Ancient History & Civilisation



We cannot trace the history of Indian sculpture from the statuettes of Mohenjo-daro to the age of Ashoka, but we may suspect that this is a gap in our knowledge rather than in the art. Perhaps India, temporarily impoverished by the Aryan invasions, reverted from stone to wood for its statuary; or perhaps the Aryans were too intent upon war to care for art. The oldest stone figures surviving in India go back only to Ashoka; but these show a skill so highly developed that we cannot doubt that the art had then behind it many centuries in growth.40 Buddhism set up definite obstacles to both painting and statuary in its aversion to idolatry and secular imagery: Buddha forbade “imaginative drawings painted in figures of men and women”;41 and under this almost Mosaic prohibition pictorial and plastic art suffered in India as it had done in Judea and was to do in Islam. Gradually this Puritanism seems to have relaxed as Buddhism yielded its austerity and partook more and more of the Dravidian passion for symbol and myth. When the art of carving appears again (ca. 200 B.C.), in the stone bas-reliefs on the “rails” enclosing the Buddhist “stupas” or burial mounds at Bodh-gaya and Bharhut, it is as a component part of an architectural design rather than as an independent art; and to the end of its history Indian sculpture remained for the most part an accessory to architecture, and preferred relief to carving in the round.* In the Jain temples at Mathura, and the Buddhist shrines at Amaravati and Ajanta, this art of relief reached a high point of perfection. The rail at Amaravati, says a learned authority, “is the most voluptuous and the most delicate flower of Indian sculpture.”42

Meanwhile, in the province of Gandhara in northwestern India, another type of sculpture was developing under the patronage of the Kushan kings. This mysterious dynasty, which came suddenly out of the north—probably from Hellenized Bactria—brought with it a tendency to imitate Greek forms. The Mahayana Buddhism that captured the council of Kanishka opened the way by rescinding the prohibition of imagery. Under the tutelage of Greek instructors Hindu sculpture took on for a time a smooth Hellenistic face; Buddha was transformed into the likeness of Apollo, and became an aspirant to Olympus; drapery began to flow about Hindu deities and saints in the style of Pheidias’ pediments, and pious Bodhisattwas rubbed elbows with jolly drunken Sileni.43 Idealized and almost effeminate representations of the Master and his disciples were offset with horrible examples of decadent Greek realism, like the starving Buddha of Lahore, in which every rib and tendon is shown underneath a feminine face with ladylike coiffure and masculine beard.44 This Greco-Buddhist art impressed Yuan Chwang, and through him and later pilgrims found its way into China, Korea and Japan;45 but it had little influence upon the sculptural forms and methods of India itself. When, after some centuries of flourishing activity, the Gandhara school passed away, Indian art came to life again under Hindu rulers, took up the traditions left by the native artists of Bharhut, Amaravati and Mathura, and paid scant attention to the Greek interlude at Gandhara.

Sculpture, like nearly everything else in India, prospered under the Gupta line. Buddhism had now forgotten its hostility to images; and a reinvigorated Brahmanism encouraged symbolism and the adornment of religion with every art. The Mathura Museum holds a highly finished stone Buddha, with meditative eyes, sensual lips, too graceful a form, and clumsy Cubist feet. The Sarnath Museum has another stone Buddha, in the seated pose that was destined to dominate Buddhist sculpture; here the effect of peaceful contemplation and a pious kindliness is perfectly revealed. At Karachi is a small bronze Brahma, scandalously like Voltaire.46

Everywhere in India, in the millennium before the coming of the Moslems, the art of the sculptor, though limited as well as inspired by its subservience to architecture and religion, produced masterpieces. The pretty statue of Vishnu from Sultanpur,47 the finely chiseled statue of Padmapani,48 the gigantic three-faced Shiva (commonly called “Trimurti”) carved in deep relief in the caves at Elephanta,49 the almost Praxitelean stone statue worshiped at Nokkas as the goddess Rukmini,50 the graceful dancing Shiva, orNataraja, cast in bronze by the Chola artist-artisans of Tanjore,51 the lovely stone deer of Mamallapuram,52 and the handsome Shiva of Perur53—these are evidences of the spread of the carver’s art into every province of India.

The same motives and methods crossed the frontiers of India proper, and produced masterpieces from Turkestan and Cambodia to Java and Ceylon. The student will find examples in the stone head, apparently of a boy, dug up from the sands of Khotan by Sir Aurel Stein’s expedition;54 the head of Buddha from Siam;55 the Egyptianly fine “Harihara” of Cambodia;56 the magnificent bronzes of Java;57 the Gandhara-like head of Shiva from Prambanam;58 the supremely beautiful female figure (“Prajnaparamita”) now in the Leyden Museum; the perfect Bodhisattwa in the Glyptothek at Copenhagen;59 the calm and powerful Buddha,60 and the finely chiseled Avalokiteshvara (“The Lord who looks down with pity upon all men”),61 both from the great Javanese temple of Borobudur; or the massive primitive Buddha,62 and the lovely “moonstone” doorstep,63 of Anuradhapura in Ceylon. This dull list of works that must have cost the blood of many men in many centuries will suggest the influence of Hindu genius on the cultural colonies of India.

We find it hard to like this sculpture at first sight; only profound and modest minds can leave their environment behind them when they travel. We should have to be Hindus, or citizens of those countries that accepted the cultural leadership of India, to understand the symbolism of these statues, the complex functions and superhuman powers denoted by these multiple arms and legs, the terrible realism of these fanciful figures, expressing the Hindu sense of supernatural forces irrationally creative, irrationally fertile and irrationally destructive. It shocks us to find that everybody in Hindu villages is thin, and everybody in Hindu sculpture is fat; we forget that the statues are mostly of gods, who received the first fruits of the land. We are disconcerted on discovering that the Hindus colored their statuary, whereby we reveal our unawareness of the fact that the Greeks did likewise, and that something of the classic nobility of the Pheidian deities is due to the accidental disappearance of their paint. We are displeased at the comparative paucity of female figures in the Indian gallery; we mourn over the subjection of women which this seems to indicate, and never reflect that the cult of the nude female is not the indispensable basis of plastic art, that the profoundest beauty of woman may be more in motherhood than in youth, more in Demeter than in Aphrodite. Or we forget that the sculptor carved not what he dreamed of so much as what the priests laid down; that every art, in India, belonged to religion rather than to art, and was the handmaiden of theology. Or we take too seriously figures intended by the sculptor to be caricatures, or jests, or ogres designed to frighten away evil spirits; if we turn away from them in horror we merely attest the fulfilment of their aim.

Nevertheless, the sculpture of India never quite acquired the grace of her literature, or the sublimity of her architecture, or the depth of her philosophy; it mirrored chiefly the confused and uncertain insight of her religions. It excelled the sculpture of China and Japan, but it never equaled the cold perfection of Egyptian statuary, or the living and tempting beauty of Greek marble. To understand even its assumptions we should have to renew in our hearts the earnest and trusting piety of medieval days. In truth we ask too much of sculpture, as of painting, in India; we judge them as if they had been there, as here, independent arts, when in truth we have artificially isolated them for treatment according to our traditional rubrics and norms. If we could see them as the Hindu knows them, as integrated parts of the unsurpassed architecture of his country, we should have made some modest beginning towards understanding Indian art.

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