Commentary Magazine

Indian Art-and Ours

When in 1526 he finally turned to assess the country he had just conquered, Babur, the prodigious founder of the Mughal dynasty, was not impressed. “Hindustan,” he complained, “is a country that has few pleasures to recommend it. The people are not handsome. They have no genius, no comprehension of mind, no politeness of manner, no kindness of fellow feeling, no ingenuity or mechanical invention in planning or executing their handicraft works, no skill or knowledge in design or architecture. . . .”

Three centuries later, it was upon similar grounds that T. B. Macaulay, in his tract on Indian education, could justify to the Houses of Commons and of Lords the momentous decision to engraft upon an entire culture the features of his own civilization. “Who could deny,” Macaulay asked, “that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole literature of India and Arabia?” Further on in the same work he found occasion to fulminate against Indian “medical doctrines, which would disgrace an English Farrier—Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school—History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long—and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”

Yet in the early part of the present century, less than a hundred years after Macaulay, the mind and conscience of Europe suddenly and mysteriously changed. No longer did people believe, with Ruskin, that Indian art was “the archetype of bad art of all the earth.” Inspired, rather, by its beauty, the critic Roger Fry was moved in 1910 to declare that “we can no longer hide behind the Elgin Marbles and refuse to look; we have no longer any system of aesthetics which can rule out, a priori, even the most fantastic and unreal artistic forms. They must be judged in themselves and by their own artistic standards.” The French novelist and critic Romain Rolland went even farther. “Let us climb back to the high plains of Asia!” he declared, likening the European in India to Alaric in Rome, a rude and bloodthirsty barbarian in a culture vastly superior to his own.

Nowadays, everybody seems to love India—its food, its costumes, and its exotic art. This interest is reflected in the recently published The Sculpture of India, 3000 B.C.-1300 A.D. by Pramod Chandra, which served as the catalogue for a show last summer at the National Gallery in Washington, and it was reflected even more emphatically in the exhibition, “India! Art and Culture 1300-1900,” which ran at the Metropolitan Museum in New York from September 1985 to this past January. To judge by the crowds that flocked to see it, this latter exhibition gave them exactly what they wanted, short of wafting through the galleries the scent of curry and the bourdon drone of the sitar.

Although the exhibition at the Metropolitan was no doubt intended, in its ebullient and large-hearted way, to establish some sense of cultural and artistic universals, in reality it merely accentuated the exotic otherness of the works it displayed. The catalogue, massive and almost completely useless, features bright, full-colored illustrations, irrelevant asides about the love affairs and the opium habits of the Great Mughals, and exuberant efforts to play up any trace of the mysterious that it could catch hold of. Thus, in speaking of an appealing but unexceptional flower painting, the curator, Stuart Cary Welch, wrote: “Beneath insects and blossoms, an aspiring bud aims skyward, resembling a helium balloon tugging at its cord. . . . [The artist's] study has overshot—so magnified and lofty that it carries us above the earth.” This sort of thing was registered also in the layout of the exhibition, with its interplay of sharp highlights emerging from deep shadow, the presence of a massive silk and velvet tent, and the profusion of gleaming jewels, all of which seemed more appropriate to the Metropolitan Opera than to the Metropolitan Museum.

The educational value of the show was virtually nonexistent, and for much less money the Metropolitan could have mounted a far worthier exhibition. Indeed, critical opinion generally conceded that the show was a vulgar crowd-pleaser. This outrage, however, seems excessive. Viewers who had been lured to the museum only after considerable coaxing of this kind would certainly have come away with an enhanced sense of wonder, and would be happier for the experience. This is not everything that might be asked from a community-minded museum, but it is something.

What was most unsatisfactory about the Metropolitan exhibition lay elsewhere, in its blithe avoidance of essential questions concerning the definition of cultures in general, and Indian culture in particular. Probably no historical undertaking is more taxing than the attempt to fix the precise dimensions of a culture and to distinguish it from other cultures, and this task is all the greater when it comes to the age-old division between East and West. The moment we try to define the division precisely, we must become exasperated by the fact that our definition can never be wholly adequate to reality. The very enterprise is charged with political and ideological over-tones of the most dangerous kind. Yet the notion of such a division remains a useful instrument of thought, and, however inexact, it deserves to be retained.

India, though only a part of the larger concept of the East, is itself almost as elusive. For the most decisive moment in Indian history was the subjugation of the Dravidian people around 1500 B.C.E. by the newly arrived Aryan invaders, a group that would also settle in the West and whose language, known as Proto-Indo-European, is the common ancestor of Sanskrit and Persian as well as of almost every occidental language from those of Homer and Virgil to Portuguese, Gaelic, and English. Conversely, so many Western influences, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and British, have left their mark upon India, and the country itself has inspired so many other nations of the East, that to determine the boundaries of Indian culture without pedantic hair-splitting or insubstantial generality is well-nigh impossible.


Can one then speak of the Indianness of Indian art, in the way in which the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner could speak of the Englishness of English art? Pevsner himself recognized the impossibility of distilling from the mass of individual artifacts created by the British people a single feature or conjunction of features that was always present, and that was never present in the art of other nations. But he also understood that the value of any critical or art-historical statement resided not in its indisputability but rather in the contribution it made to an enhanced aesthetic and intellectual understanding. A benign inexactitude must similarly be granted in any search for the distinctive components of Indian art and culture.

At least one element of Indian culture makes it very different from that of England. The latter nation had a way of transforming into its own terms each of the influences it received, whether that of Norman architecture, rococo decoration, or Cubism. Indian art, however, is marked by a massive divide. During its first two millennia, Up until the Delhi Sultanate (from 1298), India had a robust and beautiful tradition of its own, one which influenced many other nations and could transform foreign styles into indigenous terms. But after the arrival of the Muslims—which is unfortunately the point where the Metropolitan show began—not only did India prove unable to assimilate the art of a culture that it could no longer resist, but the entire spirit of Indian art changed entirely into that of its conquerors.

To put it another way, the art of pre-Islamic India is closer, both in form and attitude, to the art of classical Greece than it is to the art of Islamic India. Whereas the art of pre-Islamic India is characterized in general (though subject to many qualifications) by the suppression of individual details in the interest of a fluently continuous and indivisible whole, Indian art after the arrival of the Muslims allows a profusion of individual details to disrupt and ultimately to negate the wholeness for which earlier artists had striven.

In contrast to Egypt, classical Greece, and Renaissance Florence, which managed to attain excellence in a variety of media—painting, sculpture, and architecture—but like Holland in the 17th century, which achieved immortal results in painting alone, the artistic greatness of India resided from earliest times almost exclusively in a genius for sculpture. Indian architecture is really unworthy of the name, being in effect merely a collection of abstract sculpture to which is appended smaller, figurative sculpture; and with the exception of such beautiful work as is found in the cave paintings of Ajanta, dating from the 5th century, most of the painting done in India is essentially Arabic.

Within the province of sculptured stone and cast bronze, however, it is difficult to name any nation that has achieved greatness so instinctively. As with those waves of vital force in which Indian philosophy has always conceived of the generations of human life, the rich and lascivious forms carved onto the living rock of Mahabalipuram or set into the terraced elevations of the temples of Madurai and Tanjore seem to flow from the stone through a natural, almost vegetable, exudation. At the very inception of their civilization, long before the Aryan invasion, the people of India manifested to a miraculous degree this almost freakish aptitude for sculpture, as is evident in two torsos found in Harappa (dating from the mid-3rd millennium B.C.E.), one of which Chandra discusses in The Sculpture of India. These are of a stunning beauty and naturalism; the skill with which the prominences and depressions of the body have been conveyed, with a full sense of the musculature beneath the flesh, and of the internal organs beneath the musculature, is extraordinary. The creators of these works clearly would have had little to learn either from the later sculptors of Gandharan or Gupta India, or from the masters of classical Greece.

The Harappan statues are in the highest degree naturalistic, as though it were their artists' principal aim to hold a living organism magically and eternally in suspension, without dispelling the all-important sense of Promethean heat. This naturalism is not entirely at odds with the predominating features of later Indian culture, and there exists a continuum between it and the Mauryan and post-Mauryan sculpture that emerges in the 4th century B.C.E. Benjamin Rowland, in The Art and Architecture of India, asserts that the Aryan invaders were inclined to mix freely with and to adopt the artistic terms of the Dravidians whom they conquered. “Long before 500 B.C.E.,” he writes, “the culture of India was a mixture of Indian and Dravidian elements.” Unfortunately this continuum can be demonstrated only tentatively, because, with the exception of certain scattered and inconsiderable remains in terra cotta, very few traces of visual art remain from about the first thousand years after the Aryan invasion of India.


When finally we reemerge from this period, in the 4th century B.C.E., the predominating influence is neither Dravidian nor Aryan but rather that of the Achaemenid dynasty in Persia. One beautiful statue in the Washington show, of a goddess holding a fly whisk, gracefully applies this imported Persian style to the native motif of the Yakshi, or freestanding female figure. Another especially fine example of this influence is to be found in the depiction of four lions, back to back, forming the part of a single column, in the Sarnath Site Museum. Fully in keeping with the art of the Persian capital of Persepolis, the lions sit extremely and pompously erect, looking completely stuffed. These works serve almost as a test of how much one really loves sculpture, for their excellence, so different from that of “typically” Indian art, consists in the imparting of a prickly and pedantic precision to each carefully combed curl of the mane and each lotiform incision at the base. But then at the base of the capital there is a horse, springing with an electricity directly at odds with this Persepolitan tradition. Rowland considers both the horse and the lions to betray completely un-Indian tastes, yet the case might be made that there is more of the Indianness of Indian art in the figure of that horse than in anything else of this period, something which will pervade all sculpture in India up until the Muslim hegemony.

This element is best described as a naturalism that is always tending toward schematism, and a schematism that is forever leaning toward naturalism. It is true that such a dualism is often enough to be seen elsewhere, in Egypt, in Sumer, in medieval France, and so on, yet only in India does it constitute the essential terms in which sculptural projects are consistently played out. For a millennium and a half, the art of India, as well as such Oriental art as is inspired by the Indian, remains faithfully within these terms.

The form that the Indian compromise takes is one in which, through the subtleties of carving, individual anatomical parts melt into one another in a serene, boneless fleshiness. As so often happens in Indian art, it was necessary for a variety of styles to come together to evolve the types that would ultimately predominate. The poised and erect Buddhas, subsequently to be found throughout Asia, may have derived ultimately from the autochthonous tradition of the freestanding Yakshi, but certainly a major source of inspiration was the Greco-Roman sculpture that began to appear in the North during the Gandharan period in the early years of the Christian era. At this point the two traditions link up and bring about in art a relationship of consanguinity similar to that which already existed in language. In architecture a new order, known as Indo-Corinthian, comes into being; in bronze or stone, the figures take on the attitude of Apollo or Zeus, and the face of the Buddha is infused with a serenity that is nevertheless compatible, in its finely striated features, with the chiseled modeling of the Venus of Milos.

Yet the spirituality of these works is radically at variance with anything known to the statuary of classical antiquity. In Greece, whether in the idealizations of Phidias or in the realism that sets in with Lysippus and Praxiteles, marble is always distanced from the flesh and blood of the real world. These figures, for all the veracity with which they are sometimes endowed, are never seen in a state of convincing repose, and their eyes are always wide open in eternal wakefulness. Frozen in motion, or frozen in the act of merely standing, they overawe us with their cold sublimity. We are intended to appreciate the beauty of their form and the majesty of their attitude, but I would venture that no one was ever moved by them to feelings of sympathy or community. Not even the fauns and satyrs of the Alexandrian age invite us to enter into their revelries, nor do the gods of Polyclitus gather us into their untroubled calm.

By contrast, the gods of Hinduism and the saints of Buddhism are born of a bronze more malleable, or of rock more porous and breathing than Parian marble. In Indian art, whether in a 2nd-century Bodhisattva from Chandigarh or a 5th-century Buddha from Calcutta, both of which were shown in Washington, we feel that we are in the presence of living creatures, suspended in stone or bronze yet still retaining an undiminished vitality. It is true that the terms of their existence have been dramatically circumscribed, especially in Buddhism, where the creatures depicted are usually in a trancelike state. Yet if the eternally open eyes of classical antiquity do not condescend to acknowledge the viewer, the statuary of India generates such a sense of communion that even with eyes closed, the Buddha seems to sense our presence.

That stiffness which is the perennial bugbear of classical statuary is transmuted in Indian art into a force that is only the stronger for the suppression of gestures. Similarly, the perfect roundness and protuberance of the Buddha's belly, presaged in the earliest Harappan sculpture, but too purely rounded for classical art, is here endowed with a thrilling energy, intended by the sculptor to suggest the breathing exercises associated with certain Buddhist sects.

Just as Indian art infuses its static figures with vitality, so is it able, especially in depictions of Hindu subjects, to convey a sense of movement. It does this by positioning arms and legs not in such a way as to refer to the movement depicted but in such a way as to suggest that its creations have an internal power either to move or to abstain from motion. Like the early, Persian-inspired horse mentioned above, the vast sculptural projects of the Gupta period (from the 2nd to the 7th century) and of the so-called Hindu Renaissance (8th century) dance, run, and leap in ecstatic contortions. Whether in the massive and metaphorical depiction of the descent of the Ganges carved onto the rock of the caves of Mahabalipuram, with their whirling angels and their beautifully carved elephants, or in the horses and riders so impressively engraved upon the walls of Srirangam in Trichurapalli, the anonymous sculptors seek to convey a distinctly Indian sense of life on earth and in the heavens as energy and unceasing movement. In all the comparable projects of medieval Europe, as in the archivolts of Chartres and Rheims, there is conveyed an idea of perfect order in which each figure plays its part and has its own assigned role; in Indian art, especially in the parade of creatures in Mahabalipuram, we are presented only with the thorough expanse of forces and movements pullulating out of the source of life in the Ganges.


Most of the works discussed so far are from the North, but it was in the South, where Hinduism retained its original force the longest, that such vibrant movement is to be found in individual, freestanding bronze figures. And it is here that the Metropolitan exhibition began, with two fine representations of Shiva and Parvati from the 15th century. Typically, the figures had no very good reason for being where they were, since the show was otherwise devoted almost entirely to the work of Muslim or Muslim-influenced painting and sculpture rather than to anything of indigenous Indian growth. It is almost as if they had been placed there as a wry reminder of what was missing. What was so pleasing in these works, aside from a skill in the casting of the bronze which would not be seen again in later years, was (to use an evocative phrase that Bernard Berenson applied to 14th-century madonnas) the “singing line” of the contours.

Unfortunately, this purity of sculptural form was not destined to survive the Muslim conquest for very long. Soon the native genius of the Indian craftsmen was diverted to areas for which they were less suited. Although figures of this sort were indeed being produced by local workshops into the 19th century, later examples are entirely lacking in grace of contour or fineness of detailing, and are in fact only pallid imitations of what had once been spontaneous and beautiful.

Perhaps the single area in which the Islamic invaders managed to improve the art of the Indians was architecture. As I noted earlier, the Indians did not have any great gift for imaginative architectural thinking; the beauty they achieved in this field was not the beauty of architecture but rather that of sculpture. Their massive architectural structures, at least those that have survived, were intended not for human habitation, but to house the deities of the faith. Thus they were not required to demonstrate any especially sensible distribution of space, or any economical use of material. The beauty of these works, most emphatically in those baroque phantasms built after the Gupta period, consists entirely in their exteriors. They are in a sense the first abstract sculptures, if sculpture can be defined as the art form that occupies rather than contains space.

Only after the Muslim invasions did a true architectural sense begin to appear in India. And indeed, it is easy to believe that the world has not produced builders with architectural instincts superior to those of the builders of Islam. For one thing, they were absolute masters in the placement and the carving of brick on the surface of a flat wall, equaled in this respect only by the architects of England and Piedmont; in addition they had a fluent and utterly limpid sense of space completely contained, but never intruded upon, by the pristine harmony of architectural forms. These forms were in fact an offshoot of, or a variation on, the language of classical European architecture in its more baroque Syrian incarnations from the first few centuries of the Christian era, and also on the architecture of Byzantium. In the glorious architecture of the Safavid King Shah Abbas, these frail yet enduring structures are so delicately conceived as to seem a cross between a Palladian villa and a Japanese tea chamber.

It was at this point in the history of the art of India that one of the less memorable of the Great Mughals, Shah Jahan, raised to the memory of his wife the Taj Mahal, which together with the city of Fatehpur-Sikri, built by his grandfather Akbar, constitutes one of the architectural wonders of the world. Compared with the extravagant fan vaultings of the Tejpal temple at Mount Abu, or the impressive but useless entablature of the Surya temple at Modhera, these structures are models of good sense which continue to inspire admiration even after the allure of their more exotic innovations has worn off.

In all of this it is important to remember that almost from its inception Islamic art obeyed an injunction against the representation of living things. Thus it happened that the Muslim conquerors showed little taste or understanding for those sculptural forms that marked India's almost exclusive proficiency in art, and thus too it happened that the artists of Hinduism and Buddhism were induced, at the height of their creativity, to forsake the area of their genius and to attempt to create beauty in a medium in which they had shown very little interest before. In due course, there did evolve a tradition of miniatures and manuscript illustration which managed to give shape to living things without committing the ultimate transgression, implicit in sculpture, of rendering forms in three dimensions. What is most striking about the transformation that overtook Indian art, however, is the shift not from three dimensions to two but rather from an extremely energetic and vital art to an extremely precise and almost pedantic love of detailing.

There is much that is genuinely beautiful in the resultant Mughal and Rajput miniatures, and this was considerably in evidence at the Metropolitan show. The work is fine and jewel-like, and the colors are always very bright and pretty. And yet, as in the art of comic books, the attraction consists more in the individual patches of color than in the justness of their combination. Furthermore, to a far greater degree than is true of Old Master paintings, the art of the Islamic miniature is easily reduced to a painfully circumscribed limit of compositional possibilities, while the figures set into the compositions always remain in more or less the same state, with their arms or legs variously rearranged.

If the absence of expression in the statuary of Periclean Athens suggests an idealized beauty above the sorrows of this world, the faces of the figures in Islamic miniatures, whether men or women, old or young, are merely blank. One has only to compare these works with the roughly contemporary anonymous miniatures and illuminated manuscripts being produced in France in order to appreciate the disparity in quality.

Ultimately, what redeems many of the manuscript illustrations of Islam is the beauty of the individual details. With an avidity comparable to that of Dürer, some of the finest of the artists represented at the Metropolitan lavished painstaking and rewarding attention upon the mane of a lion, or the hide of a horse, or the striations on the petals of a plant. Also beautiful is the very subtle and sophisticated rendering of volumes, comparable in their way to the volumetric mania of the early Florentine perspectivists. Taken all in all, though, it remains true that the art of India shown at the Metropolitan falls considerably short of what was produced in both the North and the South in earlier periods.


Have we, after this brief tour of the exhibitions at the National Gallery and the Metropolitan, come any closer to a definition of what is distinctly Indian about Indian art? Of all civilizations, India would seem to be the hardest to define. To an even higher degree than other great nations, it is a confluence of a vast variety of cultures, often combining so thoroughly as to be inseparable either in thought or in practice. And yet it is still our habit to speak of India comprehensively, suggesting that we know not only what it is in itself but also how it can be contrasted with any other nation in the world.

The Indian aesthetician, Ananda Coomaraswamy, who received a completely Western education, was speaking not only to but also for many Westerners when he announced that “there was a time when Europe and Asia could and did actually understand each other very well. Asia has remained herself; but subsequent to the extroversion of the European consciousness and its preoccupation with surfaces, it has become more and more difficult for European minds to think in terms of unity, and therefore more difficult to understand the Asiatic point of view.”

The quality of unity that Coomaraswamy is here invoking is one that many Westerners in this century have professed to find in India. And if by unity one means, in art, something like the naturalism of which I spoke earlier in connection with the sculpture of pre-Islamic India, then indeed they have a point. But in granting this point one must simultaneously resist Coomaraswamy's tendentious and imprecise diagnosis of Western culture as based on an “extroversion of consciousness,” as if this quality, by which he appears to mean the free play of reason and the rational mind, were somehow an unnatural manifestation. For rationality is but one of the many shapes that protean nature assumes, and it is not necessary for us to be Western supremacists to argue that, as a mode of apprehending reality, it need not bow in any degree to the “Asiatic point of view.”

But can we in fact go farther, and argue, on the basis of some dispassionate comparison of human artifacts, for the superiority of our own culture and art? I believe it is possible to do so. It is possible to make absolute statements about the aesthetic value of works of art. We have the right, for example, to say to anyone who believes that the pasticheur Anton Mengs is a greater painter than Raphael that he simply does not know what he is talking about. Similarly, we have the right to say that if each of two painters creates consistently excellent works, and one of them paints one more painting than the other, then, all else being equal, his must be the greater achievement.

It is upon such grounds that we can say that the entire achievement of Rajput and Muslim miniatures does not surpass, either in quality or most probably even in number, the illuminations of the Brothers Limbourg and their contemporaries of the early 15th century, together with the artists of the next generation in France. All the architecture ever built in India (as architecture rather than as massive sculpture) does not equal one century of French Gothic. And even the great sculpture of India, throughout its many centuries, is honored by being spoken of as the equal of the sculpture of medieval France—and France is only a small part of our Western civilization, and not necessarily the best.


Western culture has not needed to be told of the value of foreign civilizations. Indeed, to seek wisdom in foreign cultures, emphatically including what Romain Rolland called “the higher plains of Asia,” is a distinctly Western attitude, and Western civilization is perhaps the only one ever to be dramatically influenced by cultures to which it has been militarily superior. Others might have taste foisted upon them, as the Indians received the influence of the Muslims, but they have never actually sought it out as Westerners have done. The same impulses that conduce to this attitude have also made Western artists more numerous and more various than the artists of any other culture. Even if we were to concede that as individuals our artists were only the equals of others, and even if we were tactfully to leave aside the achievements of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and their like, the combination of numbers and accomplishment alone would suffice to make our civilization, taken as a whole, the greatest in human history.

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