Neglected glories of an earlier Raj

The New Cambridge History of India: Volume I.6: Architecture and Art of Southern India
January 12, 1996

This is the third of three volumes published on the arts of the Indian subcontinent in the New Cambridge History of India. Predictably, the other two volumes covered the painting and architecture of Mughal India, a period that still holds the greatest fascination for western historians, as is clear from the planning of these volumes. However, the publishers must be congratulated for devoting an entire volume to the Vijaynagara and successive periods of south Indian history, a much neglected subject, and also for inviting George Michell to write the volume. They could not have done better.

Not only has Michell produced a masterly survey of the subject but it constitutes by far the most original of the three volumes. While the art and architecture of Mughal India have received a great deal of attention, the remarkable aesthetic achievements of the last great Hindu empire of India have been cursorily treated in surveys of Indian art.

What is even more remarkable is that the author has written the book in a lucid and readable style without burdening the text with interminable Sanskrit architectural terms, as is being done increasingly by other historians of Indian architecture. The book should appeal not only to those interested in Indian art and architecture but also to a much wider readership.

The Vijaynagara Empire and its successor states flourished over much of south India for almost four centuries from about the mid-14th until the mid-18th century. The enlightened rulers and their feudatories were enthusiastic builders of temples whose history and character have been surveyed by Michell in two chapters. Together with a third chapter discussing palace architecture - mostly forts and romantic ruins - they constitute more than half the book. The rest of the volume provides the reader with a historical framework, discussions of sculpture and painting, and an extensive bibliography as well as a helpful bibliographical essay.

The architectural chapters are especially well written with a large number of illustrations - both photographs and ground plans - of well-known temples and many others that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers. Although the Vijaynagara Empire stretched over four linguistic areas, the predominant cultural source was the Tamil civilisation, which had reached a remarkable peak during the long reign of the earlier Chola dynasty (c.770-c.1350). Unlike the Chola temples, where the vimana or superstructure of the sanctum was the dominant element, by the 17th century the gopurams, or gateways, became the towering structures. The sculptural wealth of the gopurams often exceeds that of the flamboyant carvings that overwhelm the viewer inside the various buildings within the compound.

In the chapter on sculpture the author discusses works in stone, metal and ivory. Although this is probably the best overview of the subject to date, the treatment is not as deft as the chapters on architecture. The period is rich in portrait sculptures which should have been discussed as a topic. Portraiture certainly is much more indicative of the "inventiveness" of the period then either narrative reliefs or ivory plaques, seductive as they are.

The chapter on painting has been divided into temple murals, scrolls, hangings and canopies, manuscripts and albums. However, clearly all types of paintings are rendered in the same basic style which makes the discussion repetitive at times. It would have been more entertaining as well as instructive if the chapter was written from a stylistic rather than typological point of view. One could have reduced the illustrations by at least a third. Not only are several too small or of poor quality but nothing can be more frustrating than reading about pictures with black and white illustrations. It is amazing that today's publishers hope to sell art books without a single colour illustration.

This unfortunate deficiency aside, this book constitutes a major contribution to our understanding of the aesthetic achievements of a hitherto neglected but magnificent period of Indian history.

Pratapaditya Pal is fellow for research, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California.

The New Cambridge History of India: Volume I.6: Architecture and Art of Southern India: Vijaynagara and the Successor States 1350-1750

Author - George Michell
ISBN - 0 521 44110 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 300

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