Durga: Creating An Image Of The Goddess At The British Museum

By Siba Matti | 12 September 2006
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photo shows man on crane adding clay to statue

Durga being assembled in the Great Court of the British Museum. Copyright the British Museum

A huge and complex Hindu statue is being made from wood, straw, paint and clay in the Great Court of the British Museum by skilled Bengali craftsmen. Siba Matti went to find out more.

As part of its new Bengali season, the British museum will be hosting a series of exhibitions and events that celebrate the culture and traditions held in the Indian region of West Bengal, and Bangladesh.

Durga: Creating an Image of the Goddess, an ongoing project, is the first show. Visitors will be able to watch master-craftsman Nemai Chandra Paul and his two assistant image-makers, Biswajit Chakraborty and Madhu Sudan Paul, from West Bengal, create a statue of Durga, one the most revered Hindu goddesses.

man paints statue of durga

A statue of Durga being painted in Bengal. Courtesy of the British Museum

Curator Sona Datta explained how the exhibition had come about. She said “The London Durga Puja Dusserah Committee (LDPDC) have been hosting thelongest standing Durga Puja for Hindu Bengalis in the UK. Every autumn since 1963, this 4 days festival of the Goddess Durga has taken place just a stone's throw from the British Museum."

"The LDPDC approached the British Museum 4 years ago and asked if they could hold their annual festival within the museum. This planted the seed which has today grown into the Voices of Bengal Season, which includes the creation of Durga.”

photo shows woman plaiting straw statue

Plaiting straw for the body of the statue. Copyright the British Museum.

The display will depict Durga mounted on a lion, slaying the evil demon Mahishasura, who is disguised as a buffalo. She is standing with her four children who are the deities: elephant - headed god Ganesh; Saraswati, the goddess of learning; Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, and Kartikk a handsome general riding a peacock.

Hindus believe that the gods were fearful of being vanquished by Mahishasura and his army of demons, who had become so powerful that they had reached the gates of heaven itself. Thus the gods combined their powers to create one ultimate force: Durga, the Invincible One.

photo shows half complete statues of clay and straw

The half finished Great Court Durga. Copyright the British Museum.

Armed with a variety of different strengths, Durga went out to fight Mahishasura, and for a long time they were embroiled in a battle that raged throughout the whole world. In a bid to beat Durga, Mahishasura kept transforming, but Durga constantly managed to outwit him, and during their final encounter, she decapitated her enemy, and used her trident to pierce the demon that rose from his severed neck. This marked a triumph: a dramatisation of good and evil.

Nemai Chandra Paul and his assistants have been working on the project for about a month, in which time the statues have been formed, using a mixture of locally sourced straw, barley, oats, clay, wood, dust, and even a little water from the Ganges.

Painting of the sculptures will now begin, using vibrant organic shades, and this is expected to take a week. Visitors can see the team adding the detail to Durga’s eyes on 16 September at 11am.

The dressing and the crowning of the figures follows, in which special decorations including elaborate gold jewellery and vivid fabrics are added. Just one week later, the sculptures will finally be complete.

Three days after, the effigies will be transported to the Camden Centre in London, for five days of Puja, or worship. This marks one of the most important dates in the Hindu Bengali calendar.

Lastly on 2 October, the images will be immersed in the River Thames at Putney Bridge, to perform the final part of this spiritual process.

Sona Datta said that there were challenges in bringing “water, clay, mess and chaos” to the pristine environs of the Great Court, and that the Indian craftsmen, who usually find it easier to work barefoot, had been patient with the necessity for boots, to comply with Health and Safety regulations.

photo shows elaborately dressed statue of durga with worshipper in foreground.

A completed Durga being worshipped in India. Courtesy of the British Museum.

But the evolving display is already a huge success. As Brian Durrans, Deputy Keeper in the Department of Asia at the museum, explained,

“One of the most satisfying parts of this project has been seeing the positive reactions of the audience, which has included visiting Bengalis and many others too. They have all been very interested and enthusiastic.”

“We have had great success helping visitors understand what is going on, and integrating friends from the Hindu Bengali community into the British Museum volunteers team”, he added.

Performing Puja: Festivity, Authenticity and Religiousity in the Durga Puja, a talk about this and other important Hindu events, will take place at the British Museum on 21 September. The Bengali season ends in January 2007.

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