What is conjured up in your mind by the phrase "women of India"? You might think the powerful figure of Indira Gandhi, but more likely you'll be thinking about dowry killings, sati, underfed girl-children — images of abuse and suffering. It is striking then that what shines out of the British Museum's new Myths of Bengal exhibition is a vision of female power — dangerous, often out-of-control power, but certainly of a force to be reckoned with.
At its centre - physically and intellectually - is Durga, the supremely powerful goddess created by all of her fellow divine beings at a time when they had been almost overwhelmed by demons. Armed with a weapon donated by each of the gods, and mounted on a lion, she ensured that, after an appropriately fierce battle, order was restored to the world.
Durga greets visitors to the exhibition in a fantastically detailed carving of the malleable "pith from the inside of a shola weed" (surely a curator's nightmare to handle). Serenely triumphant in victory, she's totally in control - the matriarch - flanked by her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati and at the bottom (unusually enough), her sons, Ganesh and Kartik.
Yet soon, the visitor sees, her story is more problematic as a vision of female power. Charted in historical prints and modern-day photographs is the annual Durga Puja in Bengal, when her victory is celebrated. But like the Greek Persephone, she must leave this happy scene at the end of the ceremony to return to her husband Shiva, who stays far away in the Himalayas. Her sorrow is heavy as she turns her steps towards him — reflecting no doubt the anguish of many a young mortal bride.
Yet there is, there must be, consolation. Among the items here is a 19th-century "modern" revelation, a salesman's catalogue of 75 examples of cheap coloured prints. Once that young wife would have had to visit the temple (if she was allowed such a freedom) to see images of the goddess and her suffering, to be comforted perhaps by the parallel with her own circumstances — now she could have it in her own home. And if the colours are tawdry, the printing rough, to our sophisticated 21st century eye, that doesn't detract from the human stories you can imagine behind them.