Birth, aging, disease and death are universal phenomena. They also have aspects that are deeply culturally specific. Jeevanchakra explored the life cycle of the human body and the historic, economic, social and political conditions in India that have shaped the relationship of the body with medicine and healing. This exhibition was held at and produced in partnership with Akar Prakar gallery in Kolkata.
The Death-conquering Mantra | 2015
Medium: Embroidery & applique on found handkerchiefs and serigraphy on glass
Courtesy: the artist & Akar Prakar, Kolkata
NILIMA SHEIKH NILIMA SHEIKH
Preparing for Bath | 2007 Ministration at Daybreak | 2007
Medium: Tempera on vasli paper Medium: Tempera on vasli paper
Courtesy: Collection Kavas and Khorshed Bharuch Courtesy: Collection Kavas and Khorshed Bharucha
GARGI RAINA GARGI RAINA
'not one, not two, not three, not four, 'SHAFA' : To heal | 2015
I come from a thousand wombs' | 2013 Mixed media
(Akka Mahadevi 12th century) Courtesy: the artist
Medium: wood, glue
Courtesy: the artist
Initiation Chronicle | 1998-2001
Medium: Silver gelatin prints
Courtesy: the artist
Raktpushp (Blood Flower) | 1999/2015
Medium: Text, B&W photographs, fabric, silk cord, paper, polycarbonate sheet, miscellaneous objects, light
Courtesy: the artist
Untitled | 1996
Medium: Tempera on paper
Courtesy: Collection of Kavas and Khorshed Bharucha
Known to Unknown | 2008
Photo documentation of site-specific ash-imprints on wall, performance-based installation
A portfolio of 7 archival inkjet prints on Hahnemuhle photo rag paper.
Courtesy: Collection of Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai
You Owe Me | 2009
Mixed media on custom made handmade acid free paper (dyptich)
Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai and the artist
missing womb - I
Video diptych, two single channel videos, with sound.
(video on left)
shower ['cleaning..' after Abramovic]
2004 | 4 min, 46 sec, color, with sound, looped.
(video on right)
missing womb [for dyptich]
2005 | 4 min, 46 sec, color, with sound, looped.
Courtesy: the artist
From the Curator
Jeevanchakra, the cycle of life and death, has been elaborated into philosophical and cultural systems across all human societies. While birth and death are universal phenomena, they are interpreted in ways that are deeply influenced by historic, economic and socio-political conditions of particular places and cultures.
Jeevanchakra presents the experiences of those involved in the transit of the body into or out of the tangible world: healers, midwives, surgeons or family caregivers. It speaks of the conception of the body informed by gender, class privilege, religious beliefs and the cultural precepts of different communities across India. The exhibition interrogates binary oppositions too easily constructed between modern medicine and traditional healing. It challenges notions of purity and pollution ascribed to women’s bodies, and to those of individuals associated with death rituals. Fundamentally, it also questions whether life, whatever the circumstances, is always preferable to death.
In many Indian communities the death of the mortal body does not mark an absolute conclusion. The relationship between the physical body and the spirit must be severed through elaborate rituals. In order not to pollute air or earth Parsis neither cremate nor bury their dead but leave bodies to be devoured by vultures in ‘Towers of Silence’. In 1980, Sooni Taraporevala photographed Doongerwadi, the hillside in Bombay where the ‘sky burial’, Dokhmenashini, takes place. More than 3000 years old, it ensures the safe passage of the deceased to the after-life. In the decades since the photographs were taken, cattle were treated with anti-inflammatory drugs that made their flesh toxic to the mighty scavengers. The vultures’ decline, to the point of extinction, has forced Parsis to turn to burial or cremation, leading to spiritual crises for the bereaved and for the community at large. Dokhmenashini also reveals socio-political structures underlying death rituals. The Khandias (pall-bearers) traditionally bathe and carry corpses to the Towers of Silence, and then ritually push them into a deep central pit. Despite belonging to a casteless community, the Khandias live in near-isolation in Doongerwadi, because of their contact with the dead.
Childbirth is deeply affected by traditional practice and by differing access to medicine. Gauri Gill spent time with a dai, a traditional midwife, in a remote village in Rajasthan. Gill had been invited to photograph the birth of Kasumbi Dai’s granddaughter, but ended up also assisting with the delivery. She notes that compared to urban, medicalised childbirth which tends to ‘sanitise and perhaps fetishise the experience of childbirth’, here ‘it felt like the most normal thing in the world. Afterwards Kasumbi and another relative took the umbilical cord and placenta out into the yard and buried it in the sand, and washed up, and there was a simplicity and ease about the ritual.’
In an ongoing project, Sonia Khurana filmed her mother’s hysterectomy to understand what she terms the ‘cultural destiny of women, i.e. maternity’. Social attitudes and meanings are layered onto female sexuality, reproductive processes and surgical sterilisation. Khurana inverts the common narrative of loss offered by many women who have undergone hysterectomies. Her subjects include those who said they now ‘felt clean’. Her video ‘missing womb’ serves as a prologue to these ‘womb narratives’. Mithu Sen inverts the idea of pregnancy in images of pregnant male bodies, in a critical take on what is essentially a gendered experience - both a privilege and a one-sided responsibility.
More subject to choice than circumstances of birth are the questions not only of how but also when to die. Reflecting upon her experience of caring for her terminally ill mother, kept alive for over nine months by modern medical systems, Paula Sengupta writes, ‘medical science’s mission is to save life, but it has no notion of allowing death when it has come to take you with dignity. While caring for my mother, I was advised to stop food and water to hasten the end – accepted ethical practices in some cultures, while sacrilegious in others.’ She turned to the Mahamrityunjoy Mantra, the Death-conquering Mantra, which speaks of the gardener who tends lovingly to his cucumber vine until it attains fruition. At the right time, he severs the fruit from the vine. For that is the law of Nature to which all humankind must surrender.
Anthropologists have written about how death does not mark the instantaneous end of an individual’s life; it is a social event and could even be viewed as a ‘an initiation into an afterlife, making it a kind of rebirth.’ Sheba Chacchhi documents the initiation of women ascetics. All outward signifiers of gender, class, caste and family lineage are extinguished as clothes, hair and name are discarded. After three days in which the ‘death rites’ of their previous lives and identities are performed, a ritual bath in the Ganga marks their rebirth.
Gargi Raina’s sculptural installation, which speaks of being born from eighty-four thousand wombs, draws from the poetry ofa twelfth century Kannada woman mystic, Akka Mahadevi. Using an eighteenth century Persian medical manuscript, Raina underlines the need for shafa, or healing, when the connection between body, mind and spirit are wrenched apart not in the natural course of living and dying but through human aggression.
The body and its physical, mental and emotional health are central to how the world is perceived, experienced and constructed. Jeevanchakra hopes to add layers to our understanding of birth, death, and the life of the mortal body.
- Latika Gupta, Curator, Jeevanchakra