Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Brief History of Visual Contextualization in India: Hindu Art

Krishna Flirting with the Gopis, c. 1780–1820

As I stated in my last post in this series, both Hindu and Buddhist art in India grew indirectly out the Indus Valley/Harrapan civilization (3300–1300 BC), with each religion developing its own styles and subject matter.  Buddhist art came to prominence first, around the first century BC, and continued to be prominent in India through the 16th century AD.

Krishna Killing the Horse Demon Keshi, c. 321–500 AD
During this same period, Hindu art began to take form as well.  Hindu and Buddhist artists influenced one another over the centuries, with Hindu art reaching its peak during the Gupta period of approximately 320 to 550 AD.

William A. Dyrness writes that "the goal of life [in Hinduism and Buddhism] is to escape the world and have no involvement in it.  Thus, Hindu and Buddhist art cannot celebrate objective reality as does western art," but rather seeks to stimulate the the viewer's quest for enlightenment (p. 14).  In Hindu art, this stimulation is provided by evoking in the viewer “rasa” (“flavor,” or the act of relishing). This relishing is an expression of the inborn desire to unite with God.  Rasa is the highly refined aesthetic enjoyment by which a properly prepared person will savor (“taste”) the religious moods of a particular play or artwork. It is evoked in a viewer not by portraying objective reality as in western art, but rather is conveyed by hand gestures and symbolic objects held in the hands of the Buddha or the gods.  Dyrness continues, "As the goal of Indian religion is to be outside of oneself and to achieve a mystical union with the absolute, so art is a means of evoking the physical and spiritual appetites which represent the impulse of this quest.  It is in this light that the approving eroticism and sensuality of Indian art is to be understood. These art objects are to awaken in us the wish for spiritual union with the absolute (Brahman)" (p. 14-15).

Madhubani painting. All rights reserved.

Traditionally, the Hindu artist was anonymous and motivated by a desire to point viewers to the eternal.  He was viewed by others as having a calling which provided religious inspiration, as well as requiring sacrifice in the form of long meditation before beginning an artwork.  Making art was an act of religious devotion.  Havell explains,

It was only by meditating on the Ultimate Perfection that the artist’s mind could perceive some glimmer of the beauty of the Godhead. Mere bodily strength and mundane perfections of form are never glorified in Indian art.  Indian art is essentially idealistic, mystic, symbolic, and transcendental. The artist is both priest and poet. In this respect Indian art is closely allied to the Gothic art of Europe – indeed, Gothic art is only the Eastern consciousness manifesting itself in a Western environment. But while the Christian art of the Middle Ages is always emotional, rendering literally the pain of the mortification of the flesh, the bodily sufferings of the Man of Sorrows, Indian art appeals more to the imagination and strives to realize the spirituality and abstraction of a supra-terrestrial sphere.

Bhadrakali, Revered by the Assembled Gods, Dances Ecstastically

As mentioned above, Hindu art seeks to illuminate the the spiritual realm.  This contrasts with western art which focuses more on accurately producing images of the physical world, or at least an individual artist's personal view of the world.  Again, Havell writes that

while modern European art hardly concerns itself with the Unseen, but limits its mental range to the realm of Nature and thus retains, even in its highest flights, the sense and form of its earthly environment, Indian art is always striving to realize something of the universal, the eternal, and the infinite.  
European art, since the so-called Renaissance, has, as it were, its wings clipped: it knows only the beauty of earthy things. Indian art, soaring into the highest empyrean, is ever trying to bring down something of the beauty of the things above. 

Shiva statue, 900-1300 AD
Due to its focus on spiritual concepts rather than literal realism, Hindu artists often portray their gods with multiple arms, heads, or other fantastic attributes.  Such multiplicity of appendages indicates the deity's power, omnipresence or omnipotence. Such depictions may indicate other attributes of a deity as well.  For example, "when the god Shiva is portrayed with a triple head, the central face indicates his essential character and the flanking faces depict his fierce and blissful aspects" (Vidya Dehejia).

The primary categories of Hindu art are: jewelry, stone sculpture (including stone architecture), bronze sculpture, fresco, miniature painting, tribal art, and contemporary art (which can take various forms).  As far as Indian painting goes, here is one source which lists the various historic styles (both miniature and others).

In this post, I've focused primarily on Hindu art, while overlooking Mughal (Islamic) art, which is a huge part of Indian art history.  I guess it will have to wait until another post!

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