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Shakti through the eyes of Vishakha Akkihal

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An exhibition of works by young artist, graphic designer and content writer Vishakha Akkihal with the enigmatic title "Bhairava uttered 'Ka': Shakti through my eyes" opened in the Exhibition hall of the International Roerich Memorial Trust on 4 June.

For those with only a superficial familiarity with Indian culture, the title of the exhibition may not be immediately apparent. However, it actually encapsulates the entire philosophical concept of the exhibition. Bhairava is one of the forms of the Indian god Shiva. However, the exhibition is not dedicated to him; it is dedicated to the goddess Kali. According to Indian tradition, Shiva called Kali 1008 names, 64 of which began with the syllable "ka". Bhairava uttered "Ka."

When attempting to visualise Kali, one will inevitably conjure an image of an enraged goddess with a protruding tongue, fangs, and a garland of demonic skulls encircling her neck. She is often depicted with four hands, one of which is grasping a sword, and the other holding a severed demonic head by the hair. In Hinduism, the goddess Kali is the wife of Shiva, representing the destructive aspect of the feminine energy, or Shakti.

According to legend, when the demon Rakta Beej assumed control of the world, the gods were unable to combat him effectively. Consequently, the goddess Kali was summoned to assist. Rakta Beej was endowed with the capacity to generate new demons of a similar nature from each drop of blood that was shed upon the earth. Thus, Kali, engaged in the slaying of demons, was compelled to imbibe their blood until only Rakta Beej himself remained. Kali was also victorious, having consumed his blood. However, in her rage, the goddess forgot her identity and began to destroy everything around her in a destructive dance. It was then that Shiva himself had to come to the enraged goddess and prostrate himself at her feet. In her rage, Kali stepped on Shiva during the frenzied dance, but as she did so, she became aware of her actions. Her consciousness was restored. In a gesture of shame and regret for her actions, the goddess extended her tongue. This is the conventional representation of Kali: at the conclusion of the conflict with the demons, when she finally completed her destructive dance and expressed remorse for her actions.

Then Shiva began to call Kali by 1008 different names, each reflecting the essence of the deity, as if attempting to remind his wife of her true nature and divine femininity. These 1008 names are documented in the Sri Kali Sahastranama Stotra.

Following a brief excursion into the realm of Indian mythology, we return to our artist, Vishakha Akkihal. The first question posed by the assembled guests was whether the artist adheres to the worship of Kali. Kali is a demanding goddess, and those who worship her must possess the requisite strength to avoid her wrath. Consequently, only a select few Hindus consider themselves followers of Kali. In response to this question, the artist shared an intriguing story about the creation of her works on display at the exhibition. She revealed that she had always been somewhat fearful of Kali and had never dared to perform pujas to the wrathful goddess. However, she also expressed admiration for her power. One day, Kali appeared to her in a dream in her Kotarkshi form. The name "Kotarkshi" translates as "the one whose eyes are infinite", "the one who sees everything", and "the one from whom there is no hiding". The goddess Kali told to create a series of images of her. After this dream, the artist, inspired by the Goddess' vision, conceived the idea to paint those forms of Kali mentioned in the Sahastranama Stotra. At present, the artist has completed 23 forms. The common denominator of these works is the initial letter, which is "K". This is reflected in the enigmatic title of the exhibition.

The exhibition opens with an image of Kapalini, the one who wears a garland of skulls. The image is one that is readily recognisable: fangs, tongue protruding, skulls. However, the image does not convey any sense of anger. Instead, it portrays Kali, who has already completed her destructive dance, with her eyes calm and her hair adorned with flowers. She is Kali the Mother, the aspect of the goddess who can protect from danger by becoming formidable, but whose love is boundless.

Another manifestation of Kali, known as Kalaratri, gazes at us with large green eyes that seem to reflect the surrounding world. Kalaratri represents the darkest night, the absolute absence of light. The artist posits that the black colour symbolises the ego. Kalaratri is the feminine power that has realised itself in its anger and overcome its ego with the help of its consort, Lord Shiva, symbolising the masculine energy, the masculine beginning of the universe. In Vishakhi Akkihal's painting, Kalaratri is depicted with dishevelled hair and earrings crafted from autumn leaves. She is accompanied by a fawn with large eyes. She appears as a forest fairy, an embodiment of nature, which, like Kalaratri, can be both harsh when out of balance and loving and protective when in harmony. Kalaratri's forehead is adorned with a red sindoor, which is a symbol of femininity, blood, connection with ancestors, with nature, and with one's soul.

Another form is Kunjareshvaragamini, which translates as "the one who is the ruler of elephants". In Indian tradition, the elephant is a symbol of wisdom, strength, patience, and grace. In ancient texts, the future bride is described as having a gait as graceful as that of a young elephant. Kunjareshvaragami is characterised by grace, femininity and wisdom. She is depicted with a trunk and elephant ears, her hair adorned with flowers. Her countenance is clear, her bearing is dignified, and she exudes a composure that is the consequence of self-assurance based on the realisation and acceptance of one's inherent qualities, both positive and negative.

Kartikki represents the summum bonum of all that has been done. She presents herself to us in the form of four distinct faces. The Goddess is attentive to the nuances of feelings and emotions, discerning their underlying currents. She judiciously considers the consequences of previous actions and eradicates the "kleshas," which include past traumas, negative emotions, stereotypes, and erroneous beliefs that perpetuate a world of physical and sensual suffering. The four faces of the Goddess represent transient emotions, which are unified by the wisdom of mindfulness and no longer lead us astray from the true path.

The viewer is presented with a series of images that evoke a sense of divine femininity. These images are characterised by a lack of anger, a lack of fear-inducing qualities and a beauty that is unmistakable. Each painting is accompanied by a philosophical description that elucidates and clarifies the artist's vision. Such images of Kali are unfamiliar to the majority of viewers. They are characterised by a combination of touching, graceful, and fragile beauty, while simultaneously evoking a sense of spontaneity, unpredictability, and formidable power.

Vishakha Akkihal's paintings are an homage to the divine femininity in all its manifestations. The artist employs a mixed technique, utilising acrylic paints on cardboard, appliqué, and collage.

The tour of the exhibition, which was attended as guests of honour, the curators of the International Roerich Memorial Trust, Mrs. Larisa Surgina and Mr. Suresh Kumar Nadda, was a fascinating and colourful journey into the world of mystical stories, deep understanding of aspects of Indian culture and introduced the guests to the fundamental concept of Indian philosophy – Shakti, the divine feminine, one of the driving forces of existence.

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