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Beauty and the Body of God

Vidya Dehejia speaking at the Asia Society on Oct. 5, 2009.

Vidya Dehejia speaking at the Asia Society on Oct. 5, 2009.

NEW YORK, October 6, 2009 - In conjunction with the opening of Asia Society Museum’s Devotion in South India: Chola Bronzes, noted art historian Vidya Dehejia lectured on the coexistence of spiritual significance and physical beauty in Chola bronzes. Dehejia was introduced by Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art, Asia Society, and co-curator of the exhibition, which presents the stunning cast bronze sculptures from the 9th through 13th century in the context of devotion in South India.

Dehejia, Barbara Stoler Miller Chair in Indian Art at Columbia University, quoted from the hymns of Tamil saints and from stone inscriptions to place the sensuality of the images of Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess Durga in a larger context of verbal and visual praise of Hindu deities during the Chola period. Speaking of the vital importance of adorning divine and human bodies, and of ritual worship known as puja, Dehejia reminded the audience that: "Hindu worship is anything but a withdrawal of the senses, rather it takes all the senses and directs them solely towards the object of worship."

"Spiritual grandeur can actually express itself only in physical grandeur," Dehejia explained. Praise of the "soft breasts" of Shiva’s consort Uma, for example, was "entirely appropriate" in sacred texts, and descriptions of divine erotic play enjoyed by Shiva and Uma represented a request that such bliss be transferred to individual devotees. In contrast to the arduous path of yoga, Dehejia revealed, "drinking in the beauty of the gods offered worshippers an easy path of approach to the deity."

In the "there and then" of the Chola period, Dehejia concluded, an awareness of physical beauty was equivalent to experiencing spiritual beauty. Only in the "here and now" do the enticing, adorned bodies of the Chola bronzes appear to contradict their spiritual function.

Reported by Lara Netting

Devotion in South India: Chola Bronzes exhibition website