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Culture Cheat Sheet | 'The Body in Indian Art' at the National Museum

Amisha posted on 22nd April

By Amisha Chowbey

It’s time for the National Museum to bask in the glory of one of its most stunning exhibits in the longest time. Painstakingly curated by the young and dynamic art historian Dr. Naman Ahuja, the exhibition titled The Body in Indian Art comes to the city after phenomenal success at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. It somewhat alters the expectations one would have of the museum’s track record over the past couple of years – for the better!

It is sharp, it is well displayed and above all, it is a fantastic showcase of the best of Indian art through countless centuries. You name it; they have it – manuscripts, horoscopes, sculptures, videos, paintings… the works! The exhibit spans over eight large rooms and comprises 300 artworks, pulled together from 43 collections across the country – from Harappan sculptures, right up to a work by Subodh Gupta. Some rare pieces have been tracked down and brought out from inhospitable storage areas as well!

8 favourite pieces from the exhibition |

Tarjama-i sirr al-Makhtum {c. 1580-89} | Raza Library, Rampur

Folio from Tarjama

One of the star attractions of the exhibit, this cool book of horoscopes and remedies for a range of situations was made for the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 1580s. Essentially a Book of Talismans, the manuscript is a Persian translation of its Arabic counterpart from the 13th century that was known as The Hidden Secrets in the Address of Stars*. It’s easy to spot a few stunning illustrations of zodiac signs from the 16 surviving folios.

*Translated from Arabic: al-Sirr al-makhtum fi mukhatab al-nujum

Bhairava {11th century AD} | Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery


Seen as the primal symbol of death, the Bhairava is considered terrible, frightful and born from the blood of Shiva. Welcome to the room of death. This Bhairava statue with mangled carcass-like features is carved out of white marble and can be spotted at the entrance of the exhibition, inverting the expectation of death being showcased last. Cleverly enough, you will enter the room of birth and re-birth right after!

Jnana Chaupar: A Game of Knowledge {19th century AD} | Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur

4-2-3 gyan choupar - F

Fancy a game of Saanp Seedhi? Oh yes, we also gave the world Snakes and Ladders! This one on display is one of the earliest examples of the board game, known to have originated in medieval India, and was used to teach morals and values among the Jains. Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu Jnana Chaupar boards also exist.

The Ragamala Paintings

8.401 Devagandhara Ragini_Baroda_ DSC4965 f

This section of the exhibition presents a unique display of paintings coupled with music. The Ragamala paintings are popular manuscripts and paintings of music that reveal how music is codified; how a raga is personified and considered to have an iconographic identity. Apart from their connection with emotions, the ragas are also said to have cosmic significance. Put on one of the headphones and align with their cosmic forces!

Mallinatha {12th century AD} | Lucknow State Museum

Mallinath Front

Meet Mallinatha, the 19th of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras, with a perfect plait running down her back. What is it that women can’t do? Seated in the lotus pose or the padmasana, this headless beauty defies the traditional Jain belief that women cannot lead a life of an ascetic. Interestingly, later depictions show her to be a man. Aah… the politics of gender.

Creation of Nath Siddha as Bhairav {19th century AD} | Meherangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur

Creation of Nath Siddha as Bhairav

A rich pictorial description - on one end stands Shiva with an erect phallus entering three yonis, two of which have depictions of Vishnu and Brahma as well. Found in the birth gallery, the painting goes on to comment on how it’s not just the male gods who create the universe, but they too stem from female energy.

Surasundari, Patralekha {10th-11th centuries AD} | Indian Museum, Kolkata

Patralekha detail

Indian art is incomplete without a hint of spice from Khajuraho. This coy beauty is a celestial nymph with subtle erotic overtures. A close look at the shoulders and base of the neck reveals a series of curved incisions that represent the marks of the nails of her lover left on her body after a passionate encounter. Lookout for more such traces!

Bharat Uddhar by Prabhu Dayal | Private collection

6.314 Brit Yama Priya Paul

Of the many prints from the pre-independence era, this is one of the more entertaining ones. Gandhi is cast as Shiva, who rescues Mother India {who is equated with Shiva’s devotee Markandeya} from Yamaraj, the god of death, who is imaged as a colonial officer. There’s drama, a hero and a villain, and emotion – a damsel in distress. Of course, we all know what happened next.

National Museum is open everyday, except Mondays, from 10 am to 5 pm, and till 8 pm on Fridays. 

Where: Janpath, New Delhi. Close to India Gate; Contact: 011 2379 2775

Also contributing to this feature- Avani Sood