India's pleasures of the flesh

A new exhibition of Indian sculpture makes clear what its European counterpart lacks - notably sex and dancing.
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The Independent Online

European artists never really picked up on India. When, about a century ago, primitive-minded painters and sculptors were raiding the ethnological museums for inspiration, they filled up with tricks from the arts of Africa, Oceania, and other outposts of empire. But they passed the sub-continent by.

European artists never really picked up on India. When, about a century ago, primitive-minded painters and sculptors were raiding the ethnological museums for inspiration, they filled up with tricks from the arts of Africa, Oceania, and other outposts of empire. But they passed the sub-continent by.

Perhaps Indian art seemed too near to European art to be usefully imitable. The result anyway has been to allow it to keep a distance. Look at "tribal art" today and it can't help looking a bit Cubist or Expressionist. But look at Indian art, and it's still itself.

"Human and Divine: 2000 Years of Indian Sculpture" is a South Bank touring exhibition which has just begun its tour at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. It comprises 75 pieces in stone, bronze, clay, ivory and wood, gathered from various public and private British collections. The title (that 2000 years) is technically correct. More than two millennia of work are represented. But it's a little misleading. No way is this a comprehensive history of Indian sculpture - rather, the randomly harvested fruits of empire.

On white plinths, against white walls, these statues of Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, the Buddha, are set up as isolated objects. They're removed from their sites of worship, which were often temples encrusted all over with figures. Many are fractured or fragmented, with no indication of what they might originally have looked like. In other words, this is straight down the line museum decontextualisation.

Which is fine. The figures show well in the intense close-up of a gallery presentation. Who isn't glad to be able to see the super-fine incision of an eye-lid over an eye-ball, or the way the sharp edge of a brow melts imperceptibly into the temple? But if we're to have these works as art, perhaps we should learn a little about that art.

We don't really. The pieces are arranged by religion - two rooms of Hinduism, one room of Buddhism and Jainism. The captions are helpful about the individual gods and saints and how they're represented. But as to the actual making of them, that's a limbo. Different dates and different places are mixed up together. There is an essay in the catalogue, but the show itself gives little clear sense of diverse schools and changing styles - or of the artists at work, how they were chosen, trained, employed. All the works here are anonymous. There's a tantalising caption sentence saying that the same artist sometimes worked for different religions. So these nameless artists still had reputations?

Or, to come at it another way, since this is a specifically British assembly of Indian sculpture, we could hear about that - how it was acquired, what value its first collectors put on it, whether they had particular tastes, preferring some types to others, how they compared it with European art. The exhibition seems at any rateto assume quite an ignorant viewer (like me, for example), and then doesn't answer many of the questions ignorance might want to ask. So, we ignorants are left to our own aesthetic devices, liking what we like and making large generalisations. Still, that may be interesting too. To make a large generalisation about Indian art is inevitably to make a large contrasting generalisation about European art.

To take a striking one: Indian statues have sex with each other, sometimes in very extravagant ways, but European statues never have sex of any sort. Which of these facts is more remarkable is hard to say. There was a show a few years ago called "Krishna the Divine Lover", and it was full of those multiple-orifice-entry tableaux. There aren't more than one or two rather moderate examples here.

Or consider anatomy. There are obvious points like the frequency of multi-armed figures - and is this art felt to give a sense of movement, like a multiple-exposure photograph? There are the perfectly globular breasts, and the broadly extended shoulders. And there are very basic distinctions, such as that European sculpture is muscular, and Indian sculpture isn't. The limbs are fleshy, smoothly turned, smoothly flowing, but on the other hand the figures' gestures are precise and firmly held, and this combination is what gives them their typical sense of serenity.

Indian sculpture lacks European sculpture's sense of strain, of internal and external struggle. It doesn't do the contraposto twist, the body facing in several directions, though it does do some amazing sinuous flexes, as in a fragmentary dancing Female Torso from the 10th Century, with its enormous arcing right hip.

European sculpture doesn't do dancing. Indian sculpture doesn't do torture. It provides the polar opposite of the crucifixion in the contained stasis. the Seated Buddha. It's one of those subjects where subject and medium find perfect correspondence - the stillness, numbness, impassivity of the stone embodying the Buddha's withdrawal from from the world and the flesh.Then again, India's sculpture can seem sensitised in ways that Europe's seldom is. It conveys a feeling of sensitive skin, where the classical or neo-classical statue only has a surface. I think this is brought out with the girdling and tracery effects which are so common. You get large expanses of smoothly modulated flesh, and some decorative string-item - a necklace, a girdle, a bangle - will be running contours over it, sometimes squeezing, stressing up its tactility.

I feel I understand that point. But if you look at the sandstone Ganesh here, the god with the elephant head and pot-belly, it doesn't seem so simple. The brow, eyes and start of the trunk are rendered with wonderful sensitivity. When it comes to the pauch, though, the sensitivity goes; it's just a like a taut bladder appended to the body. Why? Here one clearly needs some proper criticism to take over.

The best I know is actually from an English literary critic, William Empson. In the 1940s he wrote a book on the "Faces of the Buddha", then lost the manuscript and never attempted a re-write. But a short essay on the same subject survives - and never mind Indian sculpture, it's a model of art criticism on any subject, and if the book had appeared it might have raised standards across the board. Here's a bit:

"In a way Europe has agreed on the face of Christ, but you have to be a good artist to do it. Anyone who cares about the Lord Buddha can do his face in a few ignorant strokes on sand or blotting paper, and among all the crude versions I have walked past I do not remember one that failed to give him this effect of eternity. It is done by the high brow, soaring outwards; by the long slit eye, almost shut in meditation, with a suggestion of a squint, that would be a frighteningly large eye if opened; and by a suggestion of the calm of childhood in the smooth lines of the mature face - a certain puppy quality in the long ear helps to bring this out. If you get these, they carry the main thought of the religion; the face is at once blind and all-seeing ('he knows no more than a Buddha', they say of a deceived husband in the Far East), so at once sufficient to itself and of universal charity."


Human and Divine: 2000 Years of Indian Sculpture at The New Art Gallery, Gallery Square, Walsall; until 17 September. Free. Closed Mondays. Then the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, (Oct to Dec) and the City Art Gallery, Southampton (Jan to Mar 2001)