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The holy Ganga: More than just a river

An exhibition on the river Ganga at the National Museum called Ganga: River Of Life And Eternity traces its journey from its divine origin to its current polluted state.

art and culture Updated: Jun 17, 2017 08:24 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Ganga,Exhibition,National Museum
Pilgrimages on Banaras, a painting on cloth made in Rajasthan in 1800 AD.(Image courtesy: National Museum)

While many civilisations have celebrated and venerated rivers on the banks of which they have flourished, rarely has a river enjoyed the kind of prestige the Ganga has. Not only does it find repeated mention in religious scriptures and folklore, it is equally associated with traditional customs and popular culture. In March this year the Uttarakhand High Court declared the Ganga to be a living entity, conferring on it the same legal rights as a human. The river’s ‘holy’ status and the belief in the purifying powers of its water though, is more of an affliction for the Ganga than an advantage. Piety seekers eager to wash off their worldly sins have for years been polluting its waters with the burden of their ritualistic cleansing, choking its flow with the residue of their worship. An ongoing exhibition at the National Museum titled Ganga: The River Of Life And Eternity, traces this journey of the river from its divine origin to its current state of abuse.

A view of the exhibition. (Image courtesy: National Museum)

“Though the exhibition was not initially conceived with any ‘moral of the story’, but any work on Ganga, from any perspective in its present condition cannot avoid dwelling on the dichotomy of its veneration and abuse. We need to take on the responsibility for it. There is an intrinsic link between culture, environment, and life,” says Shakeel Hossain, the curator of the exhibition. An architect and urban designer, Hossain is presently a consultant to the Agha Khan Trust for Culture.

The exhibition begins with the different theories on the origin of the river, all associated with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and how those narratives have been interpreted and expressed in works down the eras. It then goes on to explore the theme of her descent to earth, her role as nurturer and mother and the cultural and popular manifestations of the belief in the Ganga as the goddess of purity and salvation. The final section addresses how we are polluting the very river that we worship.

On display are sculptures, miniature paintings from manuscripts and Mughal portfolios, pat paintings, utility items associated with the Ganga and decorative and iconographic fragments of architecture. There are old maps to show the path of the Ganga and a detailed timeline to present the various empires that have flourished along the river. Plus photographs and models representative of the present-day rituals and festivals associated with the Ganga – the Kumbh Mela, the tazias of Muharram, idols for worship that are made from the clay on the banks of the Ganga and are immersed in it after the puja and the Ganga aarti of Benaras. One section is dedicated to Ganga in pop culture, with posters of films such as Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai adorning the wall.

A painting of Kartika who is said to be the foster son of Ganga. This painting is dated 1800 AD. (Image courtesy: National Museum)

“I conceived of the exhibition about 30 years ago for the Festival of India at Leningrad. It did not materialise then. The exhibition concept was inspired by a travelogue by Eric Newby – Slowly Down the Ganges. The Ganga as an icon of India provided an all encompassing canvas to present the myths, history, culture and art of the country,” says Hossain, who has curated the show with Tara Sharma.

From the time that he proposed the idea to the National Museum, Hossain says it took him two years to put it all together. “Arts, crafts, rituals and practices along the Ganga and associated with Ganga were researched and documented. Once the exhibition narratives got firmed up we started researching for objects in various museums which complement the narrative and commissioning new objects where required,” he explains.

Krishna Mollifying Radha by BL Rajput. It is said that Radha was so upset by Krishna’s fondness for Ganga, that Ganga hid herself under Krishna’s feet in her water form. (Image courtesy: National Museum)

Putting together an exhibition of this magnitude couldn’t have been without its challenges. “There are no catalogued listings of objects in the Museum collection - research from every other source was explored to identify the exhibits, make the selection and acquire approval to display them. The curatorial structure required additional works of art, which needed to be commissioned, to complete the narrative. Besides illustrating Ganga in puranas and epic narratives, they present living traditions associated with Ganga,” says Hossain.

Bhishma on the bed of arrows and Ganga quenching his thirst, by Mohan Soni. (Image courtesy: Mohan Soni)

Even after all the planning and hard work put in, the exhibition is less than what he had envisioned, says Hossain, primarily because of a funds crunch. “The project was curated as a year-long cultural festival celebrating the Ganga, with activities ranging from concerts, film screenings, art workshops, international conference, publications, etc. All had to be grounded because it got no funds,” he says. “We had to decide whether to cancel the exhibition at the National Museum or put it up with personal funds. Could not waste two years of work so did whatever I could afford to put together. What you see now is just half of what was envisioned and prepared. In the beginning, the National Mission for Clean Ganga had promised the funds required, but it did not come through. The Ministry of Culture also could not allot any funds for it.”

The original plan had been to take the exhibition to major cities along the Ganga. But with no funds for that, Hossain is unclear about whether that can be achieved.

What: Ganga: River Of Life And Eternity
10 am to 6 pm, till June 20 (closed on Mondays)
National Museum, Janpath
Nearest Metro Station:
Central Secretariat
₹20 for Indian adults and
₹650 for foreigners

First Published: Jun 16, 2017 20:47 IST