The art of India can only be understood in relation to the essential characteristics of the country that produced it. Indians have a taste for codifying rules and regulations, a characteristic to be found in the eternal system of castes, and permeating every sphere of activity. The artist, in particular, must conform to a fairly strict system of aesthetic principles; his aim is to create not a work of art as such, but a religious work which, if it is to have value, must scrupulously respect the established rules.
To the Indian sculptor the purpose of a statue is to serve as an aid to meditation and its position, its expression, its gestures and even its costume have a very precise meaning. The principal gestures, which are also those of dancers and actors, are known as mudra in Buddhist and as hasta in Brahmanic works.
When Indian artists made religious sculptures, they frequently chose sturdy materials such as metal or stone, though sometimes wood-carving was also preferred. Often called “bronzes,” most Indian metal sculpture – everything from portable household images to large temple icons – were actually cast by the cire perdue (lost wax) process from a wide variety of copper alloys. Indian stone sculptors preferred soft, fine-grained stones that were well suited to intricate detailing and elaborate undercutting.
Indian artists use the wide range of materials at hand to create almost every conceivable type of sculpture, but certain varieties were especially favored. By far the most popular format in Indian was the iconic representation of a divinity, either isolated or accompanied by a symmetrically arranged retinue.
The sculptors of India’s many periods, regions, and localities developed their own distinctive artistic styles, many of which are presented here.
A glance at virtually any Indian sculpture reveals that Indian sculptors were really not infatuated with factually accurate anatomical descriptions of the male or female form. Instead, they wished to show the body idealized in such a way that it became a vessel filled with the vital breath of life. An ideal vehicle for conveying inherent divinity
In Indian sculpture the human form is composed of various compact, curved, and almost geometric shapes assembled according to an ideal canon of proportions.
In Indian statues, men have square shoulders, broad chests, slim waists, and slightly overhanging stomachs; women, being the sustainers of life, have full, rounded breasts and large hips. Certain features of the body are frequently exaggerated to make poetic references to the animal or vegetal world—that is, lotus-like eyes, leonine body, elephantine arms and shoulders, and so forth.
The idealized anatomy that blossomed throughout the Indian subcontinent is perfectly suited to depicting the superhuman forms of India’s gods. Lacking any impurities of material existence, these transcendental forms have many limbs, multiple heads, and unusual physiognomic features to suggest possibilities and states of existence beyond the mortal. The results are sculptures that reveal the gods of India for what they truly are— blissful divine beings.
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