Monday, February 13, 2012

A Brief History of Visual Contextualization in India: Part 1

In today's post I am beginning a brief series on contextualized visual art in India.  You might call it a collection of "highlights."  A major source of information for the series is the new book Christian Themes in Indian Art from Mughal Times to the Present (I own a copy that I am practically drooling over).

However, we should begin at the beginning, with the Indus Valley Civilization.  This was the first "great" civilization of India that built cities and left some form of material culture and art, though tantalizingly little.  Its religious beliefs, though still largely unknown, appear to have had at least some influence on one of India's subsequent major religions, Hinduism. writes that

relatively little is in fact known about the details of the religious world of the Indus Valley civilization. Based on archaeological remains, however, it seems that this was a religious world that was particularly focused on ritual bathing and animal sacrifice, elements that may be the source of later Hinduism's attention to the purifying qualities of water and the centrality of sacrifice. Furthermore, a great many female figurines have been discovered in the ruins of the cities that date to this period. These seem to have been goddesses, and may have been particularly associated with fertility rituals.

Scholars have speculated that these figures are origins of the many goddesses who populate the vast Hindu pantheon. Male figures have also been found on stone seals. Some of these seals depict a seated figure surrounded by a variety of animals, including bulls. These images lead some scholars to label these "proto-Shiva" figures, since the great god Shiva is generally associated with animals (he is sometimes called "Pashupati," the Lord of the animals) and more particularly linked with the bull, which later becomes his special "vehicle."

Buddhism, along with Hinduism, began to become prominent in Indian art in the last centuries BCE.  For example, Buddhist stupas (memorials associated with places in Buddhist legends) were covered with stone carvings.  One example is the Great Stupa at Sanchi.  It is the location of several Buddhist monuments dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 12th century CE and is one of the important places of Buddhist pilgrimage.

Later Buddhist sculptures flourished during the Mathura period (2nd century BC) and those of Gandhara (2nd–6th centuries AD) – possibly the greatest school of Buddhist sculpture. The Gandhara sculptures show Greek influence and, along with the Buddhist religion, were exported to China, Korea, and Japan. The deep relief of the Mathura work was followed by the gentler sculptures of Gupta (about 5th century AD).

The most spectacular example of Gupta Buddhist art is the Ajanta cave paintings, near Mumbai (formerly Bombay).  The caves were built in two phases starting around 200 BCE, with the second group of caves built around 600 CE.  The architectural phases coincide "with the two schools of Buddhist thought: the older Hinayana school where Buddha was represented through symbols like the stupa, a set of footprints, or a throne.  The later Mahayana sect, on the other hand, portrayed Buddha in human form."

The paintings and sculptures in the caves depict scenes from the Jataka Tales and numerous images of Buddha, Indian nymphs, and princesses.  The caves appear to have been abandoned shortly after c. 480 CE, and gradually forgotten. During the intervening centuries, the jungle grew back and the caves were hidden, unvisited and undisturbed until 1819 when they were rediscovered by a British officer hunting tigers.

The Archaeological Survey of India states that
these caves are located in a horseshoe-shaped bend of rock nearly 76 meters in height overlooking a narrow stream known as Waghora. The location of this valley provided a calm and serene environment for the Buddhist monks who retreated at these secluded places during the rainy seasons. This retreat also provided them with enough time for furthering their religious pursuits through intellectual discourses for a considerably longer period.
The process for creating the walls paintings was very complicated.  New World Encyclopedia writes that
the technique and process used to create the Ajanta cave paintings are unlike any other artwork found in the art history of other civilizations, and are unique within the history of South Asian art... The process of painting involved several stages... While the plaster was still wet, the drawings were outlined and the colors applied. The wet plaster had the capacity to soak up the color so that the color became a part of the surface and would not peel off or decay easily. The colors were referred to as 'earth colors' or 'vegetable colors.' Various kinds of stones, minerals, and plants were used in combinations to prepare different colors. The paint brushes used to create the artwork were made from animal hair and twigs.

The cave paintings of Ajanta were a major influence on the artwork of Christian artist Angelo da Fonseca, but more on him later.

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