A review of Arjunas Shiva and Devi Show by, Devdutt Pattanaik (www.devdutt.com) is one of India’s foremost mythologist whose books, articles and lectures explore the relevance of ancient stories, symbols and rituals in modern times.
When consciousness bloomed, and man became human, capable of reflecting on life, he was struck by the wonder of life: the stars above in the sky, the movement of the wind, the pleasures of the flesh, and the pain sparked by decay and death. He strayed away from the path that demanded only survival – and began a journey the demanded explanations, meaning, validation. Once ape, he was now seer, seeker, shaman, truth-seeker, myth-maker, and artist. With words, with paint, with music and mime he communicated truths that he felt.
In this magical space, he found one to be a very lonely number. There was need for a second, for the sake of communication, for the sake of connection, for love, for hatred, for conversation, for reproduction – a complement, a spouse, a partner, an enemy, a stranger, a friend. The other. He found joy in exploring the gap between the self and the rest and yearned for union. A sweet suffering. Thus emerged truths about the observation without and the observer within, truths of the infinity around and unending possibilities within. The truths demanded names, qualifications, titles: movement and stillness, flesh and soul, water and fire, earth and sky, Devi and Shiva.
These were not logical, scientific, systematic truths. This was not churned in the intellect. This was baked in the furnace of emotion and the churn of the senses. This was myth, a subjective truth, expressed stories, symbols and rituals – the mythology. And since this truth is not logical, it does not depend on external observations and experiences. It is a non-linear truth, born of feelings, feelings that as true today as they were tens of thousands of years ago. Even today, surrounded by cars and mobile phones, man who no longer hunts and gathers food, cannot help but explore the wonder of life – the stars, the sky, the earth, the pleasures and the pain. The wisdom of those who came before is not good enough. He seeks new answers, old content in new form. Whether he wears jeans or watches MTV, he still needs explanations, meaning, validation. That quest draws him, once again to those ancient truths codified by tradition as Shiva and Devi.
Every time the idea of Shiva and Devi has touched the soul, it has bounced back with a new manifestation. The earliest can be seen in the seals found in the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohen-jo-daro that flourished 5000 years ago. Here Shiva appears seated amongst animals displaying an erect phallus and Devi appears holding serpents and creepers, with crops emerging from her womb. He is the primal hunter, the seeker, sensitive to the movements of the beast. She is the primal gatherer, ear to the ground, who hears the heartbeat of the soil and the movement of water as it rises up the seed and transforms into a flower.
As the centuries passed, the idea of Shiva evolved – new stories leapt from the tongues of bards. Dancers moved to shape new plots. He was the hermit whose marriage ensured that the cosmos survived and did not spin into oblivion. He rode a bull and smeared himself with ash. He got high on hemp and poison. He lived on mountains, in caves, in crematoriums. He refused to engage with life until Devi forced him to, sitting on him, dancing on him, copulating with him.
Devi transformed too. She split into three. She was the source of knowledge, of wealth and of raw power. Virgin, bride and hag. Saraswati dressed in white, Lakshmi bedecked in red and gold and the naked Kali, with outstretched tongue mocking the pretensions of man. She was serenity personified and seductress and succubus all rolled into one. She inspired, she enriched, she frightened the hermit within.
Temple walls gave the divine couple new form – new shape. They held symbols that were potent with mystical wisdom. Three eyes, three leaves, trident to show the union of mind, body and spirit. Pots to show wealth. Swans to show detachment. Nakedness to show truth.
Arjuna’s work emerges from a long and well established tradition of shaping primal truths in new moulds. He has myriad moulds – computers and cameras and canvases. Yet at heart you see the ancient seer, the sage, the seeker, the shaman, letting life touch the soul, stir it so that the senses awaken and demand that the old story be told in a new form. The colors burst with psychedelic energy. A new labyrinth of creativity comes forth, taking one into an unknown path. All is familiar yet strange. Yes, that is Shiva, yes that is Saraswati, but why is he, and she, so different? Why is he not like the calendar art you saw when you were a child?
But calendar art is not a product of forever; it came barely a few decades ago and has so numbed our senses that we assume it existed since consciousness dawned. A tradition of at least 4900 years full of temple wall carvings and mural paintings and palm leaf etchings existed before Raja Ravi Verma’s calendars fettered the idea of Shiva and Devi. It has been obscured and obliterated. It is time to break the fetters. Jamini Roy tried but was never able to capture the imagination of the masses. Arjuna makes a determined new attempt. Here is a new myth-maker. A new storyteller.
Why should the deities hold only conch-shells and lotus flowers? Let them hold mobile phones, be part of neuronal circuitry and particles charged with subatomic energy. Let Shiva open the third eye and bring forth patterns that emerge from chaos theory and quantum physics, let the intellectual revolutions of the industrial and post-industrial era make their impact on the way we see the gods and the goddesses. The soul has discarded its old clothes and worn new clothes – Arjuna’s imagination. All this is done with genuine reverence to the sacred, a submission to the primal theme but a celebration using a new vocabulary and a futuristic grammar.
This is an attempt to break free. Moksha. Not a craft – repetition of what has been. But art – a journey into the unknown, an exploration, that forces every observer to think, challenge, argue, scream, shout, be outraged, be wonderstruck, and leave spellbound. It forces you to question, rethink, reevaluate. Discover a new horizon of humanity, and step closer towards divinity.