Streetparade of the gods

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    Sirha of the goddess Kodei Mata
    The sirha, a medium and representative on earth of the goddess Kodei Mata, is carried by young men. As a “living god on earth” he answers worshippers’ questions in the name of the goddess.
    © Cornelia Mallebrein

  • Tribal India in the Museum Rietberg

    Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see and experience a new and surprising world of images. They will discover highly original, beautiful, witty and aesthetically unusual objects: faces that seem to come from another world, armed horsemen, men disguised as goddesses, dancers in a state of trance and gods on swings. The figures on display are all one of a kind and are testament to the ingenuity of the metal casters.

    Besides the aesthetic experience, visitors have an opportunity to learn about the various cultural, ritual and religious contexts of the objects. While very little is known about the individual artists, casters, their names or workshops, research in this area is still in its infancy. Considerably more is known about the figurines’ presumed ritual purposes as is shown by the impressive catalogue written by Cornelia Mallebrein.

    The objects also refer to a bleak reality: the regions where the adivasi can retreat to are being increasingly threatened by the rapidly growing Indian economy. The exploitation of the many natural resources (wood, coal, mining, particularly the vast precious metal deposits) forces the adivasi to abandon their traditional lifestyles and to earn a living as landless day labourers, and often even as bondsmen. The well-known novelist and activist Arundhati Roy estimates that more than 30 million people have been displaced by the construction of dams alone. Since the 1960s a resistance movement has consolidated itself: a highly motivated guerrilla army in the Bastar region is proving to be a growing challenge for the central government in Delhi.

    The profound ecological and cultural changes have a dramatic effect on the local artistic traditions. As early as 1951 Verrier Elwin, one of the best-known researchers on Indian tribal art, stated his regret: “We have begun too late; the great days of the Indian tribesman are gone; all we can do now is to search in the debris for traces of inspiration and scraps of beauty.” Almost 40 years later Cornelia Mallebrein, the guest curator of the exhibition, noticed that the casting artists in the Bastar region were now working exclusively for the art market in Delhi. In the same context she noted a “decline” in quality: the figures are no longer produced for religious practice or veneration, and the emotional bond between the gods, the clients and the producers has been completely severed. The casters are no longer conscious of producing a work of art for a goddess but act purely as artisans. The only thing that counts now is the price. New figurines are now being produced on assembly lines in distant Delhi for tourists and collectors, with a new iconography and new designs, far away from the villages.

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