India (Himachal Pradesh, Kangra),1800-25
Pigments and gold on paper, 10 5/8 x 7 1/2 in (27 x 19.2 cm)
Within an oval frame, a favorite device of later Pahari artists, tiny figures of male divinities, shown against the pale blue sky, worship the towering figure of the goddess Kali. Unlike the Kali on the battlefield (see no. 54), however, this goddess is a beautiful lady with a perfectly proportioned body and a pleasant face. In fact, she is a dark, naked version of the more decorously attired, fairer damsels of contemporary pictures. She stands on the body of her supine husband Shiva, who has an erection as he stretches out on a lighted funeral pyre in a cremation ground. As is customary in Pahari pictures, he has only two arms, but the crescent moon and the third eye as well as the erect penis (urdhareta), are sufficient cognizants. She, on the other hand, has four arms that hold the sword and the severed, bleeding head of a titan on the left and display the gestures of reassurance and charity on the right.
This is, of course, the familiar form of the deity that is still very popular in the eastern parts of India, especially among the Bengali Hindus. Apart from residing in such famous temples as Kalighat in Calcutta and Dakshineshwar nearby, she is worshipped in the form of clay images every autumn on Diwali, when the rest of India worships Lakshmi. The legend goes that the uncontrollable Kali was once on the warpath, and only Shiva could stop her, by allowing her to step on him. When she realized that she had insulted her husband, she stuck her tongue out, which is how Indians express shame. However, in scenes of Kali's battle with the Raktavija (no. 54b), the extended tongue indicates her bloodthirstiness.
Apart from the burning pyre, the cremation ground is enlivened by scavenging birds and animals picking flesh off bones. However, the artist was not very familiar with his fauna, which are rendered conceptually rather than realistically. The coloring is in soft, muted tones, with emphasis on whites and grays. The corners beyond the oval frame and within the floral borders are enriched with delicately drawn, intertwined flowering vines on a gold ground.
all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore