My first meeting with Kali was in a tiny, dark cavernous room, full of people jostling each other for a glimpse. The stone floor was covered with a sticky mush of damp flowers, and the air was thick with smoke. Wide eyed priests stood guard, herding us like sheep while chanting at full speed. After much pushing, shoving and sweating, it was finally my turn to see her.
She is an absolutely magnificent goddess. Wild untamed hair, blue naked and unashamed, swinging a bloodied severed head in her hand, with a garland of skulls around her neck, and a comatose Shiva at her feet. She exudes a raw feral energy that is both powerful and fearsome. Unlike a more demure Parvati smiling into a lotus flower, or a brilliantly ornamented Lakshmi, or even Durga, who despite her ferocity, sits on a tiger with her legs neatly folded – this one was clearly breaking all rules.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Kali has been known and loved by millions of worshippers since ancient times. But her admirers are not always limited to those driven by faith and devotion, especially in the modern age. In the 20th and 21st centuries, her image has increasingly been borrowed as symbol of feminism and empowerment.
The reason is obvious. Kali embodies freedom. Freedom from looking and behaving in expected ways. She has mud between her toes, and blood dripping off her hands. Her naked body, covered in ashes, is a symbol of defiance, even power. She does not ask for permission, or seek consent. Her story does not fit into the typical good vs evil narrative. She represents a raw feminine energy that is totally unapologetic, and sometimes frightening. She doesn’t care what you think of her. Isn’t that how most of us really want to be?
It was also probably why filmmaker Leena Manimekalai used her as a central figure in her film – with a cigarette in her mouth and an LGBTQIA+ flag in the background. Leena is not the only one. With Kali, everyone is inspired to push boundaries. Time and again, her image has been used, sometimes for a cause and sometimes just to get attention. Remember Heidi Klum’s Halloween costume? It had no deep significance attached to it, she said her secretary googled it, and she dressed as Kali for fun.
We all want to borrow a tiny part of what she possibly represents, and use her for our own selfish purposes – to be noticed, for championing a cause, as a mascot, an icon, for dress up games, for politics, for sexual symbolism, for likes on Instagram and so on. It is too complicated to understand what she truly signifies; it is far easier to use her image for shock value.
And when the image isn’t right, we modify it. Leena gave her a cigarette a few weeks ago, and the Brahmins gave her a respectable makeover hundreds of years ago. Throughout history, we have tried to shape her to fit our story. Kali originated as an old tribal goddess, who was appropriated by both the tantric and vedic traditions, each with their own customs and variations. Over time, the fierce avatar mellowed down to a merciful mother. Her colour moved from a terrifying black to a more subdued blue. We clothed her, changed the form of worship, sang sweet devotional hymns, and altered the mudras of her hand.
We keep moulding her bit by bit, to suit us. Today we see her with a cigarette, ‘embracing diversity’, tomorrow her face will be on a coffee mug, an icon for an indie film festival, or a logo on the brochure for a conference of wild wandering women. We keep using her. But can we really tame her?
I think of the idol from so many years ago, swarmed by people in that dark damp temple. The loud priests lording over us, the desperate devotees pushing one another to get ahead, the sweets, smoke, the offerings, the chaos, and wonder what she must be thinking of us. All that fuss over her, continues. Social media is abuzz, FIR’s are being filed, indignant voices are shouting at one another, and everyone seems upset. But hopefully she is just looking, detached… free, and beyond us.
Featured image: An idol of goddess Kali in West Bengal. Photo: Subhrajyoti07/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0