India is a land of goddesses, a nation whose personification is often a bejeweled female Hindu deity seated on a lion. India is also a land of child brides and "sati," the self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. This paradox is the subject of "Woman/Goddess," an exhibition of 90 photographs by almost 30 photojournalists organized by New Delhi art critic Gayatri Sinha and currently on view at the India Center for Art and Culture's loft space in New York's Chelsea art district.
The images capture the pronounced diversity of female life in India, ranging from prime ministers to ascetics, from actresses to madwomen. The overall effect is fascinating, sobering and frequently bizarre.
A beautiful, dream-like black-and-white photograph of three widows bathing, taken in 1953 by Frank Horvat, shows them gaunt and with their heads shaven, a gentle version of Macbeth's witches. For women, mourning in India can involve fasting, prolonged seclusion or worse -- the continuing prevalence of "sati" is demonstrated by Jyotindra Jain's 1971 photo of a graveyard crowded with jumbled tombstones erected to commemorate "good" wives.
On the other end of the spectrum is the devotion shown women political leaders. Images of female politicians turn up in shrines, wall posters and large-scale roadside billboards. Raghu Rai's dramatic black-and-white photo of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, regarded as "Mother India" by her supporters, captures well the fervor of her devotees.
These Big Brother-type images of political leaders can be subject to a strange fusion with religion. A 1998 color photo by George Francis shows a float in a parade celebrating the election victory of a former film actress who was running for chief minister. Portrayed as the eight-armed, blue-skinned goddess Kali, she stands on the prone form of her (male) political rival, pinning him down with a trident and wearing a ghoulish necklace of his head(s) (all of which wear black sunglasses).
And in a compelling update of the "cargo cult" phenomenon, a photograph by S. N. Sinha shows a group of unexploded cannon shells, painted pink and placed in a shrine along the border between India and Pakistan after the 1971 war, in hopes of providing spiritual protection against further conflict.
The sober images in the show's "Possession/Ritual Performance" section take note of a strange inconsistency: while women play goddesses in films, only men are allowed to portray them in ritual theater. A 1984 photo by Pepita Seth captures with vivid detail a performer being made up as Kali, complete with hammered silver breastplate, a cockle-shell headdress and a long protruding coconut leaf to represent Kali's long tongue, with which she laps up the blood of demons. Naveen Kishore's series of photos from 1998 chronicle the process by which actor Chapal Bhaduri prepares for his role as the goddess Shitala, including a humorous image of the actor angrily stuffing his false breasts into a tight costume.
Another section of the show is devoted to "The Canonization of Mother Teresa," and offers a brief account of her life, detailing her decision to abandon the convent and go live with the poor. Pablo Bartholomew's photo of her 1997 funeral -- she was accorded full state honors -- shows the embalmed nun lying on a bier, her bare feet poking out from beneath an Indian flag, in the pose made famous by Mantegna's portrait of the dead Christ.
The exhibition is accompanied by an impressive 196-page catalogue that can be purchased for $25, as well as a program of films and lectures through August; see the website for more information.
NED HIGGINS is managing editor at Artnet Magazine.