Feminine power: Welcoming a new Goddess Kali icon

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Working with our community consultants

In January 2022 the British Museum welcomed the arrival of a newly commissioned Murti or icon of the Goddess Kali. Made by renowned artist Kaushik Ghosh in Calcutta, India, the Kali icon was the product of a wonderful collaboration between the Museum and a collective of devotees from the London Durgotsav Committee. Members of the London Durgotsav committee acted as community consultants to the Museum during the development of the Feminine power: the divine to the demonic exhibition.

The exhibition takes a cross-cultural look at the profound influence of female spiritual beings within global religion and faith and the LDC Committee’s expert insights and personal perspectives enabled the Museum to create a nuanced, richer cultural understanding of the enduring nature and contemporary relevance of the Goddess Kali today. The committee also generously allowed the Museum to take part in and film the 2021 Camden Kali Puja ceremony in London.

This blog, written by members of the London Durgotsav Committee, will reflect on their own personal connections to the Goddess Kali and how they feel about this new Kali icon being at the British Museum.

Feminine power tickets
An introduction to Kali from Barnana and Samaroha Das from the London Durgastov Committee

Maa (Mother) Kali, is the name that brings back memories of my childhood from the town of Jalpaiguri in India. In my father’s ancestral house, we used to hold Kali-pujo (a worship ritual celebrating the Goddess Kali) with our huge extended family and it was a jubilant and joyous occasion. I saw my grandmother, pious and devoted to the pujo, fasting for two days before offering prayers to Maa Kali. My mother and aunts used to help with the khichuri bhog (food offering). To me, Kali-pujo was an amalgamation of incense, lights and homecoming.

Our Kali, unlike the new one at the British Museum, was blue. I once asked my mother why is Maa Kali black in some places and blue in others? My mother replied, “It is how the creator of the statue wants to portray her that defines her body colour. For some she is the epitome of matri-shakti (maternal strength) – strong but calm like the sky and a kind protector, like a mother who protects her children… for others, her image signifies the destroyer of evils, wild and intense like the ocean. Maa Kali is the power of divine over demon. She is our mother”.

When standing near Maa Kali, I close my eyes in prayer and as I draw a deep breath, I can smell that khichuri bhog, that sandalwood incense, the chant of mantras and my mother’s smile. Personally, I see my own Maa in Kali.

Photos from Kushik Ghosh’s workshop during the creation of the new icon

Alongside the Goddess Durga, Kali is one of the most prominent and widely worshipped Goddesses in India, particularly in West Bengal. She is worshipped in various forms – the icon situated in British Museum is a form of the Goddess Kali known as Maa Bhabatarini.

Traditionally these murti are made of clay from the banks of the river Ganges but to ensure her longevity, this icon is constructed with fibreglass, painted in a dark black, oil-based colour and her hair is made from jute fibre and fibreglass. However, during construction the artist placed some clay within her so she will always have a part of the sacred Ganges inside. The jewellery is made from golden threads, pearls and beads. A large crown, embellished with gold leaf, sits on her head behind her third eye. She is seen wearing red and white bangles on both hands and the vermillion red on her forehead symbolises Maa Kali to be a married Bengali woman.

Travelling to London

Traditionally, temples housing the goddess Kali were often built near cremation grounds, reflecting her existence in the transitional state between life and death – and the worship of Kali sometimes involves blood sacrifice. I once witnessed Maa Kali being worshipped at a cremation ground where she was referred to as “Shoshan (cremation ground) Kali”.

The priests chanting mantras loudly in the middle of the night and the putrid stench of buried corpses diffused in the air, creating an eerie atmosphere that instilled the fear of death in the human mind. It is that fear, ignorance, greed and ego (the vices in Hindu mythology) of the human mind that Maa Kali’s worship aims to sever, with a sacrificial stroke of her sword.

Kali at the British Museum
A visitor looking at the icon Kali within the Feminine power exhibition

Seeing Maa Kali in the British Museum was a moment of pride and honour – and I would like to say a big thank you to the Community Partnership team for their efforts and dedication to make this dream come true. It brings within me the essence of home, the warmth of a mother’s love, and The Goddess’ fierce and ferocious nature when it comes to protecting her loved ones.

The Feminine power exhibition provides a platform for international recognition and acknowledgment of the significance of feminine empowerment in the Hindu religion. There is much debate, predominantly among academics, about whether Hindu Goddesses can or should be feminist or icons for women’s liberation. For me, when a woman has the power or strength to stand against any kind of violence and injustice happening to her, she emerges as furious and strong as Maa Kali and destroys the oppressor.

Our work

Working with the members of the London Durgostav Committee and hearing first-hand how the Goddess Kali impacts their lives and shapes their outlook on women and femininity allows visitors to Feminine power to learn about the importance and power of the Goddess Kali in the modern world and the influence she wields in the lives of people living in London. This partnership, alongside other community partners from diverse cultural and spiritual backgrounds who have shared their insights and experiences, is essential for shaping how we understand, research and enhance the British Museum collection.

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic (until 25 September 2022) takes a cross-cultural look at the profound influence of female spiritual beings within global religion and faith.

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Supported by Citi

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