The human body in Indian art has been a visual metaphor – symbol – for expressions of emotions spanning the divine, heroic, earthly, sensuous and courage across the cycles of birth and death in movements and practices since millennia.
The body, since it made the first appearance in art on the walls of cave habitats of the hunter-gatherers of pre-history was that of the “man in his elemental environment” — of a hunter, forager and survivor. Art has been copying man and the civilisation in motion till it reached the temple walls, where it took on divine colours and lyrical stylizations – away from the portraits of everyday life and utility objects as during the Indus Valley epoch.
The temple friezes — etched carvings on the walls — and painted murals gave to art its first aesthetic and cultural meaning as the visual —linkages with people. Over centuries, art moved from temples to manuscripts, texts, stand alone solid objects and then on paper. The movements, however, have remained true to its crucibles of genesis on the temple walls, rock faces and civilisational landscapes— with the human body and the figure as the lifelines of aesthetic imagination.
Two expositions of figurative works — “The Body in Indian Art” at the National Museum in New Delhi and “Divinity in Indian Art” at the Delhi Art Gallery, try to explore the human figure as the origin of Indian aesthetics and its manifestation of the divine – with its affiliate “rasas” or emotions built around the divine. The Body in Indian Art — a showcase hosting more than 300 works of art from 44 institutions looks at the complexities of the body as depicted in art ranging from the monumental stone sculptures of early historical periods to the Chola bronzes of Tanjore and the manuscripts of magic painted for Emperor Akbar from the archives of the Nawab of Rampur. Almost all the works on display dating back to 2500 BC from the Indus Valley civilization to contemporary interpretations of the body are either divine, spiritual or religious in nature grounded in the ethno-spiritual and religious iconography and ethos of India local and bigger pantheons of faith that thrive in spiritual philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and later Christianity with its attending living invocation traditions.
“The body in this exposition is revealed not only as the subject of art, but as the keeper of values, pre-occupations and aspirations of times ancient, medieval and modern — popular as well as classical. The complex plurality of India emerges which shows the diversity in geography, chronology, patronage, religion and art material,” curator Naman Ahuja said. Explaining about the project (which was originally conceived during Europalia – a cultural showcase in Brussels last year), Ahuja said the body is used as a bedrock on the “subject of art and civilization”. What do you mean by the body in India”
“In all studies, the representation of the body begins as a portrait – art history starts with the representation of the body,” he said. The body is used as a launch pad to begin a broader discussion on art around India and other civilizations. The exhibition, divided into segments, investigates the relevance the body in the cycles prescribed in the Indian spiritual and metaphysical studies – as vessel of birth, motherhood, supernatural, cosmic, valour and death. Each section — made of museum art — hosts a contemporary work to contrast the journey of the body in the temporal framework influenced by different schools of thoughts that evolved in the successive eras of civilization to “show whether the body has broken away from traditional stereotypes or has moved in continuum.
The exhibition begins with the “End of the Body” which is inspired by the notion of Samsara and Kalachakra in the Buddhist canons. It is built on the belief that “I am beyond the body — a spiritual being and spirit that integrates with the cosmos as positive energy source. Two of the important sculptural representations of this segment are stone carvings of two 13th century Khakatya warrior from the Hyderabad State Museum that elevate two martyred soldiers – a man and a woman — into divine beings invoked by the people. A collection of everyday historical objects are given funerary and spiritual relevance in the context of the mortal body.
The gallery of death continues in a series of miniature art works from the ancient Hindu “Karni-Bharni” manuscripts that visually interprets a Vedic premise – as you sow, so you reap in this world. “In ancient Buddhism and early Sikhism, there is no actual representation of the body. What do you substitute it with,” Ahuja pointed out. The body is represented in “artistic iconographies”.
A delicate illuminated paper manuscript of calligraphic paintings of the 99 names of Allah commissioned by Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb – from the museum archive” depicts “divinity” in Islamic art, which was “conservative” about representations of spirituality in art.
The “End of the Body” is followed by “The Body Beyond Its Limits of Form” that looks at “concepts of rebirth, light, sounds and desire” with the ground as the earth and overhanging lanterns as the cosmic sky. Birth and rebirth happens only when there is duality of solidity of earth and the in-between spaces. Birth in this segment of the exhibition is “represented as the birth of the world, birth of the universe and birth of the child”. A separate section explores the “mythical notions” of immaculate conception and “self-birth”.
Carved into the stone motifs that spread out across the “display corridors of birth” are reliefs of mythical mothers from a group of “seven mothers in ancient Hindu pantheon” known as the “saptamatrikas” comprising the likes of “Vaishnavi, Varahi and Chamunda. A small stone carving of the “Lajja Gauri” imbues the process of physical birth with “divine symbolism”. A collection of paintings of man as “purusha” in Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and tantric traditions try to show how the “body is regarded as containing the whole universe within it”. “The Body as the Ideal Heroic” explores the “icons of valour: in every faith — Vishnu in Hinduism and the “Boddhisattavas” in Buddhism. In India, the visual interpretations of divinity through the body overlap across genres of faiths.
“Traditions are not monolithic — traditions changes and morphs all the time. Modern artists have a legacy to interpret and re-interpret which they draw from and move away from. Artists also draw from many traditions – not within simply India. There is Mughal painting of the Birth of Mary which is based engraving by Dutch painter Comelius Cort,” Ahuja said.
The historicity of divinity in Indian figurative art finds yet another expression in an exhibition, “Indian Divine, Exploring Gods and Goddesses in 20th century Modern Indian Art” at the Delhi Art Gallery in New Delhi. More than 100 canvases and sculptural figures present the “birth and movement of the divine on the Indian canvas for the last 100 years – documenting the 20th century figurative studies of gods and goddesses that resemble human beings in celestial make-up in early Bengal oil paintings, manuscript illustrations, lithographs, tints and contemporary paintings that took off from Raja Ravi Varma’s religious art that “gave India the first faces of the contemporary gods and goddesses modeled on western style portraitures”.
The earliest work in the exhibition is that of a Chaitanya painted in 1849 in the “pioneer Bengal style” where the seer is shown as a “beautiful being” more like a nymph than an itinerant bard and preacher with mystical powers. It traces the chronology of mythological art from regions such as Bombay (Mumbai) and Bengal- where art developed in two distinct schools, an Indo-European school of art combining traditional Indian imagery and colours with western style perspectives, backgrounds and figures inspired by the European colonialists. The second school was those of the local painters like the Kalighat scroll (pat) painters – whose content was religious.
The legends of Radha Krishna and the avatars of Durga as a power fount are the most popular subjects – explored by early modernists like M.V. Dhurandhar and contemporary masters like Bikas Bhattacharya, Ganesh Pyne, M.F, Husain, K.K. Hebbar, Robin Mandal and P.V. Janakiraman. Hinduism shares space with Buddhism and Christianity — the latter becoming a cross-cultural bridge for painters like Jamini Roy, Krishen Khanna, F.N. Souza and Madhvi Parekh.
Understanding the idea of divinity in Indian modern requires journeying back in time, says Kishore Singh, project editor and head of exhibition and publication of the Delhi Art Gallery. “We have to look back at it from the point of transition in Indian art when western artists – who came to India in the early 20th century — changed the way Indian artists approached mediums and style in art with western concepts of perspectives, depths and lights. It brought a huge change in Indian environment. The improved concepts came with the European mediums,” Singh said.
“We did not have figurative likeness of gods and goddesses— our scriptures told us how they looked in terms of attributes and symbols like Lakshmi had shower of coins, Saraswati had a ‘tambura’ and Vishnu floated on a serpent’s head. That was how the early artists imagined them and gave them real faces usually in miniature styles. A element of cross-cultural exchange crept in as well when early Bengal artists began to render Krishna – Gopi Sangha lores (Lord Krishna and his playmates), legacy of Mathura (in Uttar Pradesh) in the Bengali idiom,” Singh said.
However, it was painter and print maker Raja Ravi Varma, who gave India the first pan-Indian visuals of gods and goddesses. “The journey starts from there,” Singh said.
Divinity in Indian matrix of art is “about abstractions of faith — exchange in faith and faithlessness across a large pantheon of deities and traditions that go beyond the entrenched the manifestations of the divine to traditions and living cultures growing around religions”, writer, researcher and art connoisseur Ina Puri said, pointing to the broader canvas of religiosity in art and cultures.
“In the midst of it is a deep-seated religiosity – something we have to live with in our own life and in our cultures. I like the cross-currents in modern spiritual art like Madhvi Parekh looking at the last supper and M.F. Husain at Ramayana,” Puri said. Art has moved out of canvas into living cultures in a contemporary redefinition that is striving to open the mosaic of art as a greater cultural process.
In this backdrop, the art of the divine lives in performance art as well like the traditional “Bahuropias”- the chameleon actors who take on artistic physical makeovers as the deities from the pantheons, Gajan (devotional songs) musicians, folk dancers and characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata. “This whole living artistic culture of religion is not kitsch or pop..It is mainstream,” Puri said.
Interestingly, the cross cultural current was most apparent in the arrival of Christian art to India, suggested art writer Georgina Maddox in a new publication, “Indian Divine”. “The images of Christ in India first appeared in India were in the Indo-Islamic likeness of the bearded Christ, not the Caucasian Renaissance Christ – fair and blue eyed with golden hair and beard. The image which prevails in popular calendar art today had a much later influence in India. In fact, the local artists who worked in the ateliers of the Mughal kings replaced the images of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary with the iconography of the existing Mughal miniatures,” Maddox pointed out. According to William Dalrymple, “It is one of the many examples … Moments in the history of Islamic-Christian relations that defies the simplistic strictures of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilsiation’ thought”.
A Islamic Nativity Scene of Jesus Birth painted in 1720 CE is an Islamic version of nativity with an Indian version of Mary, clothed women attendants and floral gardens.
The compositions of divinity in Indian art are complex- abstract, individualistic, lyrical, creative and cosmopolitan at the same time grounded in history but “out of its conventional grammar” to span frontiers of artists’ imagination.