The introduction to the book ‘Gods, Men and Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Indian Art’ starts with a paradox — as a society we revere goddesses on one hand, and disregard women’s rights on the other. Can the study of ancient Indian art from the perspective of gender shed some light on this paradox? It is this question art scholar and author Seema Bawa pursues by focussing on the art of the post-Mauryan period, more specifically from 181 BCE to CE 320.

Bawa’s approach is to examine representations of women in visual arts by looking at different categories of representations, such as mothers, lovers, married couples, wives, non-wives, yaksis, and ogresses. Every category has a chapter assigned to it. For instance, in the chapter ‘The essential reproductive woman’, she examines two types, ‘Lajja-Gauri’ and ‘Dugdhadharini’, personifying reproductive qualities. Though it is a chore to match visuals you have left behind a few pages ago to the descriptions, the meticulous detail with which she delineates different depictions eases the task a bit. By examining different attributes, such as nudity, ornament, gaze, and posture, Bawa raises questions on how gender is constructed in visual art. For instance, does the representation of reproductive qualities by showing prominent genitalia and breasts represent female power of procreation or does it reduce women to their reproductive status?

To probe such questions, Bawa invokes an interdisciplinary lens, of both art history and gender studies, an approach distinct from previous such examinations that are rooted mostly in either in a colonial perspective (by European scholars who sought to further the colonial agenda) or a nationalist perspective, a counter to the colonial project. But interdisciplinary analysis is tricky, akin to wading through two deep rivers. Instead of doing so, Bawa chooses to play to her strengths, which lie in art history, and so dives deep there while dipping into existing theories of gender to illuminate her analyses. For instance, she uses Judith Butler’s work on gender as performance to recognise markers of gender in outward manifestations, such as postures, clothes, and jewellery, rather than theorising a new way of looking at gender in the ancient Indian context. In other words, her efforts add to understanding Indian art from a gendered perspective, rather than gender theory per se.

Some of the most interesting insights Bawa offers are from reading silences, a powerful method in unravelling power structures, and the chapter on the ‘non-wives’ benefits most from that effort. Both nuns and prostitutes are clubbed into ‘non-wives’, those who remain undefined by reproduction. Bawa points out that though women are depicted in terms of their gendered identity, there is no such depiction of men as fathers, husbands, or male prostitutes, rather their social and economic standing are used as markers. Another startling absence is that of nuns, they are virtually absent in the visual arts. Even though they have been donors and patrons of the art, their donation has not been valorised through sculptures. To explain the absence, Bawa references appropriate textual sources and knowledge of the socio-economic and political climate of those times.

The juxtaposition of text and visual narratives to explain gender constructs is a method Bawa follows all through. For instance, Mayadevi, the mother of Buddha, is shown standing up rather than lying down while giving birth, contrary to the textual description of Buddha’s birth in Buddhacharita. In all other aspects, the text matches the visual representation. Analysing the visual representations in conjunction with different texts, she posits that the possible explanation could be attitudes toward women’s sexuality seen as a negative element leading to suffering during childbirth.

As with any such study, a spirit of tentativeness needs to be maintained in probing possible explanations. The strength of Bawa’s effort in the book lies in the way she handles that tentative thread, never stretching it so that it snaps with the weight of certitude nor letting it slack in a way that it unspools in a fluff. She weaves a complex narrative of a rapidly urbanising society and attendant processes, which contribute to devolution in the economic and social status of women. The innocuously titled Appendix is a pleasure to read, an exploration on the city and art of that bygone era, something that could have been an earlier chapter on its own right.

The same qualities that make Bawa triumph as an academic confine her analysis to the past, offering her little space for reflecting on the present. Such reflections would have been edifying, given that women’s rights and their repeated violations are repeatedly making it to the front pages. The beginning of the book promised such an interlocution between the past and the present, and in not venturing into that territory, the book remains restricted to an academic audience, instead of widening the dialogue.

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