Three Indic bodies in a Western imaginary
the Kāñcī Yoginīs in the Guimet Museum
by Johan Levillain
The way in which a group of South Indian images representing fierce-looking female deities was dispersed in the West clearly exposes the colonial mechanisms that our museums are still largely dependent on today. In the specific case of the "yoginīs of Kāñcīpuram," however, one element remains to be highlighted beyond the removal of these sculptures from their homeland and their installation in a museum setting that struggles to restore the dense and singular atmosphere of their shrines. It is about showing, in a new way, how the West's own visual references are recreated through the images of the Other.
A fierce difference
The three yoginīs in the musée Guimet are part of a larger group of sculptures, now largely scattered on both sides of the Atlantic—Europe and North America—while only a few have remained on Indian soil. While this sculptural ensemble includes, among others, images of easily recognizable male deities—Śiva and Skanda—and relatively well-known female deities (mātr̥kā), it has been studied primarily for its mysterious yoginīs images. Monumental, strikingly expressive, and remarkably plastically executed, they form the bulk of this group, the scope of which is unknown in its time (or should have been). The Sanskrit term yoginī is often used to designate these female deities who haunt the margins of the orthodox Hindu universe, who enjoy fearsome powers as well as bewitching beauty, often distorted by a rictus of fury, and who, above all, are the expression of a divine wrath arousing as much respect as fear.
The ambiguous conditions of extraction of these images from their village context in the early 20th century by Gabriel Jouveau-Dubreuil unfortunately prevent us from associating them with certainty to a specific place in Tamil Nadu. Given this lack of information, the goddesses are most often called the "yoginīs of Kāñcīpuram", named after the main town of the region from which they originated. What is certain, however, is that the art dealer C. T. Loo received in his Parisian store between 1926 and 1927 eleven yoginī, three mātr̥kā, the Śiva, and two guardians figures belonging to this set. In 1933, the first pieces to be sold were the Śiva, purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and three yoginīs, donated by C. T. Loo to the musée Guimet, after selection by curator Joseph Hackin. The other pieces were gradually purchased by public institutions and wealthy collectors building up their personal holdings, and later donated to museum institutions. To this day, the musée Guimet’s collection is the richest in pieces from this fragmented group.
The details of the history of these sculptures—from their creation to their dispersal—are told in the masterful monograph Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis by Padma Kaimal, an art historian specializing in southern India. The author rightly explains that the sending of these pieces to Paris was certainly partly motivated by a sincere admiration for an art that some enlightened minds wanted to put in competition with the very narrow notions of Eurocentric fine arts, but that it was also driven by inevitable colonialist mechanisms. Indeed, the behavior of the West towards these female bodies is that of a victor having brought back in its museums, to the imposing colonnades, images which symbolize, one thinks, by their wild difference and their erotic power, an otherness under control. As proof, it was the most fierce-looking yoginīs that were the quickest to find a buyer, as if they embodied the quintessence of a raw and mysterious culture better than their more serene counterparts.
An orchestrated likeness
It is true that the three yoginīs in the musée Guimet, in addition to being among the most imposing and best preserved of the group, forcefully manifest all the iconographic elements of anger: bulging eyes, frowning eyebrows denting the flesh above the nose, an ominous smile framed by fangs, wild hair and a whole panoply of macabre or night-related details (an owl in an earring, a skull cup in the hand, a skull in a head of hair, a garland of bones baring the torso...).
Unsurprisingly, the yoginī expressing a wrath of the same intensity as those of Guimet was the next to enter a European museum collection, the British Museum, which purchased it in 1955 (fig. 4). For some, it is even the most terrifying of all, with its skull scepter and its earring decorated with a severed hand. However, it was not selected by the Parisian museum. Perhaps the style of the three images chosen in 1933 was considered more homogeneous—see the hair in particular—or was the goddess with the severed hand still too terrible? The image seems to have effectively shaken G. Jouveau-Dubreuil and we cannot resist transcribing here his "tasty" description of this yoginī, following his telegraphic style: "she represents the child-eater notice the earring which is a child's severed hand She wore [on] her mouth a child's hand. One still sees the small fingers of child near the mouth but this painting indignant the men who purposely (sic) broke the hand near the mouth one still sees the small fingers of child on the mouth". If Jouveau-Dubreuil’s description makes us smile today, it is still surprising from the part of a connoisseur who said about the entire group of yoginīs: "what constitutes the religious interest of these statues is that they were used for a very strange and curious cult: it is the worship of vices".
In our opinion, there is another element that helps explain both why J. Hackin selected three sculptures for the musée Guimet and why these three in particular. It is the concern for individualizing the bodies dear to the Tamil sculptor of the 9th-10th centuries and which is succinctly mentioned by Odette Monod in her guide to the collections of the musée Guimet, where she draws the visitor's attention to the fact that "three different ages of a woman's life are evoked here with a rather exceptional realism". The author does not go any further, since her work, an aid to the visit, is not intended to be controversial.
However, this brief remark suggests that the very number of images chosen for the musée Guimet is not insignificant: the three yoginī reactivate the Western imagination that was built around the "myth" of the three stages of a woman's life. It has been depicted frequently in Western painting and sculpture since the Renaissance, as shown in the works of Hans Baldung (fig. 5), Carlo Zatti, Hyppolite Coutau, Mateo Inurria Lainosa, Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch. It even seems to be still alive at the time when the Indian images enter the French national collections.
The iconographic scheme of the "three ages", which most often are a reflection on death and the passage of time, juxtaposes a baby or a young virginal girl, a woman with a fully formed body, exuberant with femininity according to the examples, and finally an old woman with a withered beauty. This triptych finds an undeniable echo in the layout of the yoginīs in the musée Guimet (fig. 6). A real highlight of the Indian gallery since the museum's reopening in 2001, the yoginīs show, from right to left, the young girl with a narrow bust, the imposing woman with a heavy chest, and finally the wrinkled old woman with sagging breasts and a neck streaked with tendons. The resemblance with a lithograph by Munch is particularly disturbing, especially in the central woman represented in a proud, almost aggressive nudity, and haloed by her loose hair (fig. 7).
The journey of these sculptures throughout the twentieth century reflects the material realities of colonialism—between political domination and the eroticism of the Other. Today, the way they are displayed at the musée Guimet also reflects the way in which the West has been able to see itself, more or less consciously, in images from elsewhere. Even today, the display of the yoginīs is orchestrated according to entirely Western cultural references and in architectural settings that are neoclassical in appearance, thus failing to recreate the dense and singular atmosphere of the sanctuaries where these goddesses were once adored.
- Yoginīs, Kāñcīpuram region, Tamil Nadu (India), late 9th-early 10th century. Musée Guimet (MG 18506, 18508, 18507). Photo Johan Levillain
- Yoginī, Kāñcīpuram region, Tamil Nadu (India), late 9th-early 10th century. British Museum (1955, 1018.2) © The Trustees of the British Museum
- Hans Grien Baldung, The Ages and Death (1541-1544). Museo del Prado © Museo del Prado
- Edvard Munch, Women in three stages (c. 1899) © Wikicommons
[i]Eleven yoginī have been located to date. Johanna E. van Lohuizen-de Leeuw speculates that they must have formed a group of sixteen, based on ancient texts mentioning the existence of sixteen mothers (ṣoḍaśamātṛkā). LOHUIZEN-de LEEUW 1990, p. 19. One can imagine, however, that their group amounted to sixty-four images, which is the number of niches most often arranged in the temples dedicated to yoginī still preserved (Khajuraho, Hirapur, Ranipur-Jharial, Mitaoli). DEHEJIA 1986. It is also quite possible that this set was composed of an original number of images or that it was unfinished.
[ii] HARLE 2000, p. 287.
[iii] Charlotte Schmid, in a convincing exposé, identified Tirumēlccēri as the village of origin of this sculpted ensemble.
[iv] SCHMID 2013.
[v] KAIMAL 2012.
[vi] HARLE 2000, p. 297.
[vii] Reproduced in HARLE 2000, p. 297.
[viii] Gabriel Jouveau-Dubreuil (1885-1945), professor at the Collège Colonial of Pondichéry, is considered a pioneer in the history of the art of the south of the Indian peninsula. In particular, he published an Archaeology of South India in 1914 and the Guimet Museum owes a large part of its collection of images of southern India to his contributions.
[ix] MONOD 1966, p. 91.
DEHEJIA Vidya, 1986: Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition, New Delhi, National Museum
HARLE James, 2000: « Finding the Kāñcī Yoginīs », Silk Road Art and Archaeology, vol. 6, pp. 285-298
KAIMAL Padma, 2012: Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis, Ann Arbor, Association for Asian Studies
LOHUIZEN-DE LEEUW (van) Johanna E., 1990: « Mother Goddesses in Ancient India », Folia Indica, Naples, Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe
MONOD Odette, 1966: Le Musée Guimet, Paris, Editions des Musées Nationaux
SCHMID Charlotte, 2013: « Aux frontières de l’orientalisme, Scattered Goddesses, Travels with the Yoginis », Arts Asiatiques, vol. 68, pp. 135-152