The Ideals of Indian Art by K. Bharatha Iyer
The understanding of Indian art — be it sculpture, painting or dancing — presents certain difficulties. It is bound up with India's past. That past has been a great one, stretching over an immense expanse of time. During this period a great many events took place which have left their indelible impression on Indian culture and character. Many tribes and races such as the Aryans, Parthians, Greeks, Sakas, Kushanas, Huns, Turks and Mongols made this land their home. They brought with them their indigenous cultures and then merged with the races already here. This mingling of races and cultures and their absorption into what may be called the mainstream of Indian civilization proved to be a significant historical process rich with many possibilities. This mainstream, as is well known, is largely the product of the fusion of the great Dravidian and Aryan cultures.
The beautiful rangoli designs drawn by Hindu women every morning on the thresholds of their homes, the variegated patterns of the pots, of the brass and copper vessels and lamps, the beautiful garlands with which the household deity is adorned, the gold and silver ornaments, the colours and designs of the sarees and other articles of daily use, invest the Hindu homes with beauty. The temples of imposing architecture adorned with sculpture and painting; the festivals and the dramas and dances associated with religious rites; the wandering story-teller versed in legend, poetry and the teachings of religion; all these brought culture and the arts very near to the daily life of the people.
The arts in this way were integral to life. They were not luxuries and were never seen, until recently, in isolation from life and as idle individual accomplishments expressing personal idiosyncrasies. A purely personal art had no place in the Indian tradition. The artist and the onlooker shared a common inspiration. Suffice it to say that Indian art remained truly national in the widest and deepest sense of the term because its ideals were the ideals of the nation and its canons were well understood by the people.
The architects who built the marvellous shrines of India, the artists who painted the exquisite frescoes at Ajanta, Bagh, Sittanavasal and Kanchipuram, remain unknown to us. Who are the great sculptors who have covered this land from one end to the other with their superb masterpieces in stone and bronze? Who conceived the image of the Buddha in meditation and who was the master who wrought the dancing figure of Nataraja? These questions, so momentous to us who look at art divorced from its setting, are meaningless in the context of the Indian tradition. The artist, whoever he was, was only voicing or giving shape to the visions and ideals of the race. There was nothing purely personal in it. This anonymity of Indian art only emphasises its truly national character.
The main interest of the Indian artist, it will be noticed, is the human form. It was an unending source of creative joy to him. The teeming array of figures in Indian art is itself something phenomenal, something indisputably worldly. The figures of men and women are depicted from every possible angle, they are caught in a thousand attitudes in the course of rhythmic movements both instinctive as well as studied. Such variegated and lovely patterns made by the body when swayed by the playful forces of emotion and deliberation can hardly be found in the art of any country. The abundance of female figures in Indian art of all periods displaying the varied charms of womanhood is another striking trait that hardly fits in with other-worldly intentions and the religious bias which have been attributed to Indian art.
Indian art remained a collective expression of the racial experience of the people. As was said earlier, India has manifested a peculiar genius to assimilate and absorb foreign element so well as to leave hardly any trace of the original influence. This pronounced trait in the Indian character exerted a profound influence in shaping the social order, culture and art of India. The process of absorption and giving a "new look" to the older features was a long one extending from the Vedic age far down into the mediaeval period of Indian history.
Aryanisation did not uproot the old indigenous culture. Much of popular Hinduism is of non-Aryan origin. In the Vedic period Brahma was not an important deity. Vishnu had hardly emerged; he exists in association with the Sun God Surya. Siva appears to be a later adaptation. In course of time this non-Aryan deity arose in majestic splendour as a great god, unexcelled, and found his place in the Hindu trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Siva). This evolution and fusion are extraordinarily symbolised in the conception of Trimurti (the trinity) which is a classic example and congregations of the historical process referred to.
Hinduism grew like a rambling mansion, housing varied beliefs ranging from the worship of trees and serpents to the worship of the great and gracious gods like Siva and Vishnu, and Isvara, the Supreme One, in whom all these merged; and all of these conceptions were incorporated in Hindu art. Thus varying lower orders of faiths were used as steps to arrive at the zenith of the Highest. This vast pyramidal structure represented the collective expression of the Indian mind.
In speaking of Indian art, It should be remembered that it is the art of a vast sub-continent and has a long history with well-developed conventions. Therefore, it would be wrong to generalise or to limit its character and qualities. The ideals that shaped it and the qualities it developed are many. Indian genius is varied as the facets of a diamond which reflects different lights and colours.