Ardhanarishwara: How Indian Art has Shaped its Legacy

Ardhanarishwara: How Indian Art has Shaped its Legacy

Ardhanarishwara is one of the most significant symbols that has been signifying gender fluidity since times immemorial. The oldest images being a part of Kushana coins, dates back from 35-60 AD. Representing the union of duality, Ardhanarishwara or Ardhanareshwara depicts how masculine and feminine powers can unite to shape creative forces. The deity, however, in art has been depicted in various forms of sculptures and art forms. This article will provide a bird’s eye view of how the form of Ardhanarishwara has changed in color and basic characteristics through the diverse styles of Indian paintings.

There are three postures upon which the figure of Ardhanarishwara dwells, namely, the Abhanga (nil curve), Tribhanga (3-curved), and the Atibhanga (extremely contorted body). The right side of the body denotes the masculine Shiva with Jatamukuta (crown of knotted locks) and a naked upper body with tiger skin covering the lower part. On the left side is the abode of the feminine form of Adishakti who is well dressed in a colorful Saari (an Indian attire) and bejeweled with various ornaments. 

The deity is depicted usually with four arms in Abhaya (fearless posture on upper right hand), Varada (lower right hand bestows blessings), and Vyakhyana (Fingers of right and left-hand joins), and the Katyavalambita (right arm on Katya, or waist). A Trishula (trident), Nilotpala (blue lotus), a pot, and a mirror are seen to adorn these hands in mudra. The ultimate symbolism that Ardhanarishwara puts forth is associated with the balance of duality, when in a union. Shiva is the Purusha or the masculine creator whose power is his Adishakti, the ultimate creative energy. Without Shakti (feminine energy), Shiva becomes a ‘Shava’ (corpse). This inseparable union abolishes gender biases in all their forms and brings an eternal balance to the creation of the universe, through these two contrasting, yet intermingled forces. 

Ardhanarishwara in Major Indian Styles of Paintings

Although this style of painting is known to depict the stories of the Vaishnava sect, nevertheless, there are exceptions. Ardhanarishwara in Pattachitra can be characterized by the signature red background with sharp and clean lines at play. Moreover, the borders are well decorated and the red background is bejeweled with designs of flowers and foliage. The primary usage of Gold outlines gives the painting the depth it needs.

Kerala Mural

In Kerala Mural, the feminine side of Ardhanarishwara is depicted with a longer face combined with an amalgamation of feminine attributes in the male part as well. Thicker lines denote closeness and thinner ones depict just the opposite. The Kerala Mural Ardhanarishwara appears to be in a curvy flow which is due to the skillful rotation of curved lines. Shades of orange and yellow are prominent along with touches of red, green, and white. The facial features of Ardhanarishwara pop up with emotions and a countenance of tranquility welcoming the observer towards itself. An overall delicateness of the Kerala Mural adorns the Ardhanarishwara painting in this style as well.

Madhubani of Bihar

The figurative Madhubani style depicts Ardhanarishwara in a more approachable manner. Prominent eyes gazing into the front is a major character along with embellished borders. No space in the painting is left null and tribal motifs can be seen to be filling up the space beautifully. Another thing to note is the usage of white in a way that enhances the overall contrasts in the painting. Colors of the five elements yellow for earth, white for water, red for fire blue for the air are used which gives a cosmic edge to the painting style as well.

Thangka of North & North-East India

Rajasthani Style

The importance of natural elements like trees and greenery can be seen in Ardhanarishwara of the Rajasthani style. A crimson red horizon with an interplay of red, yellow, blue, brown and white gives the painting a sense of mystery. The elements and figure of Ardhanarishwara are done in a semi-naturalistic way with large pointy eyes, a round face, a prominent chin, and detailed fingers.

Thangka Ardhanarishwara is represented with huge precision in the angles and geometry of the figure. Each element in the painting is done in pre-designed grids which gives it an aura of perfection. The facial features represent benevolence and the physical ones represent the flow of nature. White borders are used in certain regions of the same. Color schemes usually revolving around red, white blue, green, and yellow, give it bright yet delicate contrasts. Green is used in dominance to signify the dominance of nature and its elements like lotus are adorned with 8-16 petals. Usage of golden hues gives the Ardhanarishwara in Thangka a regal elegance, otherwise absent in paintings.

Kalamkari of Andhra Pradesh

Kalamkari Ardhanarishwara signifies the importance of a grounded attitude. The use of earth colors like mustard, indigo green, black, and red gives it an essence that the subject, despite having the status of a deity, is miscible amidst everyone. The elaborate symmetry, background, and borders enhance the depth and perspective of these paintings. Usage of dots or other motifs along with prominent black outlines gives the painting a crispy contrast.

Kalighat Style of West Bengal

If a painting style would have supported the concept of minimalism, then the Kalighat style would be the foremost in line. With delicate usage of light watercolors at the base, Ardhanarishwara depicted in this style, on the contrary, is an embodiment of rigidity. This trait is due to thick and rustic borders and a piercing gaze. The plump countenance is a symbol of the aristocracy (the major buyers of the style during those times) and abundance. Despite the piercing gaze, a mild smile at the end of the lips makes Ardhanarishwara approachable to the observer. A simple color scheme of yellow, red, golden, black, and blue is generally used in this style of painting as they help in counteracting the lighter base of the subject.

Ardhanarishwara is a beautiful symbol of gender equality and fluidity. When art combines with such a noble depiction, magic happens! It is the need of the hour to know more about the artistic heritage of this ancient deity and the various art forms of India. In an age where biased gender norms are still prevalent, Ardhanarishwara comes as a gust of positive hope to take lessons from the past and mend the current drawbacks.

Written By Chandrajita Chakraborty, The India Craft Project

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