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Updated: July 1, 2013 22:37 IST

Traditions in the midst of change

R. Champakalakshmi
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Art and Icon: Devangana Desai
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Art and Icon: Devangana Desai

his book is a collection of 16 essays covering a wide range of subjects relating to early Indian art with an introduction on the periods of art history, the social dimensions of art in early India, the contexts in which sculpture in stone and terra cotta and the iconography of the temple evolved and the textual traditions that were followed in their representation. Icons and decorative features with special reference to their placement in the architectural design of the temple represent the main theme.

Devangana Desai focuses on the development of indigenous traditions of art in changing historical contexts — the early historical period (300 BCE-300 CE) and the Buddhist art traditions, in which art developed form an archaic simplicity to maturity through two dimensional representation (Sanchi and Bharhut) and three dimensional flowering of sculptural art (Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda); the transition towards the evolution of the classical idiom in the early medieval period under a resurgent Brahmanical religious tradition (300 -600 CE). The change was from a predominantly urban, commercial economy, to a land-based “feudal/agrarian society; from imperial Mauryan art and rich merchant and collective patronage in post-Mauryan period to royal patronage in the early medieval period (600-1300 CE), when the brahmanical temple emerged as the focus of all art activity and attained its full maturity symbolising the cosmos and political power.

The change is attributed to agrarian expansion and feudalisation under the patronage of numerous Brahmanical lineage polities in central India, Deccan and Andhra. However the characterisation of the society in general as feudal needs rethinking due to the complexity of the empirical evidence on land and agrarian organisation in different regions of India.

The Bhakti ideal, the Smarta-Puranic religion, the Tantric and Agamic canonical traditions in the evolution of the temple and its iconography are given due importance, while underlining the process of acculturation of tribal and folk religious traditions and the interaction between the brahmanical and the popular/folk forms. Differing from the naturalistic portrayal in the early historic period, the abstraction and stylisation or classical quality of art in this period is pointed out and Sanskrit Kavya literaure (poetic imagery of Kalidasa) and other genres of literature are cited as setting the norms for its classicism.

A shift to western India (under the Maitrakas), Deccan and south India under the Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and Pallavas and eastern India (Palas and Pratiharas) is shown to have brought in regional variations of this classical idiom and regional schools of architecture with their Vastu and Silpa Sastra texts.

The essays on terracotta, their social context and ritual function (3 and 4), discuss two trends. The miniature figurines and plaques for rituals and home decoration; and the large-sized architectural terracotta figures and plaques for Buddhist monasteries and Brahmanical temples.

Regional dynasties

The third phase of the medieval period (900-1300 CE) is marked by stupendous architectural enterprises under regional dynasties and their subordinates, such as those of Orissa, Tamil Nadu (Tanjavur-Cholas). The temple of this period is seen as a feudal organisation reflecting the political power structure, especially in its iconography, where a concentric divine hierarchy is seen in the images and icons and their position on the temple walls, progressing from the outer walls into the shrine where the main deity, the supreme lord, is enshrined. The Nagara, the major temple style of the north, (the other being the Dravida in the south) developed complicated designs, with the projections of the exterior walls providing space for the ascending order of divinities as shown in the temples at Khajuraho, each representing an integrated whole, with their icons, images and decorative reliefs, narrative and erotic sculptures. As sculptures were dominated by architectural design, their placement is assigned special significance, especially the erotic figures in the juncture between the shrine (garbha griha) walls and those of the mahamandapa in front, a twilight area between the material phenomenal world and the transcendental/spiritual world expressed in a sandhya bhasha or enigmatic language.

Two of the articles in this collection (9 and 14) are important for understanding the character of the early medieval temples, especially the royal monuments, as cosmic in concept and structure and their iconography as allegoric and metaphoric, following not only religious canons but also other genres of literature like the play “Prabodhachandrodaya”, a philosophical allegory combining the Advaita doctrine and Bhakti in the Vishnu and Siva temples at Khajuraho. The author has not, however, made any attempt to compare the iconographic programme of the South Indian temples, which also carry the symbolism of the cosmos and political metaphor, particularly in the royal temples.

Textual sources

Desai emphasises the importance of textual sources (essay 2), despite their limitations, in explaining various aspects of art and architecture and identification of narratives and icons, although correlation between textual theory and practice is difficult to make, as often the texts came after the actual development of the temple structure and iconography, like grammar to language.

The author is remarkably familiar with different genres of texts, such as the epic, puranic, agamic and silpa sastric, poetry, drama and the recent researches on texts like Aparajitaprichcha, Samaranganasutradhara, Silpa Praksa, Rupamandana, Mayamata, especially the unbroken Silpa Sastric tradition of Orissa, The Kandariya Mahadeva and the Lakshmana temples at Khajuraho are discussed in separate essays, where the use of the textual tradition, the Pancharatra and architectural texts has been shown to be highly useful in understanding the temple as an integrated whole, along with its iconographic scheme, decorative features, projecting the temple as a model of the cosmos i.e. cosmic emanation and dissolution through its iconic scheme. The essay on Salabhanjika and Surasundari sculptures underlines their cosmic/ magico-religious significance and decorative importance in temples.

The essays “Erotic Literature and esoteric Tantrism” and “Beyond the Erotic at Khajuraho” explain the predominance of erotic sculptures in central Indian and Orissan temples as a reflection of decadent Tantric practices influencing the royal and aristocratic patrons, while such representations in Khajuraho are explained as the twilight area of the meeting between the phenomenal and transcendental worlds.

The other essays, though disparate, are interesting as they deal with problems of identification such as the Kushana period Linga form Mathura, a rare group of bronzes of Manushi Buddhas in a stupa casket from Sopara and a unique panel in Khajuraho representing the Sveta Dvipa devotees of Narayana, an episode in the Santi Parva of the Mahabharata.

The variety of ways in which dancing Ganesa is represented in most parts of India down to the Karnataka region, is shown through a number of illustrations and textual references. A comparison is made of the ways in which the Vali-vadha episode of the Ramayana figures in temples all over the subcontinent including Chola temples, in many of which the regional versions of the Ramayana have been followed.

(R. Champakalakshmi is a retired professor of history, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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