This brilliant painting in characteristic Madhubani folk style, rendered on hand-made paper in 21inches by 29 inches size, duly strengthened and toughened, represents goddess Durga in her eight-armed manifestation. The goddess is carrying disc, khadga – sword, and noose, on the right side, and lotus, mace and trident, on the left, her normal right hand held in ‘abhay’, while the normal left, in ‘varad’, granting freedom from fear, and release from all worldly infatuations. The attribute the goddess is holding in the hand just above the normal on the right side has a mixed form looking like both, noose – a Shaivite attribute, and conch, Vaishnava. Goddess Durga is a deity in Shaivite line; besides, she is already carrying three Vaishnava attributes. It is hence more likely that it is noose that the artist has modeled to look like both, a noose and a conch. However, its grip around her fingers, with which the attribute is held in the hand, drags it closer to a noose. A conch is not known to have any such component.
Essentially a votive image, the goddess has been represented as seated on her mount lion and as enshrining a sanctum. The Devi’s lion-riding manifestation, popularly known as Durga, is widely her demon-slaying form, more often as slaying the demon Mahisha giving her Mahishasura-mardini epithet – now almost a synonym of her name. Despite that in her Mahishasura-mardini manifestation the nature of blood-shed was divinized by her objective which was essentially an expression of her divine concern for the world, it did not attract the folk mind. This folk mind seems to have perceived divinity solely in benignity and divine love, not in blood-shed or violence even for a divine cause. Such aesthetic aspects of this classical image as exceptional agility, brilliance, orientation, sublimity … that have always attracted artists, and despite that it is a more widely represented form of the goddess in visual arts and temple icons, this folk perception seems to have never conceded her violent image engaged in killing.
A masterpiece by Alka Devi, one of the known artists in Madhubani art style, is a brilliant example of this folk perception. For grace and majesty lion is alright as the Devi’s seat alternating a formal ‘simhasana’ – the seat composed of lion-figures upholding it on them; however, in folk art – Madhubani or any, lion is not the part of the goddess’s crusade against Mahisha or any of the demons as it is in Mahishasura-mardini imagery or in classical art. The artist has adorned every bit of space of her canvas with one motif or other but she did not gesticulate the image of the goddess or her mount to reveal an act except such as granted ‘abhay’ – freedom from fear, or ‘varad’ – release from infatuations. A folk artist might paint a human being transporting an injured snake or sick dog for its safety and treatment, but not killing a snake even when it intrudes into his hut and could harm him. Market-compulsions apart, a scene of warfare or violence is rarely the theme of Madhubani, Warli or Bastar-like folk arts.
Accordingly, the well-composed figure of the lion in this Madhubani folk, affording the goddess a majestic seat, holds neither a furious look nor is charging at its prey as it does in Mahishasura-mardini imagery where it is essentially an instrument of blood-shed. That fire in eyes, blood-smeared tongue furiously lolling out and the force and violent mood with which it charges at its prey, such as define the Devi’s mount in Mahishasura-mardini imagery, are completely missing in this Madhubani painting. There the lion is the goddess’s partner in her exploits against a demon or a group of them, here it is a well-contented quiet animal with absolute quiescence on its face and duly saddled as a mount.
The goddess herself, represented seated on her mount as in ‘padmasana’, has no inclination to violence or blood-shed. She carries instruments of war but in its gestures her figure betrays no intention to use them. Interestingly, the most deadly of her weapons, the disc and the mace, have a flower-like look, and she has her forearms painted with flower motifs. Essentially a votive icon, the goddess’s image is meant to manifests a benign presence, not an aspect of her as manifests in an act. The painting contained within an elaborate border that a series of ritual pots with mango leaves laid over them defines represents the goddess as enshrining a sanctum consisting of a conical arch with a large bell and hanging lamps hung on it. Every bit of the arch as well as the space above and under it has been beautiful adorned using various motifs – decorative frills, flowers, leaves, pots, tray of ritual material, insects …, all line-drawn, though the lines are so fine that they often look like dots and miniaturized crosses and are so thickly rendered that impart the impression of brush-work.
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