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Benode Behari Mukherjee, Brahma and Tulsidas’ monkey god


Art and religion
KG Subramanyan Artist
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Hindus are born into Hindu households, but as far as I am concerned, I am not that staunchly religious at all, though we came from a family where most of the normal Hindu rituals were observed. So I have heard Sanskrit mantras being recited, and things of that kind. I even like the smell of sort of home, I do, but then from the beginning, I was a little put out by the state of the temples and all wherever I went at that time, except the temple we lived close to when I was very young. Later in the time, I became almost irreligious, because wherever you went and people used to say that this is the temple with the sacred family, and when you go there you find a whole line of beggars and lepers sitting there and it used to put me off very much. So really, I never went to temples thereafter. Then later I came to realise that I can probably live without all these rituals. Temples did impress me by their carvings and their sort of physical presence, but the temple as a place of worship didn’t interest me, and later as time went on I found that worshipping, if at all you worship anything or think about anything, it should be in the seclusion of your own mind rather than elsewhere. But I like going to temples and watching the general atmosphere, but I am not religious at all. As I grew up, I did not believe in most of the rituals. I was also given a sacred thread at the right time, but then I took it off almost 2 weeks after the thing was over, and I have never worn it since. I don’t observe any of those old things like after death the anniversary, the anniversary celebration. That’s why when Sushila passed, we didn’t have any religious observance except the one at home, and every year we observe it on the 28th February with a musical performance. Well, otherwise then I am not worried about whether there is a God or not, but I can see that the creation is a wonderful thing, and in fact, even a little insect, if you watch, you can see what all goes on inside, and you can see a scheme, even if it has come arbitrarily from somewhere, it is sort of a very complicated scheme. So, this sense of wonder I do live with, but then I do not attribute it to some person, place or the whole thing. There is no grand architect anywhere, in my mind. The other thing is that many of those things which had a kind of relevance at a certain time in a certain society really don’t mean anything, though some of the verses sung in these things are very wonderful. In fact, when my mother died I had gone to the ceremony. At the end of all the sort of ceremonies there are certain things sung in Sanskrit, the meaning of which ah, the dead die but the life has to go on and there is something in life that you have to live for, that kind of thing. So, there are good and bad points, but I think they are totally relevant in our kind of life.

But artistically is this a liberation or is it an impoverishment?

Well, as far as the playing around mythology if we can do it without reference to a god or a godhead, that you can always do and I have always done that. Only that mythology might have meant various things to me, sort of a thing, which I do. In fact, certain things have sort of stayed with me throughout my life work like probably the bullfight stayed with Picasso. Similarly the kind of fight between God and the buffalo demon, that I sort of re-edited, re-presented this sort of thing in various ways and play around with it, but it means to me something else. It is something like there is an angel and a beast within you, and then the fight goes on and some, that unless the fight goes on, you cannot take charge of yourself, this sort of thing. I don't even say it is a fight of good and evil because I suppose as human beings evil has to be there and the good has to come out of the fight, if at all, this kind of a thing. But well, many may not agree with it, but that’s my personal opinion. So, mythology as such doesn’t need a godhead, and many cases, if you are thinking in terms of the godheads made, I mean there are so many umpteen godheads all over the country, they have their own little mythology which are based on certain observances of even low down life. Most of the Devi figures in India are in Gujarat, Saurashtra. There are probably many versions of Devi figures. There are differences, what kind of animal do they ride on? The story finally is that on the basis of the Devi or powers, the male hero, it is almost like a female spider eats the male spider after mating with it, this sort of a thing. There is some kind of mysterious reinterpretation of that observance into a myth. Later, of course, people sort of worshipped that goddess, powerful goddess. After all, somebody who can eat up a helmet should be powerful indeed.

KG Subramanyan (1924-2016) was an Indian artist. A graduate of the renowned art college of Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, Subramanyan was both a theoretician and an art historian whose writings formed the basis for the study of contemporary Indian art. His own work, which broke down the barrier between artist and artisan, was executed in a wide range of media and drew upon myth and tradition for its inspiration.

Listeners: Timothy Hyman

Timothy Hyman is a graduate of Slade School of Fine Art, London, in which he has also taught. In 1980 and 1982, he was Visiting Professor in Baroda, India. Timothy Hyman has curated many significant art exhibitions and has published articles and monographs on both European and Indian artists.

Duration: 6 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: 2008

Date story went live: 10 September 2010