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Updated: September 17, 2011 17:46 IST

Figurines from antiquity

Zerin Anklesaria
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Over a hundred sculptures from connoisseur Siddharth Bhansali's collection were on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art recently. The collection covers a time-span of 1,500 years.

Some people are born collectors like Siddharth Bhansali, who has been a hoarder ever since he can remember. As a boy he collected sticks and stones, and didn't have the heart to discard them even when he graduated to stamps and coins. Later he went on to niche items: Welsh furniture, Art Deco and Nouveau, and English sporting paintings, particularly of horses.

His “eureka moment” came when he encountered an early Jain bronze from Andhra Pradesh at an auction and became an unashamed addict. Over 35 years he has collected a thousand sculptures of copper or its alloys. A hundred and four of these “Elegant Images” were on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and are catalogued in this book. Apart from two items all have originated from the Indian subcontinent, and excepting three ancient weapon-like objects, they have a religious connotation. Dimensions vary from two ft. in height to three inches, but all are crafted with equal care, for anything less than perfect was considered sacrilegious. In the ancient text cited by the author the artisans were given meticulous instructions: The image should have a head like an umbrella for wealth, good crops and prosperity; well-drawn eyebrows for good fortune; a leonine body signifying plenitude and strength, and so on. Imperfections on the other hand could have dire consequences, deficient proportions resulting in famine and revolution, poorly depicted eyes or limbs in loss of fame, crops and wealth. This eclectic collection of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist figurines, each one of a kind, covers a time-span of 1,500 years. Wood and terracotta were the standard materials for early devotional objects, and metal probably came into use in the 4th century BCE when Alexander the Great brought Hellenistic practices to the subcontinent.

The catalogue is divided into two parts: North India, and Deccan and South India. The date and provenance of each image is deduced with a wealth of references to subject, iconography, stylistic comparisons, and changes of taste in the major historical periods. The three Gandhara objects show a clear Greek influence in the drapes of the clothing, as in the serenely beatific Buddha seated in the meditation pose wearing a robe covering him in soft folds from the neck downwards.

Since Bhansali himself is a Jain there are several such images in the collection, the earliest being that of Jina Parshvanatha from Bihar, attributed to the Kushana period. It is the ancestor of several exhibits, the last of which is from 11th century Tamil Nadu. This Chola statuette is not a slender ascetic but a solid seated figure, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, hooded by a nine-headed snake, scaly and knotted, curling down its back.

An 11th century North Indian ensemble shows five jinas with Rishabanatha in the centre, longhaired, enthroned, and haloed. Several figures are in attendance: celestial garland bearers, two yakshis, elephants bathing the jina, flywhisk bearers and much else in this extraordinarily rich composition. The Eastern subcontinent is well represented, particularly with Gupta figurines rated by Bhansali as his rarest finds. Outstanding among them is one that will delight the heart of feminists, showing the goddess Ambika sitting on a lion, actually her husband reborn in that form as a punishment for banishing her.

In the Buddhist canon bodhisatvas are the embodiment of compassion leading sentient beings to enlightenment. There are several on display in the softer, gentler forms of the Mahayana tradition that the collector prefers to the more complex, powerful figures of Vajrayana iconography. A Manjushri from Bangladesh, youthful and handsome, sits enthroned on a two-tiered lotus, making the gesture of charity and holding a long-stemmed lotus atop which is a rolled manuscript symbolising knowledge or wisdom. The large aureole is edged by leaping tongues of flame. An exquisitely sculpted figure from Andhra graces the cover of the book. Slender but voluptuous, she is almost certainly one of a pair, seen with her twin on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Probably they were part of a triad showing Vishnu flanked by his wives, or Surya similarly attended. But whoever they may be, these 1,400-year-old ladies in elegantly understated clothing and jewellery are stunners!

Sun worship

Surya himself (rarely worshipped in the South) is the subject of a remarkable Chalukyan ensemble. Seven subsidiary figures are grouped around the central one standing on a pedestal that is also his chariot, complete with seven horses and a charioteer. There are his wives, male attendants, cherubs, geese, and two lions vanquishing elephants; the whole topped by a foliated arch. Impressive in size this composition, though elaborate, is remarkably uncluttered. Since Sun Worship originated in Babylon and came to India through Iran, the magnificent statues of Surya at Konark are dressed in central Asian style, wearing an ornamental girdle, a short, close-fitting lower garment, and high boots. Here the boots are retained but the god wears a traditional dhoti, a nice indigenising touch.

Chola bronzes, always sculpted in the round, are justly regarded as the finest in the genre. A variety of these beauties is on display; jinas, an endearingly pudgy Ganesha, and Shaiva saints Appar and Sambandar. The latter is an adorable toddler gloriously unclothed standing in the traditional pose, cup in one hand, the other pointing heavenwards. Undoubtedly the loveliest is a large, late Chola sculpture of Shiva with an arm around Parvati. Regally bejeweled, their clothing of a gossamer lightness, they stand slightly apart, their bodies depicted in a rhythmic swaying stance as beautiful from the back as from the front. The grace and tenderness of feeling in this exquisite image draw you to it again and again.

To bring out the all-inclusive nature of the collection the display is rounded off with figurines from Vijayanagara and 14th century Kerala. Vishnu, Ram, Kali, Murugan are depicted in the ornate, high-relief style of bronze casting similar to the deep cut wood-carving we identify with the temples and palaces of old Travancore.

Pratapaditya Pal, known as much for his awesome erudition as for his abiding passion for South Asian art, has done full justice to an exceptional collection, and has gone far beyond it to create a rich tapestry of history, legend, and the skill of the metalworker. Further, the book has been meticulously compiled. The dimensions of each object are given in both inches and cm., and this reviewer rejoiced to see an Index, an invaluable tool for cross-referencing not generally found in catalogues. Dr. Bhansali was away from home when Hurricane Katrina struck, and was seriously worried over the fate of his bronzes. Needlessly so, for they were untouched, standing serene and untroubled amid the surrounding devastation. How could it be otherwise? After all they were gods, hundreds of them, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, and no disaster, whatever its magnitude, could have been a match for them.