The Sacred and the Mundane

Micro-history, Art History

The Sacred and the Mundane

McComb, Jessie F.

It’s been said of India art that it is both sacred and profane; that the beauty of form can be created on dung covered walls; that Mughal miniatures can highlight the meticulous skill of artisans while depicting a menstruating woman; and that some of the most sacred and elegant images, lingums and yonis for example, also represent what westerners consider to be rather base. It is true that India art and craft, and also Indian culture, thrust forth many dichotomies that Western writers and historians, much like myself, struggle with in our pursuit to grasp at least a notion of the great subcontinent. The notion of the sacred and profane is paralleled by yet another analogous relationship that has been recently tumbling through my mind. That is the dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane.

During my travels in India I was surprised at what beauty and mediocrity could not merely coexist but be created by the very same hands. This was highlighted in a trip that I took into rural India. As part of my research last year I spent two weeks in what some call the heart of Bharat, Chhattisgarh. Although Chhattisgarh doesn’t boast a thriving economy, an opulent culture or a cosmopolitan hub, in its subtle ambience one can still find the very essence of rural India. On my first day in Jagdalpur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, I took a walk along the town limits enjoying the moist beauty of the plateau on which most of the state rests. I passed through a small village, talked with the people and acquainted myself with the intricacies of the local culture. The village and her people contained such aesthetic balance and yet such a commonplace attitude towards these forms of nature and art. It was this very attitude that piqued my interests and prepared me for the rest of my time there.

During the next few days I made my rounds to local NGOs, government managed handcraft shops, the anthropological museum and a village market. But my trip out to the artisans was perhaps the most eye-opening event of my journey. At my first stop I sat with a blacksmith who forged small figurines of tribal men and women for urban shops in Delhi and Mumbai. When I arrived, the artisan was working on repairing a hoe for a local farmer. The thick and heavy metal glowed red in the fire fed by hand-driven bellows. It was in such contrast to the small and seemingly delicate figures that lay haphazardly in a pile in the corner of the artisan’s workshop.

The artisan, surprised by my whiteness, and willing to entertain my questions, stopped his current work to demonstrate how he put the finishing touches on his “craft” pieces. It occurred to me only recently that it was I more than he that distinguished between his two types of work; that perhaps this distinction between work and art was a modern occurrence. This artisan was a blacksmith first and foremost who wrought metal into icons, into figures and into plows and axles. His work and his yield were contained in the act of creation, not the finished piece.

Stella Kramrisch, in her book Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village, writes that artisans in India traditionally focused on the process of creation more than the form, as the end product is often left as an untended offering and ultimately decays. This tradition and custom of veneration of culture through creation can perhaps both affirm and refute my articulation of the dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane. One can think that devotion through the creative process allows for the existence of consecrated items alongside the commonplace. Or, perhaps more likely, it is that the mundane in this world contain hints of the divine within their rusty and dirt covered surfaces.

The contents of this column are the authors’ personal opinion and in no way reflect the views of the organisations the author may be affiliated with. They stem from independent research and observation.


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