Avishek Sen, To hide or to seek | Watercolour on paper, 202113 x 10.5 inches
Avishek Sen, Ma Phaleshu, Watercolour on paper, 202115 x 11.5 inches
Avishek Sen, Caught in his own trickery, Watercolour on paper, 202018.5 x 10.5 inches
Avishek Sen, Home, Watercolour on paper, 202114 x 9.5 inches
Avishek Sen, Holy dip, Watercolour on paper, 202117 x 12 inches
Dilip Ranade, Flamingos, Watercolour on paper, 202312.75 x 9.6 inches
Dilip Ranade, Flamingos, Ink on paper, 202213.5 x 10.25 inches
Dilip Ranade, Surrender, 20186.75 x 10.25 inches
Dilip Ranade, Kaliyug, Watercolour on paper, 20179.5 x 6.75 inches
Dilip Ranade, To Be or Not To Be, 20196 x 6 inches
Dilip Ranade, Arrest, 20176.75 x 9 inches
Dilip Ranade, Vision, 20176 x 9 inches
K.G. Subramanyan, Composition 7, Watercolour on paper, 199410.75 x 10.75 inches
K.G. Subramanyan, Composition 15, Watercolour on paper, 199910.75 x 9.5 inches
Shree Vakratunda Mahakaya Suryakoti Samaprabha |
Nirvighnam Kuru Me Deva Sarva-Karyeshu Sarvada ||
O Lord Ganesha of the curved trunk and massive body, the one whose splendour is equal to millions of Suns, please bless me so that I do not face any obstacles in my endeavours. 
The fourth of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu – the eternally angry Narasimha – is the theriocephalic being that appears to slay the demon Hiranyakashipu and end religious persecution and calamity on earth, thereby restoring dharma. His form is first mentioned around 800-200 BC. 
Narasimha may have come to us from another source. One of the oldest Egyptian (3000 BC- 300 BC) Goddesses is Sekhmet, the Protector or Warrior Goddess, the half–lion, half-woman daughter of the sun god Ra, whose most famous epithet was ‘The One Before Whom Evil Trembles’ and who was known for destruction, war and pestilence, but also healing.
There is also a lion-faced Goddesses called Prathyangira Devi or Narasimhi in the Shiv-Shakti tradition, but it is Narasimha and Sekhmet who have engaged minds throughout the eons.
But what are myths and why do they have significance today? After all, almost none of us have any contact with animals in the wild today. We also don’t have any contact with lions, and yet, we immediately associate certain aspects with the lion-headed Lord Narasimha or Sekhmet that seem to remain the same across time and space.
Myths are metaphors, narratives, and histories of a sacred nature, often connected with rituals within any given culture. They are stories of the search by men and women through the ages for meaning, for significance, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, and to find out who we are .
While some see in these myths the distinct character of particular cultures, others perceive universal patterns. While some regard myths as contemporary and “alive”, others think of them as ancient or dormant . And often hidden in many of the myths we know are older ones.
Myth-making and Divine Animals touches on the most ancient myths that are also the most alive today, and some of the themes that form the lens through which humans constantly re-imagine their divine Animal Gods in response to everything they interact with, such as the usage of the myths that confer immortality through text and image to some animals for thousands of centuries; the movements of Animal Gods between civilizations; the myths that are lost but hidden in plain sight and the distinction humans seem to maintain between the image and flesh and blood.
It also explores the way that myths are reimagined over time and space, both through a conversation of the way divine animals have been visualized in art, over the past centuries as well as in indigenous art and contemporary art, which are perhaps divided today by the closeness of the artist to nature. But ultimately, it looks at how, even in an age when we humans no longer have a direct connection to animals, we are still aware of the importance of nature and her first messengers, and how awed we are by our interactions with them.
To return to the Dasavatars – in our times, with the knowledge that we have, we interpret the Dasavatars [Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise); Varaha (Boar); Narasimha (Lion’s head and man’s body); Vamana (Dwarf); Parasuraman; Rama; Krishna or Balarama; Buddha; and Kalki] of Vishnu to mean the theory of evolution (by dividing them into four basic categories of aquatic animals; land animals; half animal and half man and then a complete man); or the stages of a man’s life (sperm, embryo, foetus, baby, infant, teenager, young man, middle-aged man, old man, and death) while some of us point out that there are many more avatars of Vishnu like Mohini, and women versions of all the earlier avatars.
The first avatar is Matsya – the Fish. This tale is also very similar to the story of Noah’s Ark from the Genesis Flood narrative.
The tortoise or amphibian avatar – Kurma has been equated by the Shatapatha Brahmana to the creator of all creatures. The World Turtle, also called the Cosmic Turtle or the World-bearing Turtle, which supports or contains the world, is found in Hindu, Chinese and the mythologies of the indigenous people of America.
Varaha or the Boar bears a close resemblance to Moccus, the Celtic/ Norse boar God (1400 BC-1 BC) that is often represented with a fertility Goddess ; as well as the Proto-Indo-Iranian (300 BC) Warāȷ́há, and the Avestan (100 BC) Varāza – both of which mean ‘wild boar’. Varaha also means “rain cloud”.
The only other Avatar from the Dasavatars associated with an animal is the last of the Vishnu avatars – Kalki who is supposed to ride on a white horse named Devadatta. The horse Devadatta points to another tradition of mythology – white horses have a special significance in mythologies around the world. They are often associated with the sun chariot, with warrior heroes, or with an end-of-time saviour like Kalki.
But the thing about the Divine Animals is that while they are immortal, we keep reshaping them to suit our experiences and memories. So, how are we reshaping them and their myths in our lifetimes?
“Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives.”
– Joanna Bourke
The thought process for this exhibition started during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, unleashed by a bat, that has killed more than 6 million people since 2019 and made more than 673 million ill. This was mainly because bats and other wild animals were brought to a crowded urban area as food, and they carried with them potentially fatal diseases.
In most parts of the modern world, we no longer believe that animal envoys were sent by the Unseen Power to teach and guide mankind. Man is no longer the newcomer in a world of unexplored plains and forests, and our immediate neighbours are not wild beasts, but other human beings contending for goods and space.
When we look at the magnificent cave paintings left by our primal ancestors, or at the work of indigenous tribes still clinging to the vestiges of their connection to forests, we realize how early tribes were influenced by their natural surroundings, and by their feelings toward the animals they depended on for food and companionship till it became a religious feeling. They told stories to themselves about the animals, and about the supernatural world to which the animals seemed to go when they died. Hunters performed rituals of atonement to the departed spirits of the animals, hoping to coax them back to be sacrificed again.
Perhaps a big part of this was contained in the art that was created. From the earliest cave paintings to the seals of early civilizations, they showed that animals weren’t to be sublimated but to be beautified. The interest in the beauty of nature and cooperation with nature was so intense that we don’t know now where nature began, and art ended.
But man put animals in front of carts and then in cages. The Industrial Revolution gave us the internal combustion engine, which displaced draught animals from both streets and factories. But removing animals from our everyday view was detrimental to our sense of shared everyday reality. More than that, it forcibly denied animals the chance to share a reality with us and instead confined them to the artificial reality of the zoo.
John Berger draws an unsettling parallel:
“In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy. This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man.”
Berger goes on to say:
“All sites of enforced marginalization — ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouses, concentration camps — have something in common with zoos. But it is both too easy and too evasive to use the zoo as a symbol. The zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals; nothing else. The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism” .
Yet, memories of these animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us, even in modern times, because we still look at them with religious fervour, for a sign, or in terror when we venture into the wilderness – like we did during the pandemic, when people made temples to bats. Animals abound in the work of indigenous tribes like Gond, Warli, Mithila artists who live on the verge of nature – whether it is the fish that represents prosperity in Madhubani art, the trees that grow birds, animals and half humans in Gond & Saura art, the horses, peacocks and deer in Warli and Bhil art.
There are other qualities that humans ascribe to animals that are supernatural and uncanny. The swan as a symbol of great spiritual discrimination. In the Vedas and the Purânas, it is a symbol for the soul/Soul. The Hamsa is said to be the only creature that is capable of separating milk from water once they have been mixed. The crow is a symbol of wisdom, strength, and good fortune. In addition, crows are often associated with death and the afterlife. The Bees as spiritual allies, and wise guardians; representing innovation, industry, creativity, wisdom, community, and love. The horse is seen as a symbol of independence, freedom, nobleness, endurance, confidence, triumph, heroism, and competition. The jackal or dog howling is seen as a portend of an ill omen.
But there are also tales that invoke animals as past and future forms of the Buddha. The Jātakas (meaning “Birth Story”) mainly concern the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form. They are some of the oldest classes of Buddhist Literature and probably date back to the 2nd century BC, as do the Panchatantra Tales in Hinduism. The Jataka Tales illustrates the many lives, acts, and spiritual practices which are required on the long path to becoming the Buddha.
Some myths allude to the end of times. We know today scientifically that it would be the end of the world if bees were to go extinct, and most ancient civilizations including Hinduism, Mayan, Ancient Greek, Minoan, Roman, and Lithuanian had a God or Goddess devoted to bees. Similarly, many civilizations associate the end-of-time savior with white horses, including the last Vishnu Avatar – Kalki. Christ is said to ride a white horse out of heaven at the head of the armies of heaven to judge and make war upon the earth. The Prophet is associated with the Burāq.
But there are new myths also being made all the time to represent the age we live in – like the temples built for bats after the pandemic.
Myths and legends are amongst the most potent examples of the power of storytelling and its enduring ability to transmit history and wisdom, and shape human culture.
The early civilisations worshipped animals, nature and the elements; ascribing to them qualities and powers to help explain the mysteries of the physical world. As a result, the narratives of these cultures are replete with animal gods and every manner of human-animal hybrid one can imagine. Their folk tales wove stories around the importance of animals and emphasised how entire ecosystems depended on a mutual respect between humans and nature – an invaluable lesson for all of us to heed. As we’ve recently seen the effect a bat can have on the world, and how the absence of bees can signal a spiraling calamity for an entire ecosystem. While some regard such myths and legends as ancient or dormant, many view them as contemporary and “alive”; constantly changing as we carry them with us through the ages. A reflection of our own evolving comprehension of the world and our place in it.
The exhibition will show indigenous masks and sculptures of animals from myths, as well as works from 8 artists – Anindita Bhattacharya, Avishek Sen, Debjani Bhardwaj, Dilip Ranade, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, K.G. Subramanyan, Tarshito Strippoli and V. Ramesh. The artists are invited to critically examine the aesthetics of our time and revisit myths from their own individual standpoints and perhaps create a renewed story that generations can refer to and perhaps go back to looking at flora and fauna as divinity again.