The courtyard is where the
world authored by men and the world authored by women converge. Of course, there can be no radical cultural cleavage between
the two domains. Women are so encompassed by the male world that those domains of women which are not simply shared with men
are likely to be small regions, spatially and conceptually, overlooked or tolerated or avoided by men. We will assume, since
men do not participate in the wall painting, that the art is an example of such a domain of women: it is about themselves
and their world.
A look around a courtyard
which has been prepared for a wedding, particularly in the northern villages around Madhubani, tells us what women as artists
are thinking about: here is Sita, presenting a garland to Rama; here is Durga, flailing weapons astride her tiger; here is
Krishna up in the kadamba tree, luring gopis with his seductive flute; here is Mahadeva in meditation and Gauri attentive
and adoring. Undoubtedly the dominant figures painted by women on the courtyard walls are the gods and goddesses. They watch,
protect, and preside over the family and its transformations at marriage and childbirth. But which divinities are they, and
why those and not others?
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The Goddess of Many
In one sense all the goddesses
are One Goddess, whose name is Devi or Shakti. Shakti means literally "power," conceived as generative power, in human terms
the power to bring life into existence, and on a cosmological scale to bring life to the universe. As Shakti, the goddess
is the greatest divinity of all, greater even than Shiva, whom she dominates, whose prostrate and inert body she enlivens
by the heat and passion of her play on top of him. In the Puranic mythology, we find this goddess descending through tiers
of immortality and mortality, taking form as more differentiated goddesses, first Durga and Kali, then down to gentler female
divinities like Parvati and Radha, married to or consorting with male gods, then lower to mortal females raised to goddesses,
such as Sita, and finally to ordinary, fully mortal human women whose names, at least in Mithila, always end with "Devi"--Jayanti
Devi, Sita Devi, Baua Devi.