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South Asian Art - In Memory Of Prashant Fadia

Razvin Namdarian

Indian Art – Truly ‘Symbolic’

Right from the time of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, symbols have been an important tool for conveying thoughts and ideas between individuals. While some symbols have been closely guarded secret to be shared only between members of a particular sect, others have been more or less universal. Artists have also used symbols to define a thought process in their art. The best seller The Da Vinci Code would have us believe that all of Leonardo Da Vinci’s works were in a sense a symbolic subterfuge and encrypted messages being passed onto a secret society. Indian art too is replete with symbols. In fact in India art symbols tend to be associated with superstitions believed to attract good fortune and repel evil.

Here we enumerate some of the more common symbols that recur in Indian art and their associated ideologies:

The Dot (Bindu): The dot, in its many variations is the most common and oft use symbol in Indian art, and still finds pride of place in contemporary art. It is regaled by Indian philosophers as a source of light and energy. Besides, most all creative activity, be it writing or painting originate from a point or a single nucleus. It has also been used to define a point of meditation where you focus all your energies on that one point or ‘dot’ in front of you oblivious to all. The artist who has immortalised the ‘bindu’ in contemporary art is S H Raza, who used it along with other geometric forms to create his artworks. When rendered as a circle, the dot can also be interpreted to mean infinity and wholeness. It is the shape of all celestial bodies like the sun and moon and also represents divinity.

The Lotus: This is one that is very visible in most sculptures, carvings on temple walls and used by artists even today to denote purity. The logic is simple – just as the lotus grows in muck and marshy water but rises above it and retains its pristine colours, so too do enlightened souls remain pure and ethereal even while living in the world where corruption and violence abound. The Hindu god of creation Brahma is always shown seated on a lotus. At the same time, when a lotus bud is rendered in a semi-open state it represents spiritual realisation. When teamed with Goddess Laxmi (the goddess of wealth), a cascade of lotus buds represents plenty. A simile is sometimes drawn between the lotus and the feet of God, for the Mahayana sect of Buddhists, every soul emerges from a lotus. Though the lotus is a predominantly Hindu symbol, it also finds pride of place in Mughal miniatures and sculptural carvings. In fact, the Taj Mahal, the pride of Indian architecture was built by a Muslim ruler and its central dome is designed as an inverted lotus resting on its petals.  Little wonder then that the lotus is India’s national flower.

The Sun (Surya): The Sun represents everlasting glory. It was used extensively on the shields and insignia of royalty. There is sometimes a conjugal representation of the sun and moon in some sculptures and paintings, the symbolism stems from the fact that these two celestial bodies are believed to be immortal and even today when some great personality or hero is remembered the slogan chanted is, “as long as there are the sun and the moon, you will live forever in our thoughts” (loose translation). In contemporary Indian art, the sun still finds place as a symbolic representation. Another interpretation for the Sun is an agent of purification. The sun’s rays can burn all impure objects; homes are often opened to allow the sun’s rays to enter in the day time, where the sun is considered a ‘mitra’ or friend of the living. Even the ‘suryanamaskar’ - a yogic pose, offers homage to the Sun and its healing powers – destroying all that is decadent and impure.

The Wheel (Chakra): The wheel is a symbol closely related to the sun. In some art it is used to represent the sun as it traverses the skies. In the famous Konark Sun Temple in the Indian state of Orissa, the Sun God is shown travelling across the heavens in this chariot, the focal point of the temple are its decorated wheels. The wheel can also be interpreted to mean destruction as the Hindu God Vishnu is believed to use his ‘chakra’ to vanquish evil demons. In the annals of meditation, the chakra represents the centre of psychic energy in the body.

The Swastik: This is one symbol that evokes myriad emotions in people across the world, depending upon which culture you hail from. For the Indians it represents something most holy, every household will have a swastika at the doorway. It is said to represent the Sun and the four directions. The Swastik also represents creativity and continuity, the symbol is believed to be derived from the weaving of baskets where the ends of a simple cross design are turned to the right to form a swastika. For the Europeans who have lived through the Second World War, the Swastik represents Hitler and the dreaded SS. For them the Swastik stands for power and destruction, the reason why the German Swastik ‘moved’ in a direction opposite to the Indian one is because it was designed to imitate the spin of a bomb falling to its deathly goal.

The Pot (Kalash): The Kalash or the Indian pot is yet another symbol used extensively in decorating Indian architecture and also in contemporary art. The ‘pot’ cannot be considered uniquely Indian though as it has been symbolically associated with other riverside civilizations. The pot is always considered to be filled with water, in some instances it be rendered with water or milk flowing from it. In all instances the pot represents fertility and the source of life. Sometimes the pot may have the symbols of two eyes across it, this can be interpreted to mean divinity and omniscience of even denote day and night. It also represents the contradictory concepts of fragility and strength which is how we view the concept of Nature. The earthen pot has for this reason been chosen as the symbol of the Ecomark – eco-friendly logo for products by the Indian government.

Footprints: Through the ages, Gods have been represented in Indian art in the form of footprints. They are specially used to depict the Hindu God Vishnu – the protector. The Buddhists also use the footprint symbol to represent the Buddha. This symbol is sometimes rendered in the form of the ‘padukam’ or ‘khadau’ – the traditional name for the wooden Indian slipper.

The Tree: This is one symbol that is universal across the globe, representing life, hope, prosperity. It is seen as a link between the earth, the heavens and the netherworld. The tree with its rejuvenating properties is also seen as a symbol of health. The Indian art normally depicts a banyan tree which is symbolic of growth and prosperity. When the peepul tree is depicted it takes in religious tones as with the Bodhi tree which is equated with knowledge by the Buddhists as it was under this tree that the Buddha is believed to have received enlightenment.

Snakes: The serpent is regarded differently as the divine and the harbinger of death. The snake symbol represents power, sexuality and rejuvenation. The snake in Indian art is also regarded as a protector and guardian. The symbol of two serpents intertwined represents fertility. The snake symbol is a particularly potent one as it combines strength with danger.

There are other symbols that have been employed in Indian art through the ages and are still used today albeit in a more contemporary form. The artists can have their own reasoning behind employing a certain symbol as well. But when it comes to traditional art, each symbol tells its own story and when one reads the logic behind the symbol, the pictographic story reveals itself to us quite clearly. At festival time, like Diwali (the festival of lights in the month of October), many Indian households create patterns from powdered limestone on the threshold and use these age-old symbols which will welcome good energies and repel evil from their homes.

~ Razvin Namdarian

                                                                                                                            (bCA Galleries)

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