December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X

Human & Divine: 2000 years of Indian Sculpture. A National Touring Exhibition organised by the Haywood Gallery, London, for the Arts Council of England

Curators: Balraj Khanna & George Michel

Venues: The New Art Gallery, Walsall, 22 July - 17 September 2000
Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich, 30 September – 10 December 2000
City Art Gallery, Southampton, 12 January – 23 March 2001

This is a show of figurative sculpture, a genre that generally appeals to public taste. The human body provides both the vocabulary and grammar of its formal language. The design and technique is aesthetically determined. Beauty, widely deemed an aesthetic weakness by modern sculptors, is a central criterion. Eminently pliant to their iconographic prescriptions, the sculptures are identified with lucidity and therefore contextualised with great ease. There are few 'art historical' mysteries about them. Yet, public and private critical responses alike suggest that Indian sculpture dwells in a terrain that lies in a cultural gulf that few are willing to cross. Indian statuary has not had the same instrumental influence on European Modernist sculpture as Egyptian sculpture. Rodin co-authored a book on the iconography of Siva, (Rodin, Coomarasawmy et al, 1921) and he adopted the multiplicity of contours favoured by Indian sculptors, rather than the single, centrally operative, privileged profile of Egyptian statuary (de Caso, 1962). But apart from Steven Cox, Anish Kapoor (in select works) and a few others, European sculptors have seldom derived significant conceptual and formal inspiration for their own work from Indian’s sculpture. The problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that Indian sculpture presents us with the spectacle of a foreign language of forms and a foreign body as its main theme of expression onto which its whole cultural history is inscribed. That foreign body is also the prime instrument for expressing the rich mythology of the Indian sub-continent. Since there is no absolute structure common to all languages, and in cultural terms, no unitary, universal norms for the body, Indian sculpture remains therefore resolutely foreign.

The issue of language, and particularly body language, however, is worth reflecting upon. Here, one proposition from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus comes to mind: 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world'. (Wittgenstein 1922.148) Although he was referring to the world of words, parallels can be made with the formal language of sculpture. Indeed, both languages are wrought from aeons of accumulated, collective experience that trace the parameters of our understanding in the universe of words and forms respectively. It follows, therefore, that both formal and verbal languages define the scope of our conceptual possibilities. Verbal and sculptural languages create and articulate rather than merely convey meaning. Both languages are malleable and responsive to creative, expressive urges and needs, although the results can be, and often are, concrete and immutable. When instinctual and emotive impulses are unexpressed or inexpressible in visual or verbal terms, they are discharged as implosions or explosions, often with destructive consequences. Ancient, mature languages of words and forms record and encode experience in more refined and consummate ways than newer and less mature ones. The mythologies of many lands describe the creation of the Universe as a verbalisation of the will of God. If, at the most basic level, the notion of God is the projected sum total of the collective psychic possibilities and limitations of a people, then, the God of that people is to be found in its language. Wittgenstein would probably have agreed that the same is true of the language of forms.

Language also serves as memory, not merely for facts and figures, but for the hierarchy of dominance and subjugation that is a feature of our deepest instinctual nature. We can exemplify this by two words, testify and hysteria. Testify is derived from the ancient Greek word 'testes'. A man would swear an oath (while holding his scrotum, which the Greeks considered as the seat and symbol of his manhood) of honour and righteousness. Reneging upon the oath invited retributory castration. Hysteria, on the other hand, is derived from another Greek word 'hystera', meaning womb. For the Greeks, the scream that relieves the agony of labour (to some measure) is an inevitability of possessing a womb. The want of manly and stoic self-control was an unavoidable concession to womanhood. The word testify is loaded therefore with the implications that the virtues of righteousness, reason and the attendant gifts of reliability and trustworthiness are a facet
of masculinity. On the other hand, woman’s vulnerability to her biological nature made her a creature of emotions, and by inference, less capable of objective reasoning and therefore, unreliable. If words are stained with the certainties of our prejudices, then language cannot be an objective carrier of meaning. It can only be true to its historical context and embody its own dynamics. Further, a literal translation into another language never guarantees that meaning is transformed into a precise equivalent, at best it achieves but approximations. For example, the full measure of Shakespeare’s craft, spirit and subtlety of thought cannot be converted from its original expression in English into any other language, all translations offer but approximations. Likewise, the full measure of Indian sculptural craft, spirit and subtlety of thought can only be expressed by the ethos, tenets and formal language of Indian sculpture. To evaluate Indian sculpture in terms of another sculptural language becomes an exercise fraught with difficulty, if not futility.

Therefore, Tom Lubbock’s plea, in his review of the show, for suitable critical explanation to take over where the 'ignorant' reader of Indian sculpture reaches the limit of comprehension (Lubbock, 2000) is a legitimate one. Curiously, Lubbock appears to have overlooked Khanna’s and Michell’s catalogue essays (Khanna & Michell, 2000) where their experiences (as an established mature artist and a specialist scholar in the field) combine to establish a serious but accessible historical, spiritual and aesthetic frame of reference for the show. However, like the sub-titles to foreign films, the explanatory power of textual information does not always succeed in matching satisfactorily the content and context of museum displays. In the case of Indian statuary, the reason is simple. Indeed, Indian sculpture is like a dance spectacle where performers eventually rouse spectators off their seats and involve them as participants. However slight in measure, participation, and the empathy it demands, is a key raison d’être of Indian sculpture and other visual forms. Compare the image of Trevor Howard’s Captain Bligh (in Lewis Milestones 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty), awkwardly complying to the Tahitian chieftain’s invitation to partner her daughter in a frenetic native hula. The indignity that Howard portrays so superbly is compounded by the vibrant and unashamed eroticism of the dancing Tahitian women. Likewise, the empathy that Indian statuary solicits can be disabled, in some, by the unambiguous admixture of religiosity with its vibrant and unashamed sexuality.

Indeed, the incongruous overlapping of sexuality and spirituality has been the Europeans’ major problem from their first encounter with Indian sculpture. Partha Mitter’s timely study (Mitter, 1977) remains the central frame of reference for Europe’s reaction to Indian Art (and a valuable contribution to the study of cultural dynamics in post-colonial times). The instrumentality of sin, guilt and repressive ethics in policing its own sexual expression has been successful in trapping Christian Europe in a sort of perpetual adolescence, with an enduring, pubescent fascination for illicit sexuality. A sex industry that issues from centuries of self-censure brings compensatory relief to individuals but also fuel to academic discourses, helping to sustain sexual matters prominently on public and private agendas. It is in D H Lawrence's words, 'for while we have sex in the mind, we truly have none in the body' (Lawrence, 1929) that we recognise the real challenge posed by Indian statuary. For Indian statuary teaches us to embody our own sexuality, rather than merely perform a sexual act. It encourages us to explore and discover modes of sexual expression commensurate with our deepest psychic needs and individuality, rather than comply with sexual norms that others have defined for us, and whose construction is predicated by a large measure of guilt. Embodying our sexuality gives us the fullest expression of our sense of self. It removes every obstacle to self-acceptance and self love (an ingredient in short supply in the paradoxically narcissistic west). Only when we embrace fully and unequivocally our sexuality, rather than deny it, can we also embody the essential virtues in the human spectrum that turn communal or dual partnerships into constructive and fruitful existence. A fellow participant in a seminar on Indian art once dismissed the sculptures of Khajuharo as a mere 'lesson in fucking', a perception that invited several contestant views, the most memorable and perhaps wisest being that Khajuharo instead offered a lesson in compassion and love. (Nath, 1980)

Europe’s unease with depicted sexuality located outside the boundaries of pornography is not a deficiency in systems of classification. Rather, it is a problem of developing affinities across cultural divides. Wittgenstein also proposed that 'the world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy'. (Wittgenstein 1922:184) If Wittgenstein’s proposition can be qualified with a specific object and focus of contentment thus: 'the world of the happy (with their sexuality) is quite different from that of the unhappy', then the self-evident statement can become loaded with tragic implications. Indian statuary does not simply divide Europe and India into zones of differing sexual mores, but into worlds where the outlooks on some of the fundamental dimensions of existence and of our spiritual destiny are seemingly incompatible.

At the deepest psychic level, the antithetical bonds between sex and death takes a different, perhaps more optimistic complexion, in Indian thought. To substantiate that requires space unavailable for this review. However, we can cite an illustration from the Mahabarata’s famous passage regarding the hundred questions that king Yudhisthira had to answer correctly to retrieve the lives of his five brothers that a river genie had forfeited in retaliation for insults received. In reply to a question, Yudhisthira described 'the greatest marvel' to lie in the fact that although Death strikes each day, yet we live as though we were immortal. Upon this affirmation of the imperishable human spirit, Yudhisthira constructed another answer. Asked what the great inevitability of existence was, he replied that it was Bliss. Western existential outlook would have suggested Death! If procreation’s purpose, as the book of Genesis suggests, were to be part of humanity’s sentence for original sin, a means of warding off death and extinction, then jouissance (in the sense Lacan described sexual pleasure) would be the sole promissory drive for sex. Joy, bliss, compassion, beatitude, friendship and love do not feature as indispensable ingredients, and sex becomes a physical exercise measurable quantitatively rather than qualitatively. On the other hand, the guaranteed immortality (of the spirit) informing Indian sculpture would make unconditional sexuality, devoid of all notion of sin, a mixture of jouissance and of bliss. It is an experience that many, Europeans or otherwise, who confront the great erotic imageries of Indian temples, cannot and will not imagine, even if they appreciate their sculptural excellence. Like Lao Tse’s frog that dwelt in the bottom of a well, they cannot conceive of such a thing as the ocean.

As their titles indicate, the two major critical reviews of the show, (Mark Hudson’s 'Where sacred means sexy and sensuous' and Tom Lubbock’s 'India’s Pleasure of the Flesh') appear incapable of going beyond the sexual context and context of the sculptures. Yet, extraordinarily, Hudson asks, 'but though it may engage our curiosity, is it great art? And what has it to do with religion as we know it?' (Hudson, 2000). Hudson’s and Lubbock’s Eurocentric posture and experience become their central frame of reference for experiencing the sculptures of India (and elsewhere, one surmises). The 'we' in the second question certainly does not include the average Indian, (resident or displaced) and the religion in question is quasi-Christian. Partha’s thesis is not confined to an unenlightened past, but is central to an ongoing phenomenon.

Undoubtedly, these sculptures rank with the world’s greatest artistic heritage. Civilising influences and knowledge of the human self that only surfaced in the psychoanalytical studies of the late 19th and 20th centuries inform them (Rangacharya, 1966, and Gnoli, 1968). In the sophistication of their technique and refinement of their design they match if not outrank anything Europe ever produced (see Rawson, 1966, Kramrich, 1933 and Kramrich, 1954). Their iconography of gods and goddesses are landmarks in the structure of the psyche, they represent instinctual forces and impulses that shape civilising influences and resonate in the narratives of myths and history. They are spiritual instruments designed to attune subtle forces of the psyche with forces prevailing over nature. The system of ratio and proportions that regulate scrupulously every aspect of the sculptures is but one such device. (see Gobinatha 1920) This instrumentality locates the sculptures in an area where art and magic overlap, as it did in Europe in megalithic times and in the statuary of some 12th century cathedrals. They may not have much to do with religion as 'we' know it, but they have everything to do with the en theos, the Greek notion of the god within, the fount of all our enthusiasm for life and for existence.

Exiled from their original contexts, their instrumentality cannot be demonstrated properly. But clues are to be found everywhere. The eyes of living beings, as well as those of statues, attract our analytical or contemplative gaze compulsively. Bonding, the setting up of hierarchies of dominance and subjugation, of attitudes and affinities, and a host of other psychic processes, are transacted in the sliver of time that it takes beholder and beheld to join in the gaze. In Indian statuary, the complexity of forms, the multiple visual rhythms, the absence of a single privileged profile and of the 'frontality' so admired in Egyptian monumental sculpture, makes it difficult to locate the starting point for scanning the voluptuous surfaces and the bodily ornaments that weld and punctuate them. Nevertheless the sculpted (or sometimes painted) eyes are the unavoidable shrines where the pilgrimage of the gaze departs or culminates. It is here that Indian sculpture profers one of its most important conceptual clues. Indeed, the eyebrows in many Indian statues are shaped like an archer’s bow, one of a host of visual metaphors and multi-layered meanings which, in this case, signifies that vision is an arrow-like projection, instead of the model of passive optical receptivity constructed by classical physics.

The notion of a pilgrimage of the gaze is an apt one, for Indian statuary requires a disciplined visual approach, an educated scrutinising during which the beholder attunes his vision closer and closer with that of the sculptor. Since the sculptor’s eyes followed the trail of chisels and the scouring of rasps and pumice stones, then the visual and tactile in Indian statuary overlap in what can fittingly be described as 'tactile vision'. Tactile vision increases the sensuous experience of sculpture generally, and is particularly well suited to the sensual themes and sculptural treatment in Indian statuary. The touch dimension suffuses vision with our own materiality. The love and fear, pleasure and loathing, attraction and repulsion that the sculptural narrative invokes in the viewer are heightened considerably. Indian statuary demands a greater act of empathy from us.

Indian sculpture is composed exclusively of inflected surfaces; concavities, like the poles of an apple, are the meeting places of convex lines (see Rawson’s analysis, 1966). This serves a number of purposes. Symbolically, inflected surfaces indicate the inner pulsing of the life force. Flat or depressed surfaces cover underlining organic decay, as every fruit evidences. Convex shapes are to be found in the depiction of deities of death and decay. The gaze flows more fluently across inflected surfaces. This is particularly important given that most of the pieces in the exhibition formed part of a continuous frieze. The inflected surfaces recreate the unfolding of a musical rhythm, a device that harmonises the figures with each other and the statuary as a whole with architecture. Walter Pater’s contention that all art forms aspire to the condition of music (Pater, 1908) seems particularly appropriate for Indian statuary.

Indian aesthetics contends that silence is the matrix of all musical forms, in the way space is a matrix for all volume. A raga is preceded by a period of silence during which the audience attunes their inner silence with the one prevailing in the auditorium. The first notes of the sitar, the shimmer of the secondary strings that resonate in response to the main sets of strings, sculpt the silence. Likewise, void is the first sculptural dimension, and volume results from the crystallisation of the energies of the void. This creates distinctly different spatial dynamics from the European model. Unlike the western convention of perspective where space starts from the pictorial surface and moves into infinity, the sculptural space of Indian statuary starts from infinity and moves towards the viewer. Whereas the space of western perspective is the negative container for the positive volume, both space and forms in Indian sculpture are shaped by the same energy. It is the light emanating from the viewer’s eyes that kindle to life the forms and voids of Indian statuary. The sculpture remains resolutely viewer-centred. (Boner, 1949; Boner et al., 1982)

The shaping of the eyes like a bow, mentioned above, forms part of a larger convention that casual scanning all too often misses. In fact, the forms of Indian statuary often have double or multiple intentions In other words, bodily features are visual metaphors for other thing. The torso of a man invokes the head of a cow, with the nipples representing the eyes and the soft fold of the belly, the snout of the cow, respectively. Arms invoke the trunks of elephants, thighs, inverted banana trees. The breasts of a woman are like ripe fruits, the neck is like a conch shell, and knees are like the back of a tortoise. The eyes have the largest range of visual equivalents. In anger, they are like cowry shells, pensive, like a bird. The girl awaiting her lover has 'eyes that flash like a silver fish in a dark pond'. These features are distilled from sensory impressions that make up the structure of consciousness. The list is exhaustive and detailed. The visual metaphors provide a secondary set of meanings that operatealmost like poetry.

Indeed, if the words of prose can be substituted without the meaning being diluted or lost, it could be said that the words of poetry, on the other hand, are essential to its meaning. They cannot be paraphrased. But, as Paul Valéry suggested, once the meaning has been conveyed to the receptive mind, the words of poetry do not die Instead, they rise anew (Valéry, 1957). The hosts of secondary meanings in art are like the words of poetry. The depicted mythological or religious narrative, or iconographic statement, provide the meaning of the sculpture; meaning that is transferred from the consciousness of the sculptor to that of the viewer. The visual metaphors constitute the embodying words that convey the meaning and perish in so doing, but which arise anew and are savoured witha relish equal to the first utterance. Indeed, the spell of poetry is such that repetitions never diminish the pleasure of utterance or action.

Indian sculpture, like Egyptian statuary (particularly of the 18th dynasty), the statuary of Chartres Cathedral and the Songye Masks of Zaire, speaks to the 'soul', employed here as the sum total of our psychic possibilities and limitations. We cannot 'get into' Indian Sculpture if we are disconnected from our own soul.

Jacques Rangasamy
School of Art & Design, University of Salford



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