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Sabari with Her Birds

Atul Dodiya, (Indian, born 1959)

The story of Sabari is a minor episode in the Ramayana, a text that embodies the fundamental concepts of Hinduism. Shocked by the killing of birds for her wedding feast, Sabari renounces marriage and lives as a hermit in the forest. For many years she seeks out the single sweetest fruit in preparation for God’s visit. Finally Rama, an avatar of the supreme god Vishnu and hero of the Ramayana, wanders by and Sabari offers him the fruit. Although she has bitten it to test its sweetness (and so defiled it), Rama recognizes that the gift comes from her deep devotion and eats. In bliss, Sabari dies.

Like Atul Dodiya’s work in general, this image is layered with mythic, national, and personal references. Sabari performs one of the usual labors of women, grinding food in a chakki (the object held in her hand), yet she does not prepare it for her family, but rather for God. The action also symbolizes the grinding passage of time. Her x-ray spinal column denotes both her old age and the strength of her devotion. Artery-like red branches holding red birds reflect the horrifying wedding feast and emphasize her union with the natural world. They also link this image of Sabari to the ancient Indian motif of a woman intertwined with a tree.

One of India’s leading contemporary artists, the Mumbai-based Dodiya created this work during a residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, as part of a large series of collages and lithographs titled The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe (Sabari in Her Youth after Nandalal Bose). Although Sabari appears in the Ramayana only as an old woman, Dodiya’s series narrates her entire life story. The series was inspired by a 1941 triptych by the painter Nandalal Bose (1882–1966), one of the founders of Indian modernism.

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