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Gods Take Form – Indian Art At The Turn Of The Millennium

C. Gopinath and Chandu Shah

On 13 March 2011, Ms Laura Weinstein, the Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gave a stimulating talk on the development of iconography in South Asia around the turn of the first millennium of the Common Era. The lecture was a part of a series on the theme “Indian Society through the Ages”, organized by the Outreach Committee of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies,  Harvard University.  
Ms. Weinstein explored how art, patronage and religion combined through a discussion of sculpture produced between 250 BCE and 100 CE.  Her presentation focused on Mathura, which was the foremost center of sculptural production in India during this period.  She warned that this was only a slice of what was happening at that time, but it gave us an example. Her talk began by tracing the emergence of practices of iconic representation first of spirit deities (e.g. yakshas) and then of Jain, Buddhist and Hindu deities.  Multiples religious traditions influenced the art.  

There are many theories about the reasons behind this shift, some of which suggest theological developments, and others point to the existence of specific monastic groups who may have pushed for iconic representation as a way to spread their faith or for other reasons.  From the existing sculptural evidence as well as from the many inscriptions that appear whole or in fragments upon these objects, Ms Weinstein pointed out that this important artistic development was not led by the Kushan rulers or by any other reigning power.  It was propelled by clerics, landowners, monks, nuns and merchants and it was not only the rulers who were patrons.

It was clear from her talk that we have much to learn from this rich period of sculpture, during which many of the things we take for granted in Indian sculpture first came to be. Ms Weinstein illustrated her talk with several pictures of sculptures and pointed out the unique aspects of the art that we should note and the times they represent. There were guilds of artists who put their inscriptions on places like the stupas. In one example, she pointed out the attention paid to the sculpture of a yakshi (circa 150 BCE) with details of jewelry, other ornaments and braided hair style. She also drew the attention of the audience to the stories they suggest. One inscription on a free standing sculpture of a yaksha states that the image was caused to be made by eight brothers suggesting that it was a family or community act.

Ms Weinstein is working on a special exhibition of South Asian art at the MFA due to open in November and invited the audience to visit. At the conclusion of her talk, there was a vigorous discussion with questions and comments from the audience.

This lecture was the ninth event in the series that began in November, 2009.  In his welcome, Prof. Bijoy Misra, Convener of the Outreach Committee, gave a brief description of the evolution of this series of lectures, and pointed out how Ananda Coomaraswamy brought an appreciation of Indian art to Boston. The Outreach lectures over the years have covered several aspects of Indian Studies, in culture, arts, history, religion, architecture, philosophy, languages and literature.

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