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Reasserting the role of women in our history

Goa University is organising its VRPP course – Woman, Goddess, Power: India’s Image of the Feminine by Vidya Dehejia, a Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University; and visiting professor at the Mario Miranda Chair in Fine Art/Painting/Illustrative Cartooning, Goa University. In conversation with
NT BUZZ Dehejia speaks about the role of women in our history, why they are ‘Mangala’ and how studying such women imagery will help in gaining respect for women which is long over due


Q: As the topics suggests your VRPP course will speak about the role of women in art imagery. How important is the role of women in South Asian Art?
Women are portrayed on the walls is all sacred structures – Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. There is this idea that Buddhsim and Jainism are paths that stress renunciation, and so it comes as a surprise to find svelte figures of lovely women on railings enclosing a Buddhist stupa that contains the relics of the Buddha. But the importance of the figure of woman is reinforced by inscriptions that tell us that often it is a monk or a nun who commissioned it. So we need to look at these images in the light of such information. They are ‘Mangala’ imagery—bring fortune to the monument on which they are placed, be it a sacred monument of Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain faiths, or the palace of the king or his nobles.

Q: You will also be speaking about love couples or Mithunas, who as you suggested before, are not mere portrayal of love but also a symbol of prosperity and are considered as ‘Mangal’. Please comment.
Women are ‘Mangala’ largely because they are an emblem of fertility. Think of it – God creates, and women are also blessed with the ability to create. There is something divine about this ability. Does it not make woman ‘Mangala’? And her male partner who enables this also becomes ‘Mangala’.
Every one of us needs to remember that we are born of a woman who has this incredible ability to create a living, breathing human child. Each one of us has sisters, daughters, and wives, all of whom is endowed with this miraculous power that we take for granted. But think about it once again. The blood of menstruation, that so many think of as an impurity, is anything but! Instead it is proof of the amazing ability, bestowed only on the female species, to create.

Q: Many a times imagery at Khajurao temples has been reduced down to erotic images and now are even heavily branded in the same manner. How healthy is this trend? Aren’t we supposed to get into the deeper meaning behind this imagery; and also to find out the exact purpose of having such imagery on the temple walls?
Why do we think there is something wrong with the erotic? Remember the four stages of life put forward by our forefathers: Dharma or ethical living; Artha or obtaining money from a rightful profession; Kama or love both sexual and familial and lastly Moksha or salvation. These were seen as stages everyone needed to experience. Kama had its rightful place and Kama includes the erotic.

Q: Do you believe that women characters of mythology like Radha, Laxmi or Saraswati are symbol of women empowerment? If yes, in what way and why?
It is amazing that a culture that places so much importance on goddesses, whether Parvati, Kali, Laksmi, Saraswati or others, seems, in real life, to marginalise women. Our women need to be given respect and admired for their role in life. Today, women have taken on a range of public roles. But those in the villages, who may restrict their role to tending home and children, should be applauded for that role. I would like to see women in India turn to the power of the goddess, to her shakti, and use her as a model of empowerment. It is pathetic to hear male figures in public life make statements about how women should or should not dress. Come on! Their comments put men into the lowliest of low categories as if lust is the only thing that matters! Just turn back to the ancient sculptures on Buddhist stupas and look at the lovely ‘Mangala’ imagery!

Q: Lastly, do you think that studying and discussing the role of women in our early history will help give more respect to women in society and also reaffirm the equal role of women in forming of our history and heritage?
I hope very much that understanding the role of women in our early history will change current perspectives. When you come across dozens of Buddhist stupas, Jain and Hindu temples that all celebrate womanhood, it is bound to alter any narrow perspective you hold.
People like to speak of The Laws of Manu that tell us that women existed only in relationship to a male— first her father, then her husband, and finally her son! Manu is one single text, translated by chance by the British—by chance, not because it was important. And everyone thinks it’s a text of importance. No! Look instead at hundreds of monuments, as against one text that celebrate woman as ‘Mangala’. I think that could inspire us to treat women as endowed with a very especial power, shakti, and to give her the respect she is due—in fact, long overdue!

(The VRPP course will start on February 20 and will be on till March 1 at Seminar Hall, Social Science Faculty Block B, Goa University, Bambolim.
For the course details log on to or call 9823058433.)

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