Goddesses of India – the One and the Many

Hinduism can be a confusing religion to many westerners. The profusion of deities with multiple arms and who are sometimes shown with animal heads, can seem strange and exotic. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and there are aspects of it that can be traced back to the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilisations of 1200 BC.  Many of the practices and social institutions of Hinduism that flourish today are a glimpse into a world that we have lost in the West; temple cities and schools of philosophy, elaborate public processions and festivals to celebrate the seasons, and the daily rituals to honour deities, are all reminders of life and religion in Classical Greece and Rome.

One aspect of the ancient past to survive into modern day India is the worship of God in female form. The goddess can take many forms, such as the ferocious and protective Durga or Kali, Sarasvati the goddess of learning and knowledge, Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, among many others. Although they are labelled with a specific function all of these goddesses have deeper, spiritual roles that resonate with their worshippers. Many of the more well-known and popular goddesses are known as ‘pan-Indian’ deities in that they are worshipped by any level of society and are found throughout the vast sub-continent. The goddess is seen to be one who can manifest into multiple forms for the needs of her devotees. The goddess is both the one and the many. As the one goddess she is known as Devi (Goddess) or Shakti (energy), or on a more personal level, Ma or Amma, both meaning mother.

Bronze statue of the goddess Durga on my bookcase at home

Some goddesses however, are only found at a local level and will act on the behalf of a community. India is still a predominantly agricultural country and the majority of its population live in villages. But, these local village goddesses are still seen to be manifestations of the one great goddess. In Hinduism the goddess can either be the consort to one of the male deities, or is worshipped in her own right. When worshipped on her own she is perceived to be the ultimate form of godhead and is considered to be more powerful than the male deities. In village religion the goddess is usually the most powerful and primary deity and will have a shrine at the centre of the village under a sacred tree. These shrines can either be small, enclosed temples, or open air platforms with either statues or vermillion smeared sacred stones as the focus of worship.

An interesting object that I have been working on as part of the Derbyshire School Library Service project, is a wooden head of a village goddess, known as a Gramadevata. The village goddesses are intimately connected with village life; on the one hand presiding over the fertility of the fields and animals and the well being of the community, and on the other expressing her wrath by drought, floods and epidemics; the goddess has always been perceived to be both benign and ferocious.

Wooden head of a village goddess at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

As a goddess of nature she is omnipresent in the world, not otherworldly and distant like many of her male counterparts. She is primarily associated with fertility and the earth, and the land of India itself is seen as the body of the goddess, whose forms can be found in the features of the landscape. As a mother she protects her devotees from the dangers of the world.

The goddess often takes on a primary role as a healing deity and offerings are left at her shrines to ask for help. Hinduism is not a static religion, and is constantly developing all the time. New deities appear in response to new needs; established goddesses undergo change. For example the goddess of smallpox, Sitala, underwent such a change when this disease was eradicated in the 1970’s. She is now supplicated to protect her devotees from measles, chickenpox and other diseases.

As one devastating disease is eradicated, another rears its ugly head! In the 20th century HIV/AIDS became one of the most insidious diseases to affect the world, and in India AIDS-amma appeared in response to the growing threat. This modern day goddess was installed in a small shrine in the village of Menasikyathana Halli, in rural Karnataka. She was created by a civic-minded schoolteacher as part of an AIDS awareness campaign.

With Coronavirus raging across the globe the response to this threat in India has again been expressed through the goddess. Images are starting to appear of the ferocious warrior goddess Durga, weapons in hand fighting a personification of the virus. She also holds in her numerous hands a face-mask and bottle of hand sanitiser; it must be remembered that many in India are still illiterate and so symbolic images such as this are a way to get important messages across.

Display of goddesses at Buxton Museum and Art gallery

The head of the village goddess is currently on display in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Once we are open again to the public, and some sort of normality returns, we hope, by the blessing of the goddess, to see you soon.

Shamans of the Arctic

I have been very fortunate to work on the exhibition, Between Two Worlds, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. This is a unique collection of work from artists affected by war and intolerance in the 20th century, much of it never seen by the public before. On the surface, much of the artwork on display is vibrant and colourful but beneath are stories of artists who were persecuted, interned and displaced. Even within the permissive art world, these individuals faced discrimination and prejudice for not conforming to society’s expectations either through religious beliefs, race or sexuality. The exhibition is also about a time when colonial governments sought to impose Western society and religion, depriving indigenous communities of their cultural identity.

The exhibition draws on artworks from Derbyshire County Council’s own collection, the bequest of Arto Funduklian, the son of Armenian emigres, as well as from the Derbyshire School Library Service. Pictures and artefacts from around the world were purchased by Derbyshire County Council with the classroom in mind and was an innovative education resource, established in the 1930s to lend museum quality objects to schools. A project to oversee the dispersal of the collection, following the closure of the SLS in 2018, received funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, in conjunction with the Museum Association (MA). The MA Code of Ethics is guiding the work.

Between Two Worlds exhibition

Some of my favourite objects in the exhibition, and which I was lucky to work on, are the Inuit items. These enigmatic pieces from the frozen Arctic reveal a way of life that is rapidly changing due to the imposition of a Western lifestyle, as well as climate change.

Inuit material on display in Between Two Worlds

Some of these objects are associated with Shamanism, the practitioners of the indigenous Inuit animist religion. Animism was once widespread across the world and is possibly the oldest form of religious/spiritual expression. Evidence for it goes back at least to the hunter-gatherers of the Ice Age 35,000 years ago. Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This belief system perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems – as animated and alive.

A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing on behalf of an individual or entire community. The role of a shaman is often inherited, and both men and women can take on the role. Today, traditional animistic shamanism is found mainly in the Arctic, Siberia, Mongolia, the Himalayas and among Native American and First Nation tribes.

One of my personal favourite objects is a whale tooth carved into a strange creature, described by one of my colleagues as looking like a Moomin ! However, this is not as cute and cuddly as a Moomin. Known as a Tupilak, this one was made for the tourist market in the mid-20th century. The original Tupilaks were made from perishable materials and their purpose, once they were brought to life by a shaman performing a ritual, was to locate and destroy an enemy. After the ceremony the shaman would place it into water, where it was believed to swim off in search of its prey. Europeans were fascinated by these creatures and so the Inuit began to carve them from marine ivory to sell as curiosities.

The Buxton Tupilak

Another intriguing object, also carved from marine ivory, depicts an aquatic bird, possibly a cormorant. Closer inspection reveals that the bird has human legs and feet. This beautiful carving depicts a shaman shapeshifting into a bird so that she/he could travel to the spirit world. Shamans believed that during the trance rituals their soul would transform into an animal so that it could safely travel to the spirit world to communicate with the ancestors and spirits to appeal for a good hunt, the safe birth of a child or to heal an illness.

Shaman transforming into a bird

Other Inuit shaman items in the exhibition include a whale tooth carved with depictions of plants and animals that was one of many that hung from a shaman’s cloak, and a soapstone pendant with the facial features contorted as the shaman transforms during a ritual.

These intriguing items have now been transferred from the School Library Service to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

Between two Worlds is on at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until June 10th. Entry to the museum and exhibitions is free and your donations to support the work of the museum are very welcome.

Dylan’s Blog: Derbyshire Blue John

The staff recently enjoyed the assistance of a young man called Dylan who gave up his Saturday mornings to sample life in a museum and art gallery. We strive to give placements to students aspiring to a career in the arts or heritage and hopefully, we don’t put them off!

We asked Dylan to write about his favourite objects in the museum and he chose one which attracts a lot of curiosity in this part of the world:

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Blue John crystals are only found in two places in the whole world: the Treak Cliff and Blue John caverns in Castleton. And is hailed as “Britain’s rarest mineral”, it is a mineral called fluorite. Yes I have nabbed this straight from the ’Wonders of the Peak’ exhibition, but none the less a fascinating crystal. It is still being mined and sold today but their peak in popularity was throughout the 19th century and Regency period with people making vases, columns, tables and even windows in many of the finest houses in Britain, most notably Buckingham Palace and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

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They also played a role in World War One; there was a rising need for supplies and machinery to help assist with the ongoing war effort. This meant that fluorspar also became in high demand as it was often used in blast furnaces. Blue John being a rare form of calcium fluorite was mined purely for this purpose throughout the war period. During this time tons of Blue John material had been extracted and transported to the nearby city of Sheffield. Leaving many of the recognised Blue John veins in very short supply and in some instances fully worked out, which meant that the larger Blue John pieces required to produce ornamental items had been lost during this period but at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, there is a collection of Blue John ornaments bowls, urns, cups and even souvenir eggs. You can plan your visit here.

The Derbyshire Open is now … open!

The Derbyshire Open Art Exhibition was officially opened last night and you can see the amazing artwork yourself for free until Friday 13 September 2019. Most of the works are for sale. The overall winner, The Derbyshire Trophy is a purchase prize and joins over a thousand other works in the museum’s collection for future generations to enjoy.

59 DERBYSHIRE TROPHY A Winter Walk by Carl Longmate
A Winter Walk by Carl Longmate

The Derbyshire Open Art Competition is run annually by Derbyshire County Council. In this the competition’s 37th year, 258 entries have been received from across Derbyshire and neighbouring counties.  22 entries from young people under 21 years were included in this year’s selection.

140 DCC YOUNG ARTIST AWARD There's No Better View Than Out of my Window by Kitty Sumner
There’s no Better View Than Out of my Window by Kitty Sumner, aged 7

Three judges had the difficult task of choosing the pictures to exhibit and selecting the award winners. Sandra Orme is a Buxton artist and previous winner of the Buxton Spa Prize, Amanda Penman is the editor of Artbeat Magazine which promotes all sorts of artistic and creative activity in Derbyshire and Chris Walters is a member of The Friends of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. The judges’ selection provides an exhibition celebrating the county and living here:  where we live, the view and how we spend our time. It shows a good feeling about living in Derbyshire: the landscape, the friendliness of the people and the impressive architecture.

The Friends of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery sponsor a purchase prize. Chair of the Friends, Lindsay Crowe presented the award to this year’s winner which will be added to the museum’s collection.

195 FRIENDS PRIZE Seeking the Source- Shooters Clough by Patrick Jones.png
Seeking the Source: Shooter’s Clough by Patrick Jones

One prize has yet to be decided. Visitors are encouraged to help choose the Visitors Choice Prize which will be announced in August. You can plan your visit here.

Introducing My Sister’s Scarf (working title)

If you had to leave your home at a moment’s notice and could only take one possession with you, what would you choose? For this blog, Richard and Amanda Johnson from Kidology Arts describe their current ‘work in progress’.

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery’s collection is made up of objects that have been chosen. Someone, at some point in time, has deemed them to be special and worth keeping. One of those objects is the Hopton hand axe. Around 350,000 years ago it was lost by its owner – probably a migrant hunter-gatherer following herds of deer north having crossed the land bridge that then connected what is now Britain to continental Europe. The axe would have been essential to its owner; its loss would have been serious.

Hopton Handaxe
The Hopton hand axe displayed in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum

We want to make an artwork that draws parallels between the story of the people who first migrated to Britain and migrants who have come here recently. We hope to point out that migration is not something that has only happened in the UK in the last 50 years, but something that has been essential to its growth for millennia.

To enable us to hear first hand accounts of the journeys that migrants take and the choices they have to make we have recently begun a series of engagement workshops at Derby Refugee and Asylum Centre.

To make the artwork we will collaborate with choreographer Kevin Turner and emerging dance artist Maddie Shimwell from Company Chameleon in Manchester. The work will be inspired by real stories of recent migrants and will result in a 20 minute dance piece devised by Kevin and performed by Maddie, accompanied by Amanda on violin, performing a new piece of music she has written especially for the project. During the performance Maddie will interact with a piece of visual art made by Richard that, at this stage, we envisage will take the form of a large square of printed or painted material. As Maddie dances, she will manipulate the material into different forms: she might hide beneath it, wrap herself in it or bundle it up to cradle it like a baby.

The performance will be filmed and will appear on Buxton Museum’s web app, the Wonders of the Peak.

Funded by Arts Council England, this commission is a creative collaboration between Kidology Arts and Company Chameleon in celebration of Buxton Museum’s 125th year.