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Goddess Kali in New York Neuberger Museum of Art Exhibition and the Unnecessary Controversy

Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase in New York is currently exhibiting paintings under the title “British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967 – 2009.” A painting by Sutapa Biswas titled ‘Housewives with Steak-Knives’ is being identified with Goddess Kali and a controversy has started over the painting. Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, and Bhavna Shinde, of Forum for Hindu Awakening, have started a campaign to remove it from the exhibition and states that the painting amounts to irreverence and trivialization of the sacred deity, Goddess Kali. I feel this is an unnecessary controversy.

On the Goddess Kali Rajan Zed, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, said she was “highly revered in Hinduism and she was meant to be worshipped in temples and not to be used indecorously.” Kali is looked at as being the Goddess of time and change, as well as personifying divine energy. Zed’s claims are that disrespecting Hinduism by misinterpreting and deforming a “supreme deity” could be seen as “belittling it” which in turn would upset its followers and, he affirms, “No faith, larger or smaller, should be ridiculed at”.

‘Housewives with Steak-Knives’ is a painting done by Sutapa Biswas in 1985. Sutapa Biswas was born in Santinekethan in India in 1962 – she comes from the land of Goddess Kali worship in IndiaBengal. She has only borrowed an idea from Hinduism in this more than two-decade old painting.

The painting Housewives with Steak-Knives explores Sutapa Biswas’s Asian heritage, imperialism, anger and love. The visual metaphor of Goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil, is portrayed as an Asian woman set against a white background. Her four outstretched arms sport hands covered in red, one, uplifted in a sign for peace, becomes an arresting aggressive gesture. Loaded motifs such as a flower, a flag and a necklace of political 'villains' are coupled with the menacing knife of the title being brandished aloft.

Hindu Blog's Reaction

Goddess Kali is the all consuming Time but her portrait has always been an attempt by human mind to represent the anger of Mother Earth or the downtrodden. I have always personally felt sometimes that Goddess Kali represents the reaction of suppressed women of all ages – the combined anger of suppressed women of thousands of years being transferred into a single Hindu deity.

Symbolism plays a great role in Hindu religion and this symbolism is not limited to the ancient past. Hinduism is a living religion and its symbols and portraits adapt itself to need of the hour and try to express emotions of individuals in all ages. The teachings and symbols in Hinduism are based on universal truth and therefore it will be applicable in all ages. Problems start when we try to restrict the images and symbols to the ancient world.

This does not mean that we should not protest when Hindu deities are represented badly. Hindu deities have in the past been mutilated and misrepresented for commercial purposes or to demean Hinduism and this blog has also joined in the protest. There should be a genuine reason to protest and that reason should be a purposeful attack on Hinduism and its teachings.