The exhibition ‘Ganga: River of Life and Eternity,’ on view at the National Museum until June 20, is “the largest exhibition on the mythologies, history and the ecology of the Ganga unto date”.
Curated by Tara Sharma and Boston-based architect and urban designer Shakeel Hossain, the exhibition brings together artworks in a variety of mediums dating from the Gupta period to the present day.
The individual pieces and their range are breathtaking and the mixing of classical with contemporary striking. The artworks have been borrowed from the National Museum, the Alkazi Foundation, the Kalakriti Archives, Hyderabad, as well as commissioned from contemporary artisans.
We know well that the Ganga is one of India’s most important rivers – for millions, it has been and continues to be a source of spiritual and material life. We have never been to an exhibition on the Ganga before, and never one at the National Museum. So high expectations are natural. But when we aren’t presented with any revelations, any new interpretations of known narratives, we are disappointed and puzzled, despite being awestruck by the objects on display.
The exhibition moves through three themes – Svarg (heaven), Prithvi (earth) and Patal (underworld). A large wall inscribed with Rig Veda verses on the sacredness of rivers opens the exhibition and leads us to the first section.
The first theme, Svarg, presents stories of celestial or Akash Ganga: her origins, abodes and descent onto earth. On display here are miniature paintings and sculptures that depict Ganga emerging from the water in which Brahma washed Vishnu’s feet, a contemporary series by Sunita Kanvinde on Ganga’s descent on her makar or crocodile, and wooden and bronze renditions of Vishnu lying on Sheshnaga.
There are also miniature paintings and contemporary works by Kanvinde depicting Shiva bringing down Ganga in his matted locks. The story goes that when King Bharata’s sons interrupted Sage Kapila’s meditation, Kapila scorched them to ashes in anger and Bharata appealed to Shiva to restore his sons to life.
Other exhibits capture Ganga’s many roles and identities, as narrated in the Hindu epics. Ganga is consort and favourite of both Vishnu and Shiva. In some stories, and in the artworks on display, she is shown as so close to Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) that she embodies Radha. In others, Shiva is Gangadhara, or Holder of Ganga: she is a mermaid in his hair. Ganga is, therefore, sister and rival of Parvati, Shiva’s wife.
Ganga is also foster mother of Kartikeya, the warrior guardian of heaven who was conceived when Agni dropped Shiva’s seed into her waters. She is the wife of King Shantanu and mother of their only surviving son Bhishma, the gallant hero of the Mahabharata.
The second theme, Prithvi, revolves around Ma Ganga or Ganga as the benevolent mother goddess who is revered spiritually and materially. She is benefactor of life and conferrer of moksha or liberation, as represented in scripture and iconography and evoked through rituals and pilgrimages. She is sacred and potent throughout her course but most so at tirths or sacred centres of pilgrimages. Here we have stone and bronze sculpture and displays on the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad and the Ganga arti in Banaras.
Unfortunately, the modern-day Ganga arti at Dashashwamedh ghat is the only one that has been described. This arti was established about a decade ago by a private organisation. Over the years it has gone on to eclipse the smaller, more aesthetically appealing artis that took place all along the ghats, through its pompous style and the importance it has garnered for tourism purposes. The display describes this arti in a typically celebratory fashion, as a popular practice arisen organically.
We come next to small displays on other religious and popular practices that revolve around the Ganga: the immersion of the tazia during Muharram festivities, Kanwariya traditions, the Bera festival of Murshidabad and the immersion of Durga Puja images. This is a welcome enrichment of the previously classical Hindu focus of the exhibition.
Sadly, here the exhibition begins to resemble something at a school annual day, with ‘models’ to be stared at and ‘charts’ ‘explaining’ the models. The giant replicas of a tazia, Bera raft and Durga idols, crafted by artisans, are beautiful and worthy of display. But the accompanying texts are solely informational and flat in their lack of questioning and nuance. It seems a bit as though, without the already-enriching sculpture and miniature paintings at hand, the curators ran out of ideas of what to say and how to say it in ways that would do justice to the material.
Prithvi also explores Ganga as ‘the river of Indian civilisation’. This section retells Indian history as a history of the Ganga, beginning with the Stone Age and the Harappan civilisation, through the Mauryan and Guptan empires, which formulated influential religious and artistic traditions, the Mughal empire, which synthesised Indic and Islamic traditions into the Ganga-Jamuni culture, and the British empire, which expanded trade and industrial development centred on the Ganga, to the present day. A wall of European maps showing India intra Gangem and India extra Gangem, or the regions west and east of Ganga, is a treat.
We finally come to the last part of the exhibition. A wall of posters of Bollywood films – Jis Desh me Ganga Behti Hai, Ganga Jal, Ganga Jamuna and others – shows how Ganga metaphorically enters popular imagination and iconography. This wall leads to a contemporary installation and artworks on the pollution of the river, including a 15-foot painting by Madhubani artist Ajit Jha.
Hossain says, “We forget to respect Ganga as a vital river of life. We are literally washing all our filth – body and soul – into the river without any value for the river itself. There is a difference between performing rituals and worshipping. Central to worship is respect.” We cannot but agree with this. Unfortunately, like some of the previous displays, the installation is somewhat literal in a school assignment kind of way and misses the opportunity to really provoke viewers into thought.
Hossain explains that the exhibition is “narrative and not object-based”. This distinction is a curious one for the viewer, even while we understand it may have been useful in the curatorial process in a technical sense. Any narrative is after all only made of its components, which in this case are the objects selected for display. How the objects make meaning when juxtaposed against each other and in groups is exactly what forms the narrative. So, what exactly does this distinction mean?
The distinction is also curious because the objects on display are so spectacular. One could spend at least half a day in this exhibition poring over one beautiful, surprising detail after another. That is in the end the merit of the exhibition. In fact, it is because of how inherently fantastic the objects are that the narrative has the potential to become important and interesting.
In itself, the narrative the exhibition purports to tell – Ganga’s celestial origins, her descent, her ‘veneration and abuse’ on earth, or, as the curatorial note says, “the unbroken continuity of Ganga’s veneration and her role in the making of the region’s diverse and rich cultural geography” – is a conventional and not very interesting one. It’s something we hear and continue to hear in various forms, especially by those who want to extol the greatness and continuity of India’s culture and traditions without explaining why it should matter to do so.
On the whole, we wouldn’t have minded curatorial interpretation to bring some three-dimensionality and dynamism into the displays. The texts and explanations that accompany the displays are curiously detached, as though the objects are just beautiful objects, empty of any nuance or politics, found and brought together in celebratory innocence. What are the implications of the choices behind the particular objects and the way they have been organised?
And ultimately, there’s a whole lot left out of the exhibition that could help rub against the flatness of the narrative presented. One doesn’t quite leave the exhibition with a deep sense of the millions of real lives tied to the Ganga, in the past and today, and moved to reflect on the complications of their perseverance and precariousness.
Just as obvious examples, what about the hundreds of pandits and purohits and the Dom specialists and Nishad fishermen and boatmen who fuel expansive economies along the river’s banks and whose material lives are completely dependent on it? To take from what the exhibition already includes, who are the Kanwariyas or the residents of Murshidabad who conduct the Bera festivities? Why does what they do really matter? It’s a shame we don’t have more to say about one of our richest sources of spiritual, cultural and material life, more than that is what it is.
Nandini Majumdar is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and Varanasi. She also works on projects in education and the arts with NIRMAN, a non-profit organisation (www.nirman.info). She is the author of Banaras: Walks Through India’s Sacred City (Roli Books, 2014) and five children’s books, including Satya’s Boat (Tulika, 2014).