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The Enduring Image

The Enduring Image
Page Last Updated: October 31, 2016

Indian sculpture, as encountered in a museum, is inevitably isolated from its original context. To visualize its architectural setting, religious motivation and philosophical meaning is difficult when the sculpture is removed from its original placement. For an understanding of their profound meaning and purpose, one has to revert back to sculpture of the prehistoric period (c. 3000-1500 B.C.) and the beginning of the historic era (4th century B.C.).

Through the study of the development of image worship in India in media like terracotta, stone and bronze, one can gather some idea of the diverse forces at work in Indian thought, religion and iconography. The aspects of Indian cultural, folk and classical thought are reflected in the sculptures, which manifest themes dealing with love of nature, sensuality, fertility, eternity and divine omniscience. In the early phase, the concept of an "image" developed first in literary form and was then given a sculpted physical shape, based on an idealized human form. Natural forces were personified and then deified. Most early deities were therefore abstractions of natural phenomena like rain, water, earth and wind, deified in human form with additional attributes like multiple heads or hands to endow them with supernatural power and potency. The concern with sensuality and fertility can be understood in the context of procreation and fecundity which are fundamentally natural phenomena. This essentially symbiotic relationship is manifested in the imagery of yaksha-yakshi , the vanadevata concept of nature spirits (represented in sculpture by voluptuous female forms) and the mother goddess whose human imagery forms the major component of early Indian sculpture. As the ichnographically developed imagery of deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Durga developed, sectarian mythology and beliefs came into play. Indian sculpture, therefore, is the vehicle that powerfully conveys these forces to the devote in a temple. What captures his sensibility is the eternal presence of the image and the awesomeness of the omniscient power enshrined in the image of the deity.

The genius of the Indian sculptor lay in his visualization of the deities' ideal proportions, youthful bodies and benign expressions. The canons of proportion set down in the Shilpa texts (manuals prescribing proportions and iconography) were strictly followed without much alteration. The deities were endowed with attributes and most iconographical details were laid down for the sculptors to follow. However, the emotive expressions, body flexions, yogic concentration and narrative compositions remained highly individualistic, allowing the sculptors to experiment with sculptural form. Sculptors of every age strived at infusing the deity with the breath of life or prana. Sculptures of deities their consorts, celestial beings, couples directional deities, composite animals and decorative motifs formed the mass of images that adorned the walls of the temples and their interiors. The deities consecrated in the sanctum were carved strictly according to religious cannons and installed by performing a special consecration ceremony.

© K. L. Kamat
Carved Bust of a Celestial, Khajuraho
Carved Bust of a Celestial, Khajuraho

Temple sculptures were not necessarily religious. Many drew on secular subject matters and decorative motifs. A closer look at them will reveal a greater understanding of the Indian ethos. The temple is conceived as a representation of the macrocosm and it encompasses all the living beings therein; the three worlds of the universe are represented by sculptures of animals, birds, celestial and mortal beings occupying three distinct tiers of the temple structure. The temple provides an extensive spectrum for the display of secular subject matters as well, which leads us to an interesting revelation: that even on strictly religious monuments, there is enough room for the representation of everyday life and that the spiritual and the real are not two different entities but related in succession. It is from the mundane world that one transcends to attain the spiritual domain. The scenes of everyday life consist of military processions, royal court scenes, musicians, dancers, acrobats and amorous couples. Another group of non-religious figures are the apsaras or devanganas (celestial women), vyalas (composite animals) and the decorative motifs. (The decorative motifs will be discussed in the chapter on ornamentation.)

The story of Indian temples and the images found on them can be conceived in two ways. The first is imagery itself, which could be the depiction of a deity, a non-deity, a demon or a secular theme in elaborate narrative form using several figures or in a condensed form using only one image. The other component is the evolution of and variation in the styles of sculpture and architecture practiced in different parts of India. The entire panorama of styles are difficult to summarize here, but it is worthwhile mentioning that these styles such as Kushana, Gupta, Pratihara, Pallava or Chola were affiliated to the reigns of various dynasties and their rulers. However most of these dynastic identifications are based on classification according to socio-political history and should not be associated with the direct patronage by a king or a dynasty.

It is to be noted that each dynasty perfected and patronized a style of sculpture, some of which were markedly individualistic and could be seen as milestones of Indian sculpture. The Maurya period (4th-2nd century BC) sculptures manifest both classical naturalism and the folk spontaneity and simplicity in the forms of sculpture like the bull and the lion capital, the life-size yaksha-yakshis and the mother goddess figurines. The Shunga and the Kushana periods (2nd century BC-3rd century AD) demarcate the beginning of the sculptural idiom in Indian sculpture where the elements of physical form were evolving into a more refined, realistic and expressive style. The sculptors strived at mastering their art, especially of the human body which was carved in high relief and bore heaviness and vigour. The classical age of Indian sculpture seen in the Gupta-Vakataka style (5th-6th century AD) brought forth buoyancy, sereneness of expression and a fully rounded body with supple articulation. The medieval period of Indian sculpture, the longest and the most vibrant in Indian art history, not only saw the development of temple architecture and sculpture, but also brought to the fore a number of regional styles. These represented variant proportions and physiognomic features that were nevertheless bound by a common link - ornamental motifs such as creepers, flowers, composite animals and celestial figures. Styles like those of the Pratihara, Chandela, Pallava, Chola and many others have been celebrated for their beauty, grace and intricate carving. Emphasis on surface decoration is the hallmark of sculpture of the medieval period in India.

The placement of images within the temple structure follows set canonical rules. There are very few variations to this pattern. The central niches are generally occupied by the presiding deity, followed by the attendants and the celestial women in the subsidiary niches. The deities of the cardinal directions are generally found in the corner niches where they stand guard. The horizontal plinth on which the temple super-structure sits often contains tiers of aquatic, terrestrial and aerial beings as part of its standard imagery. Besides the stone image of the main deity in the sanctum, there were many other images in bronze and other metals of the main deity, subsidiary deities, saints, consorts, attendants and donors, which were worshipped on the same platform as the main deity. The bronze image of the main deity was specially made for the daily ritual processions in the temple courtyards, for special ceremonies and festive celebrations. They were known as utsavara (processional deities) in contrast with the mulavara (main deity). The interior of southern Indian temples is especially endowed with bronze images of various deities which are worshipped daily and adorned with garments, garlands, jewels and flowers. The medieval period, especially during the Pallava and Chola dynasties (7th-13th century), also saw the flowering of the bronze casting technique which was extant from the Indus Valley period in India. The famous images of Shiva Nataraja, Parvati, Kodanda Rama and Navaneeta Krishna have perennially delighted devotees and aroused their religious fervor. Besides being votive images, aesthetically, the Chola bronzes mark a phase in the development of Indian sculpture that is simply magnificent in form and style. The most fascinating aspect of Indian sculpture, especially of the southern Indian bronze tradition today, is the expert craftsmanship and the ongoing practice of this art. When we closely study this continuity, the realization of the enduring quality of the images dawns upon our minds to provide a holistic vision of the multifaceted Indian sculptural form.

Alamkara: 5000 Years of Indian Art
| Foreword | Kings & Courtiers | Ideal of Ornament
Enduring Image | Adorning the Self | Heroic Ideal
Stream of Devotion | From Pot to Palate | Pursuit of Pleasure
Mortal Women & Celestial Lovers | Smell of Earth | References

Alamkara - 5000 Years of Indian Art
5000 Years of Indian Art

Indian WomanMan Offers Ring to GirlfriendBharatesha VaibhavaWoman with Bow - Stone SculptureLovers in Pahari style.
Ornately Decorated Rudrakshi MalaLady Churning CurdsA tier of spiral foliage of exquisite designA Three Headed Mythological Figure Rides a Lion <br> Illustration from Telugu text <I> Ragamalika </I>Woman Grinding Herbs to Make Cosmetics
Emperor Babur Hunting a TigerStatue of Meditating BuddhaMetallic Floral DesignBronze Statue of Shiva, TamilnaduA Statue of Meditating Mahavira
Carved Bust of a Celestial, KhajurahoSculpted Chandela Temples Depicting EroticaDecorated NutcrackerA Nutcracker Styled as Yaksha-YakshiShiva the Magnificent
Woman Puts on MakeupDasara -- painting on the walls of Mysore palace

Kamat's Potpourri 5000 Years of Indian Art

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