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.
Yet for all her power, Durga is tamed. But what of her other daughter, the fearsome Kali, so often shown with her necklace of skulls, who is pictured here in two vivid, lively sculptures and several prints trampling all over the body of her husband, Shiva? (Yes – the same Shiva – Indian gods, like the Greek, do get a bit incestuous, their relationships a bit complicated.)
Ah, but there's a reason for his position. Kali was born of Durga's anger during the battle with the demons, springing full-blown from her mother's blackened forehead. She ran trumpeting that emotion through the universe, out of control, until Shiva chose to lie down in her path. The realisation that she was trampling on "her lord", as the gallery display puts it, brought her to her senses. Once again, rightful female anger is tamed, domesticated, controlled.
After all that depressing goddess-taming, it is a nice change of pace to enter the calm of domestic life — of achievements of what is possible within its limits with a small but delightful collection of kanthas, embroidered quilts that paint a personal, lively picture of the lives of their female creators. Members of London's Bengali community helped curators interpret these, so Tasneem Khan from Essex explains, they "showed the things that were happening inside the woman's head – losing her husband in battle, her brothers not coming home, things like that. They could not express it so they expressed it through the kantha."
The central kantha here is a tale of an Indian century — British soldiers, trains, much travel and movement, interspersed with more traditional images of animals and gods. The work is lively, captivating — entirely deserving of the title of masterpiece.
Uniting the human and divine in the final part of the exhibition is the story of the goddess Manassa. The local Bengali deity only appears in the "mainstream" national Hindu story around 1400 AD, but a dramatic, Khujaraho-style carving here, dated to the 12th century, in which she displays her characteristic association of pots and snakes, shows she'd been around for far longer.
Manassa asserts her position through the figure of Behula, a devoted widow. The story goes that Chando is a merchant who stubbornly rejects the goddess, clinging to the worship of Shiva. In response, Manassa kills all his sons, including Behula's husband, Lakhinder. But she is so devoted that she remains with her husband's body, sailing off into the ocean with it (an image that in a modern scroll painting – an adaption of the traditional story-teller's prompt – sends a shiver down the spine). Shiva then persuades Manassa to relent, if Chando will bow down to her. He grudgingly agrees, and gets his sons back, but it was the will of Behula that was really responsible. A woman to the rescue — but again, only within the restrictions of a "proper", womanly role.
The art here is broadly what would once have been called – deprecated as – "folk art", yet its power, its force, its emotional appeal cannot be denied. It brings home the power of tradition, against which women activists in India must fight. Yet there's hope too, in the wonderful outpouring of an unnamed and unnameable artistic soul who created that central kantha. Here's the quiet, subversive power of creation, female creation, doing what it can, how it can, and now rightly celebrated at the centre of the world’s greatest museum.
The exhibition continues until January 7 in Gallery 91. It is part of the Museum's Voices of Bengal season. There's also an exhibition of paintings by the poet Tagore until November 12 in Gallery 3 (to the right of the main entrance), and the creation of a traditional Durga Puja tableau in the Great Court.