& 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
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
Indians 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
The issue of language, and particularly body language, however, is worth
reflecting upon. Here, one proposition from Wittgensteins 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, womans 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 Shakespeares 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 Lubbocks 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 Khannas and Michells
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 dêtre of Indian sculpture and other visual forms. Compare
the image of Trevor Howards Captain Bligh (in Lewis Milestones 1962
version of Mutiny on the Bounty), awkwardly complying to the Tahitian
chieftains 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
Indeed, the incongruous overlapping of sexuality and spirituality has
been the Europeans major problem from their first encounter with
Indian sculpture. Partha Mitters timely study (Mitter, 1977) remains
the central frame of reference for Europes 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)
Europes 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 Wittgensteins 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 Mahabaratas 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
procreations purpose, as the book of Genesis suggests, were to be
part of humanitys 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 Tses 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 Hudsons 'Where sacred means sexy and sensuous' and Tom Lubbocks
'Indias 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). Hudsons
and Lubbocks 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. Parthas thesis is not confined to an unenlightened
past, but is central to an ongoing phenomenon.
Undoubtedly, these sculptures rank with the worlds 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 archers 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 sculptors 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
Indian sculpture is composed exclusively of inflected surfaces; concavities,
like the poles of an apple, are the meeting places of convex lines (see
Rawsons 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 Paters
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 viewers 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
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.
School of Art & Design, University of Salford
Boner, Alice (1949) Symbolic Aspects of Forms in Journal of the Indian
Society of Oriental Art, Vol XVll.
Boner, Alice, Baumer, Bettina and Sarma Sadasiva (1982) Vastusutra
Upamsad, The Essence of Forms in Sacred Art, New Delhi.
Gnoli, Ranielo (1968) The Aesthetic Experience according to Abhinavagupta,
Hudson, Mark : 'Where sacred means sexy and sensuous', Mail on Sunday
Review, 30 July 2000.
Khanna, Balraj and Michell, George (2000) Human & Divine: 2000
years of Indian Sculpture, Exhibition Catalogue, London.
Kramrich, Stella (1933) Indian Sculpture, Calcutta.
Kramrich, Stella (1954) The Art of India, London.
Lawrence, D.H (1929) Leave sex alone, London.
Lubbock, Tom (2000) 'Indias Pleasure of the Flesh' Independent,
Mitter, Partha (1977) Much Maligned Monster, A History of European
Reactions to Indian Art, Chicago & London.
Nath, R. (1980) The Art of Khajuharo, New Delhi.
Pater, Walter (1908) The Renaissance Studies in Art and Poetry,
Rangacharya, Adya (1966) Introduction to Baratas Natyashastra, Bombay.
Rao, Gobinatha (1920) 'Talamana or Iconometry'. Memoirs of the Archeological
Survey of India, No 5, P 43.
Rawson, Philip (1966) Indian Sculpture, London.
Rodin, Auguste, Coomarasawmy Ananda et al., (1921) Sculptures Civaites,
Valery, Paul (1957) Varieté, Poesie et Pensée Abstraite,
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London.