Mythical Goddesses of Bengal

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About Gargi

Gargi Chattopadhyay holds a PhD in history from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She works
as an independent researcher and has published a number of articles in journals and edited volumes. Her interest areas include micro history and the role of ecology and its implications in the late medieval and early modern Bengal. Her other academic concerns encompass oral traditions and folklores of Bengal and their socio political and economic ramifications.

Gargi is a self-taught art practitioner who has been exploring multimedia and would rather not proclaim to be an artist. Her artworks have been essentially drawn from personal interpretations of the dreams, myriad emotions and angst that play out in human mind. While some showcase a unique womanist interpretation of the contemporary world and people in the urban milieu; others have been mostly inspired by the traditional folklores of Bengal which also include self-composed poetry in the traditional ballad style.

In such works the viewers could perceive the interplay of local myths with the contemporary world – the visuals often melding with the verbal codes. She has participated in a number of group-shows in the recent past.

Mythical Goddesses of Bengal

Mythical goddesses of Bengal’s folklores, legends and the vernacular narratives, have always fascinated me. They are rooted to Bengal’s traditional rural moorings. Despite their own personal travails and struggles, they were taken to be powerful in their own way and were imagined as protectors to the hapless and the needy. In the contemporary urban milieu, the popularity of some of these deities is on the wane; while a few have gained acceptance in the urban household as well. The riveting anecdotes about their pursuits invariably conjure up numerous imageries in my mind.

The urge to create those mythical deities became so compelling in the last couple of years that I ended up doing a number of artworks on them, some of which were on display at the solo art exhibition held last year (March 2023). Those creations were a spontaneous effort and the medium was paper collage on canvas. Layers of papers were added rather instinctively while selecting pieces from whatever I could lay my hands on.

While giving shape to each work, I relied solely on personal visualizations and imageries of the chosen goddesses. I did not follow the prefabricated Hindu iconography of the deities. The sheer impulse of depicting those images through collage without any pre conceived blueprint as to what the end result would be; brought in an element of joyous surprise every time I completed an artwork. The pictures bear an influence of the scroll paintings of India, like the ‘Bangla pata’. The practice of singing aloud the stories associated with each picture panel by the ‘patuas’ (scroll painters of Bengal), while displaying the scrolls, provide the narration. In my case, the relevant narratives composed by me in poetry style, have been scripted in the background. The visual codes have coalesced with the verbal codes, one complimenting the other.

The first artwork is titled ‘Bonbibi, the Custodian of Forests’. She is the guardian angel of the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest of the Bengal delta, spanning West Bengal, India and Bangladesh. One Bonbibi story called ‘Bonbibi Jahuranamah’ speaks about Bonbibi and her younger brother Shah Jangali being born in Mecca but raised in the faraway forests of the Sundarbans. According to yet another version, they flew in to Sundarbans from Mecca. Basically, they were ordained to fulfill the divine order of saving the animals and inhabitants of the jungle from the fierce tormentor, the demon king Dakkhin Rai, who had the face of a tiger. She demarcated her domain in which all living beings, plants and trees were safe, while that of the vanquished was pushed deep into the interior of the forest. The local forest dwellers comprising the wood cutters, honey collectors and fishermen, hailing from the Muslim and Hindu communities worshipped this guardian angel together.

Indeed, such a practice is an example of communal love and harmony that had been a hallmark of the region. I have portrayed Bonbibi, who was often lovingly called Bibi ma; as a beautiful fair lady with middle eastern features, wearing a long white skirt with a scarf covering her head, though the traditional images have depicted her as any other Bengali deity in sari with sindur on her parting. Dakkhin Rai is the tiger whom she has tamed. A piece of paper with calligraphy in a particular script has been used for his body as to me it indicates that the tiger king of the Bengal delta has paid obeisance to the divine lady from a distant land.

Manasa is the fierce serpent goddess and the benefactor to her devotees from the hazards of snake bites. She is deeply revered by the dwellers of rural Bengal irrespective of their creed and religious practices, who come across the venomous creatures in their daily lives. According to the prevalent folklores, Manasa is notorious for her spitefulness towards the non-believers who have ignored her for her demi-goddess status and her limited acceptance by the high caste people. From the ‘Manasamangal kavya’, we have learnt how she expanded her base of adherents by maneuvering a Shiva devotee into her worshipper.

In the second artwork titled ‘Manasa, the Serpent Deity’, Manasa has been portrayed as a Hindu married woman wearing a snake crown, holding a serpent in one hand. She is seated on a lotus. She is encircled on three sides by a huge snake, ‘Kalnagini’. In the vacant spaces of the canvas, the narrative on Manasa has been arranged in a stylized pattern.

‘Asan Bibi, the Champion of Women’, is the third work in this series. Asan Bibi is linked with the history of ‘Magh’ (Arakanese) incursions in the lower Bengal in the 16 th century during the tenure of Sultan Isha Khan, of the fabled ‘Baro Bhuiyan’ conglomeration. The pirates from Arakan habitually indulged in looting, slave raiding, desecration, rape and kidnapping of young women in the medieval times. According to ‘Asanbibir Brotokotha’, Isa Khan had decreed that all new born girls should be killed to save their honour. Accordingly, he ordered for the killing of his own daughter Shireen. Her elder brother Chand opposed their father’s decision, took her to a dense forest away from the father. One day in the forest Shireen was weeping as she received a signal that his brother had died. Asan bibi had magically appeared before a distraught Shireen, commanded her to follow a particular ritual to bring Chand back to life and protect herself from all evils. The worship of Asan bibi was popularised by Shireen and the practice of honour-killing and infanticide was brought to a stop.

Asan bibi has gained popularity in the urban Bengali households all over India. She is a Muslim deity, but strangely the rituals are a judicious mixture of Hindu and Muslim practices. There is no idol of the deity. I have imagined her as a commanding north Indian Muslim woman wearing a cape, a patchwork long skirt and a pair of pointed shoes.

The myth of the three deities are manifestations of feminine power: while Bonbibi stood as the vanguard of the flora and fauna, Manasa, the curer of snake bites held her ground to claim her stature in the Hindu pantheon and Asan Bibi was a champion of the women’s right to life and sustenance. The Hindus and Muslims of Bengal shared a common space in the olden days and faced similar threats like tigers, snakes, nature’s furies and pirate attacks. The years of coexistence, assimilations and appropriations had created a common syncretic culture and collective values in navigating the peril of everyday rural life, that they found themselves sharing with one another.

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