I don’t think you would see them either, because, most probably you, like me, wouldn’t specifically be looking for them. Her breasts are bare and the slit of her vagina is clearly visible – and in focusing on these, you would probably miss the active marks of love on her body. The first time I saw her, I did not notice them. It was Anna Slaczka who showed me the scratches that her lover had made on her shoulders as a sign of the enjoyment of her body. And the lover is not the only one who lusts after her. The monkeys do too, as they try to free her from the little fabric that still clings to her legs. She stands in front of the windows of this section of the museum peacefully – her gaze turned away from the magnificent dancing Nataraja to the mischievous monkey.
Yet not everybody wants her. The evident excitement in the recorded minutes of the Society for the Friends of Asian Art, ‘our apsara is coming’ turned to bitter disappointment when she arrived in the Netherlands. ‘It could have been her colour, or something else’ says Ms Slaczka, the curator for South Asian art at the Rijks Museum. She did not impress her owners and stands now in the Asian wing of the museum on long-term loan. Ms Slaczka’s research into this figure reveals that she is probably from a Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh in central India. She added that apsaras, such as this one and other erotic figures have a protective function. This is why they often stand at the door or gateway of the temple. These are vulnerable spots – places of transgression – as evil forces can enter from here. Erotic figures remind us of fertility, of children and life enriching processes. So they guard, or I would say, seduce evil forces away from entering a holy space.
In 950 AD, which is about the time that the sculpture is supposed to have stood her ground, possibly on one of two pillars at another vulnerable spot in the temple, sex was not considered an evil in India. Rather the opposite, if we have to recall the apsara’s function. I had to think immediately of my friend Paromita Vohra’s on-going ‘Agents of Ishq’ project. She’s at work – getting folks to share their articulation of who they are as sexual beings. In some ways, 950 AD was way ahead of where we are now with this discussion in the India of 2016.
The nail marks and the monkeys who want to undress her and Ms Slaczka’s other findings about the apsara, were made possible by Tata Steel. They are responsible for Ms Slaczka’s present position as the curator of the South Asian collection in the Rijks Museum.
Link to Ms Slaczka’s publication on the apsara
Link to ‘Agents of Ishq’ – Paromita Vohra’s project
Link to The Society for the Friends of Asian Art (in Dutch)