Sensuality and spiritual transcendence in a spiffed-up Ann Arbor

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The Book Haven is winding down from a short visit to our old digs at the University of Michigan – more specifically, from the 125th anniversary of the Michigan Daily, a celebration of more than a century of editorial freedom. A unique story, and more on that later. And we are also winding up from the record silence of the Book Haven! What with visits to the special collections at Hatcher Library, the Hopwood Room, old friends and new, we didn’t have an inch of time to spare.

Let us offer in recompense this powerful 12th-13th century stone image from the University of Michigan Museum of Art (nicknamed UMMA), to serve as a placeholder as we pull ourselves together. The museum is a stunning little gem on a remarkable campus, in a city that’s considerably more upscale and spiffed up than I remember from the grubby 1970s. In the short visit to the museum, the statue, about two feet tall, was perhaps my favorite find, along with a few Guercino sketches of Queen Esther.

From the plaque: “A cremation ground provides the stage for the paradoxically light-hearted image of Shiva’s terrible aspect Bhairava, who killed the god Brahma in a rage. The macabre context, indicated by emaciated ghosts at Bhairava’s feet, reminds viewers of the sin for which he was condemned to wander the earth in a terrifying and terror-stricken state. Bhairava carries a cup made from the skull of Brahma in his hand (one of two broken off in this sculpture). Transformed into his begging bowl, the cup identifies Shiva’s role as an ascetic – one who renounces the world and endures physical and psychological hardships to achieve spiritual transcendence. Shiva’s sensuous pose and levity communicate his liberation as a result of contemplating death in his lone wanderings through vast cemeteries.” I had not known the story of Bhairava before. Something about the themes of crime, repentance, endurance, and eventual transcendence resonated for hours afterward.

Photo courtesy David Goodman of the Associated Press, one of our small party that day.

durbar-squarePostscript: Bhairava? I should have recognized the familiar Kali, despite the name change! A quick google search revealed my confusion. Kali is very familiar to me from the righthand image, in Durbar Square in Kathmandu, where I lived all-too-briefly in the 1970s. This one seems to match my memory of the iconography of other Kalis, though perhaps it has a slight Nepali twist.

In any case, this squat, round-eyed Kali underscores the gracefulness and serenity in the portrayal of UMMA Bhairava above, despite the obliterated face, which only deepens its mystery.


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