solution by nominating Durga to defeat him. Durga Mahisasuramardini is the name given to this form of the goddess—it means destroyer of the buffalo demon. This goddess is armed to the teeth, with each of her weapons given to her by a different god.
This 10th-century sandstone sculpture from Central India, where sandstone is abundant, shows the climactic moment after nine days of battle when Durga decapitates the buffalo, and then pulls the demon out in order to dispatch it.
The goddess is multi-armed, an apt representation of her awesome power, and larger in relation to the demon to show her importance. Monumental in size, this sculpture built for a temple niche would originally have had more arms and weapons, but some are now lost.
It is fascinating to see the variation in iconography of Durga imagery over time, place, and media. The small copper-alloy sculpture above was made in the late 19th–early 20th century in South India where metal-working is king. In this small 6½-inch-tall votive version, it is also possible to see more of the goddess’s weapons (Note the tiny version of the lion far left!).
In a painted medium, as in this example from the British Museum’s collection, it seems as if it is more likely to find the goddess in a more active position, literally climbing up the side of the buffalo and convincingly yanking the asura out by the hair. Created around 1800 in Western India, when British colonialism was in full swing, a tiger was chosen to represent Durga’s mount (vahana) which suggests that an additional layer to this age-old tale is possible, a story in which the subcontinent of India is represented by the tiger and the battle of “good vs. evil” takes on a more time-sensitive tone. For more on this theme, check out the Victoria and Albert Museum's page on one of the most amazing musical semi-automatons ever built, a.k.a. Tipoo’s Tiger.
It is also possible to interpret Durga and the Buffalo Demon as a metaphor; the demon Mahisha as the embodiment of ignorance, where the battle is an internal one, as we personally fight any negative energies within ourselves.
This cosmic cycle is ongoing, and each year the festival of Navaratri (nine nights) is celebrated on the new moon in autumn, this year between October 17th–25th. For many Hindus, the nine nights and ten days are dedicated to the worship of the goddesses Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Durga.
During Navaratri, multi-tiered exhibition of figurines, idols, and various scenes called a golu are on display and is the focus of devotion (puja). Friends and families visit each other to see the home shrines, share food and gifts, and sing songs.
Dr. Vasudha Narayanan in front of the Navaratri golu, Temples and Festivals exhibition, 2011. Performances for the opening event were organized by the UF Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra).
In my experience, one of the most spectacular Navaratri celebrations of recent memory was held outside the home when Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, Distinguished Professor, UF Department of Religion, set up her Navaratri shrine at the Thomas Center during the 2011 Heart of Asia Festival.
The exhibition, Temples and Festivals: A Celebration of Indian Art featured art from the Harn’s permanent collection alongside a magnificent display of the golu, accompanied by musical and dance performances which honored a centuries-old living tradition of celebrating the goddess.