Buddhas, bronzes and Brits

Indian Art
March 24, 2000

The task of encompassing 4,500 years of art history in one volume is daunting, not merely because of the sheer scale but because histories of Indian art are still wrestling with fundamental issues as they attempt to take indigenous aesthetics into account in their interpretations. It is no easy task to convey these issues to a non-specialist audience, while maintaining a coherent narrative in accessible and flowing language. Yet Vidya Dehejia has achieved this splendidly.

Dehejia has not radically altered a sequence of presentation and periodicity that previous introductions to the subject have followed. A description of the Indus civilisation and the cultural changes following the movements of the Aryan tribes are followed in turn by accounts of early Buddhism, the development of the great stupas at Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati, and the superb narrative traditions that these architectural monuments embody. Subsequent chapters deal with the interaction between Greek, Central Asian and Indian artistic traditions, the emergence of the Buddha image, its "classic form" under the Guptas, and the tradition of cave monastery and cave temple building in western India. Sections on the Hindu temple tradition are followed by those on early Islamic art, the Mughals and the Rajputs.

Dehejia's approach to these subjects does, however, reflect changes in approach typical of the broader discipline. After an initial introduction to India's cultural ecology, the movement of peoples, religions and historiography, she moves straight to a discussion of the concept of rasa, the theory of art and aesthetics that emerges in the Indian written tradition at the beginning of the Christian era and centres on the viewer's or auditor's experience of art. The related discussion about the relationships between artist, patron and beneficiaries and the intentions behind the construction of monuments provides a framework for all the following chapters.

Chapter titles and subtitles suggest ways of looking at particular periods or types of art. "God in their midst: the temple city and festival bronzes", for example, explains stone and bronze sculpture of the Chola rulers in the context of the temple as a physical structure and as a social unit.

This volume also differs from previous surveys in the balance of its content. The early Islamic sultanates are better represented than before. Vijayanagara, the empire that dominated central south India for 200 years from the 14th to the 16th centuries, now claims its rightful place in the narrative. Portuguese Goa has a chapter to itself, as does the art and architecture of the British Raj.

This volume is not, and never could have been, the comprehensive survey of the art of India that is claimed in its flyleaf. Dehejia sensibly chose to focus in detail on a small number of particular, often well-known, sites rather than skating superficially over a larger number. The choices must, however, have been hard. The chapter on Rajput art focuses on Mewar. Other centres in Rajasthan get cursory treatment; the Punjab and Himachal Pradesh no mention at all. It is sad, though not surprising, that like all the surveys that have preceded it, this text touches on the applied arts only in the context of the archaeological explorations of Mohenjo Daro, the courtly culture of the Islamic Mughal rulers and in relation to contemporary artists' interest in the world of traditional objects. It will also be sad if non-western 20th-century art only makes its appearance in the epilogue of these volumes and not in Phaidon's 20th-century series. But these are perhaps unreasonable criticisms of a compact volume that is beautifully illustrated, delightfully written and well suited to those approaching Indian art for the first time.

Deborah Swallow is chief curator of the Indian and Southeast Asian department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Indian Art

Author - Vidya Dehejia
ISBN - 0 7148 3496 3
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - £14.95
Pages - 448

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