A passage to India

A couple of family members are in India just now, so I went off to the Metropolitan Museum to look at their collection of Indian art. Here are some (rather naive) notes:

  • Judging by the collection, Indian art is sacred art. There were some miniature paintings, which were rather late, and ornamental friezes, which were incidental, but otherwise it was all gods and goddesses. No glorification of kings and apparently not much interest in nature or secular life. Hindu kings tended to be god-kings, though, so I suppose if you had a statue of Vishnu that would serve to glorify the local ruler if he happened to be an incarnation thereof. Maybe one reason pretty much all the pieces were sacred is that other things haven’t survived—they’re made out of perishable materials that don’t last in India’s climate, and even if they’re stone or metal they get neglected or recycled once the immediate occasion for their production has passed because Indians don’t (or didn’t) care about history.
  • It’s not obvious they care about art, either. The galleries were almost deserted and I didn’t see anybody of Indian background in them. Things are quite different in the East Asian galleries.
  • To all appearances, a big topic is sex. The specifics range from the lingam, to scantily-clad goddesses with somewhat exaggerated sexual characteristics, to affectionate male and female deities, to images that are downright pornographic. All these of course are religious images, and the point of a religious image is to point to something otherwise inexpressible that transcends the physical, so I’d credit the explanations that say they’re really all about the generative powers of nature or the union of opposites in the cosmic whatever. Still, it’s unusual the tradition should have developed in such a way.
  • Apart from sex or whatever the erotic imagery is supposed to be about, a big topic seems to be the cyclical manifestation of multiplicity out of primordial simplicity. That, anyway, is what I get out of the deities with multiple faces looking in different directions or dancing or striking rhythmic poses with multiple arms and legs and symbols of creation and destruction.
  • Along with the relation between manifestation and primordial simplicity, there’s an emphasis on connecting the two through meditation. You get a lot of serene looking inward with half-closed eyes. That also means the sculpture tends to be quite graceful and somehow centered and self-sufficient. Hinduism seems well-suited to sculpture.
  • That’s all very grand, philosophical and impersonal, maybe too much so, so you also get more folkloric and crowd-pleasing stuff, for example lively, cheerful statues of intelligent, sociable, helpful gods who everyone likes like Ganesha and Hanuman. Both of them have animal heads, maybe to bring them down to earth and make them less meditative and cosmic and more fun.
  • India has had a number of satellite cultures, in Indonesia or Southeast Asia or wherever, that go off in often very interesting directions. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is of course famous. In the Northwest the Hellenistic influence lasted a very long time and you get some wonderful Greek-influenced Buddhist statues. And in Tibet you get paintings of guardian deities that basically look like materializations of primordial terrors. Those are just a few examples.

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