The career of the Didarganj Yakshi is an interesting one. It marks trajectories how overtime an object’s value transfers from an archeological antiquity to a national artistic icon and later to an endangered art treasure-which gets fossilized in the space of a museum. The Yakshi is not merely an aesthetic/art object but also an important national icon.
The Mauryan sculpture adopted the name of the place where it was discovered, Didarganj in 1917. Instituted as a local goddess, the Yakshi was transferred to its ‘ rightful’ home, the Patna museum, after convincing the villagers that a figure holding the chowky can only be a mere attendant. Thus for the officials the immediate battle was not just over meanings-or exhume its past life, but over custody. Henceforth the Yakshi would be available for no other rituals other than of art. Similar has been the history of many ancient art objects, especially idols which easily correspond with those of the Hindu pantheon.
The Yakshi -a freestanding, life size, female figure, six feet eight inches on the pedestal, with one arm missing and the other holding a flying whisk (chowky)flung over the shoulder; engages the viewer on many counts- the intricate style of modeling, the lustrous polish of the Chunar stone body and the not the least of all the voluptuous anatomy. The Yakshi belongs to the pantheon of Indian sculptures providing introductions to the sensual aspect of ancient Indian art. ‘While the images of the meditating Buddha held their ground as the reigning embodiments of Indian spirituality, they (art historians) had been bought face to face with an alternative pantheon of divine and non divine female figures whose charms were overtly and overpoweringly physical’ ,writes Tapati Guha in her book National Claims.
Since the time of its first discovery in 1917, the Yakshi has kept re-appearing not only in museums and exhibitions, but also proliferately in books and albums. In the year of India’s independence, it represented the new nation in the show that Codrington organized in London. It returned to Delhi in 1948 and became a part of the exhibition ‘Masterpieces of India’ at the Government national museum. However the return of the Yakshi with a pockmark chip, after the 1980 tour of the USA and France brewed a huge controversy. Taken as a dent in the national pride the sculpture was designated a special category of ‘rare and endangered’ antique and was given the verdict to never leave its home museum.
Now, cloistered in the Patna museum, as a shadow of its past, it is important to ask for whom the Yakshi exists there? For a small community of scholars and museum officials who have invested it with a unique historical, aesthetics and national value? Or for the masses that thong the spaces of all such museums in India, who remain completely oblivious of the figure’s true art historical worth?