Divine Intervention

08 September - 28 October, 2017

Mythology is replete with fantastical tales of divine intervention. Gods and Goddesses, saints and sages, have all been beseeched by believers to hasten to their aid in times of distress or to alter the course of events. Since most of these transformative and potentially life-altering changes are beyond the ken of human understanding, they assume the aura of a miracle. A cure from an illness, the boon of a child, victory in battle or averting  sure disaster, all are united in their appeal to a supernatural force. This belief in a higher power that can perform wondrous deeds, making the impossible possible, cuts across all religions.

Often there are sacred spaces where the power of prayer appears particularly potent. Places of pilgrimage—some of them remote and difficult to access—and even roadside shrines function as sites where supplicants can offer up prayers in the hope that they will be answered. Not for nothing do Catholics journey to the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni to pray for a miraculous cure for their ailments or Hindus undertake the arduous trek to the Amarnath caves to worship God Shiva, while the dargah of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer draws people from all denominations and walks of life. But aside from these public spaces, which are thronged by millions of devotees, there are also quieter spots of meditation. Withdrawal from the world rather than collective participation marks these gestures. Amrita Sher-Gil’s watercolour Woman on bed with Christian cross for instance depicts a woman seated contemplatively on her bed, with a crucifix in the background.

Not just the content but the form of prayer also assumes a special significance. While some might take on extravagant contours with special rituals to propitiate the deities, in other instances it is years of meditation and abstinence that are often accorded a higher value and blessed with special boons. Gaganendranath Tagore’s delicate and almost ethereal painting Parvati Tapasya depicts the self-mortification and penance that the Goddess Parvati undertakes to win over Lord Shiva as he sits meditating in the high Himalayas. In contrast, Laxma Goud’s Procession is a display in pomp and pageantry, where icons of divinity are paraded through the streets, attracting flocks of the faithful.

The works in the show are a testimony to how the divine is invoked across various belief systems and in myriad forms. Symbols of the divine such as the crucifix or images of Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon are often a source of solace to believers. Even the movement of heavenly bodies and the alignment of the stars are scrutinized for the clues they might yield for a more propitious future. However, astronomers would probably demur and argue for a more scientific temper than relying on supernatural forces to change the course of events. 

Notwithstanding the protestations by sceptics, instances of godly intervention in mythology continue to capture the imagination of Indian artists. Ganesh Pyne’s portrait of Draupadi summons to mind the incident of Draupadi’s vastraharan in the Mahabharata. When the Kauravas are bent on disrobing her, Draupadi prays to Lord Krishna, who comes to her rescue, ensuring that her modesty remains intact. Laxman Pai’s fiery Durga astride her mount recalls her victory over the buffalo-demon Mahishasura, thereby ending the misery of the Devas. Divine intervention offers a ray of hope to the afflicted and oppressed, assuring them that even in dark times all is not lost.                

- Meera Menezes