(source) The human body in Indian art is celebrated as both sensuous and sacred. William Dalrymple on an astonishing exhibition of little-known masterpieces exploring this 4,000-year tradition
The heady mix of sensuality and religion that defines so much of Indian art often confuses and even alarms western viewers when they first encounter it. The sacred and the sensuous rub shoulders in an intimate manner that seems strange to sensibilities that have been trained to see art through the lenses of a tradition rooted in Christian attitudes to sexuality and religion: why, we wonder, would a monastery built for celibate Buddhist monks be decorated with images of beautiful, half-naked palace women? How could it be appropriate to cover the exterior walls of a religious building with graphically copulating couples?
Yet to pre-colonial Indians, there was no paradox here. For ancient Hindus and Buddhists, there was no association of women with sin; and in all India's voluminous scriptures there is no Eve. Women were associated with fertility, abundance and prosperity rather than temptation, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine: "In the embrace of his beloved, a man forgets the whole world, everything both within and without," states the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. "In the very same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without."
For this reason, throughout their long history, the arts of India – both visual and literary – have consistently celebrated the beauty of the human body. This in itself is a surprise to someone brought up in the western tradition. Christianity has always seen the human body as essentially the tainted vehicle of the perishable soul, something which has to be tamed and disciplined – a fleshy obstacle to salvation. It is only by casting off the body that we can attain perfection: we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Indian thought takes quite another tack. "The human bodily form was hailed as the epitome of manifested perfection," writes the great Indian art historian, Vidya Dehejia. "All objects were seen to gain in meaning, and to be best understood, through comparisons with human beauty and human behaviour, especially in the context of erotic love and union."
Indian art has, of course, varied widely in form, style and function throughout the centuries, but in this vast and varied landscape – 4,000 years of unbroken artistic tradition – the sensuous bodily form has been the central feature, reappearing in different incarnations, generation after generation. The gods were always depicted as superhumanly beautiful, for if the image was not beautiful then the deities could not be persuaded to inhabit the statue. Beauty was an essential aspect of the divine. The same is true of literature. Sanskrit has more than a hundred words and phrases to describe beauty, loveliness and attraction, a large proportion of which are connected with sexuality. The centrality of body‑based imagery in inscriptions and literary texts is overwhelming.
Indeed the whole tradition of yoga was aimed at perfecting and transforming the body, propelling it towards what the 11th-century philosopher Abhinavagupta described as "melting, expansion, radiance" with a view – among the higher adepts – to making it transcendent, omniscient, even godlike.
Now, for the first time since the great In the Image of Man exhibition at the Hayward in 1982, a hugely ambitious show has been mounted that displays a series of little-known masterpieces from across India in order to communicate the place and meaning of the body in Indian art and thought. Although you'll have to leap on the Eurostar to Brussels to see it, anyone who has the slightest interest in Indian art should book their ticket now: iIt is unlikely that a show like this will be put on again in our lifetime.
There are several reasons for this. First, the curator, the Delhi-based art historian Dr Naman Ahuja is blessed with a brilliant magpie eye and his choice of objects – over one third of which are from obscure and often private collections in India, many of them unknown even to scholars familiar with the mainstream Indian museums – is an engagingly idiosyncratic selection of masterpieces. He has successfully summarised a 4,000-year tradition in just eight rooms, finding the perfect images to illustrate precise philosophical points.
Second, in order to get the objects to Europe, Ahuja and his team have fought a remarkable series of pitched battles with the Indian bureaucracy, and outdated Indian laws about the import or export of artworks. This has resulted in a whole clutch of institutions that have never before lent objects agreeing to part with their masterworks and ship them to Brussels. One can only imagine the charm and persistence this took, for India still remains almost entirely off the international art-lending map, with few exhibitions making it to India, and fewer still making it out of the country. When I co-curated a show of late Mughal art at the Asia Society in New York two years ago, I spent many months courting the Archaeological Survey of India, but in the end, despite many meetings and much pleading, every one of our loan requests was turned down and the exhibition went ahead without even one object shipping from India. The number of Indian objects in the Brussels show is perhaps its greatest surprise, alongside their freshness and quality.
The years Dr Ahuja spent digging out masterpieces from small provincial and private collections in South Asia have been well spent. He has put together a collection of objects representing a whole range of periods, religions, styles and geographical contexts, from early Vedic anthropomorphs dating from the second millennium BC to modern artworks by leading contemporary Indian artists such as Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta and Mithu Sen. In the process of exploring Indian perceptions of the body, he shows how such a journey can lead you through the very richest pastures of Indian art. He also demonstrates the intricate interconnectedness of the arts. In his catalogue, he reproduces a famous conversation from the sixth-century Visnudharmottara in which a king asks a sage about the meaning of art:
"Oh Lord of men," replied the sage,
"he who does not know properly the
rules of painting cannot discern the
characteristics of images."
"Then please narrate the rules
of painting," replies the King.
"Without a knowledge of the art
of dancing," says the sage, "the
rules of painting are very difficult
"Then please speak to me about the
art of dancing … "
"The practice of dancing cannot be
understood by one who is not
acquainted with music. Indeed
without music, dancing cannot exist
"Tell me then first about music … "
"Without singing, music cannot be
understood," replied the sage. "He
who knows the rules of singing
knows everything properly."
And so on: all the arts echo and borrow from the others, and simply cannot be understood in isolation from each other. The exhibition embraces this intuition; it shows how dance mujras define bodily posture in sculpture – for example in a wonderful dancing Ganesh discovered in Afghanistan, once a major centre of Hindu Shaivism. Many of the figures in the show are depicted mid-dance, arms thrown out, feet kicking out a rhythm, legs bent, bodies swaying to the beat as their hands speak using the allusive vocabulary of dance gestures. It also shows how many paintings – those illustrating the ragmalas – are designed to illustrate the different musical modes, and the show therefore comes with a specially recorded soundtrack which allows the different images to be fully understood.
The Body in Indian Art and Thought opens, paradoxically, with death and a series of images that show the end of the body, the idea of self-sacrifice and examines how Indian civilisation expresses its different ideas of death. Successive rooms then explore ideas of birth and rebirth and cyclical time – the dialogue between time and eternity; the cosmic body and the place of astrology in determining the body's place in time and space, illustrated by some dazzling Jain maps and cosmological images that look like vorticist abstracts. Further galleries examine the nature of divine bodies; heroism and ideal bodies; asceticsm and the yogic body; and rapture – the self lost through possession or love, consumed by another.
It is difficult to choose which work lingers longest in the memory: the superb 10th-century Chola bronze of a medieval Tamil prime minster, with its wondrous clarity and purity of line? The fabulous 18th-century Pahari image of the Vision of the Sage Markandeya discovering Vishnu in the form of a small child floating on a leaf, at the time of the mah¯apralaya, the submerging of the world in the cosmic waters at the beginning of the world? The alarming tantric goddess Chinnamast¯a cutting her own head off to feed blood to her thirsty devotees – all three standing on the legs of merrily copulating crowned gods or monarchs.
Each room mixes objects from different religious traditions – Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, tantric and Sikh as easily as it brings together different geographical ends of the country and different periods of history.
The exhibition is as philosophically and conceptually rich as it is visually stunning, and if it sometimes privileges complexity over clarity, then that perhaps is an accurate reflection of its subject. The only thing I was not entirely sure about was the slightly brutalist design with its use of unpainted MDF hardboard. But you can't have everything. This remains one of the most astonishing assemblages of Indian art objects ever brought together into a single space.