The value of an idol life

Lives of Indian Images
June 11, 1999

This fascinating book is also a series of biographies of Indian material images. Most are Hindu, religious and either sculpted or moulded, in short, the "idols" or icons of ritual practice. Art historians, collectors and others, says Richard Davis, tend to slap identities on such objects based on the putative intentionality of their origin - eg this is a 10th-century Cola bronze of the dancing Siva produced for temple worship - and having done so, stick to this perspective. Davis argues that such labels are static and fail to do justice to the way an image may change identity or acquire a new one with the passage of time or shifts in perspective. To develop his theme, Davis skilfully deploys an array of distinctions based on existing scholarship and his own fertile extrapolations, for example, distinctions between the display value and cult value of an image, between its social history and its cultural biography and between epics of conquest and epics of resistance. He seems to conclude that a case could even be made for drawing a useful distinction between what we may call exterior and more interior identities - namely, not only the identities bestowed upon images by the viewer or "community of response" depending on circumstance or context, but also the identities the images themselves seem to appropriate. This could be the "juristic" identity accorded an image in law (a celebrated case spanning three continents is entertainingly analysed in chapter seven), or the ritual identity an image can reassume (after damage or neglect).

The argument is not particularly new - we are not surprised to be told that people look at images in different ways depending on their theological, social, political or cultural points of view. But it is the way this position is informatively and comprehensively spelled out that delights and astonishes.

From the first chapter, in which Davis analyses the theological content of the making and sacralising of Hindu images, through to the last, in which he discusses how dead or dying images can be re-animated, we are treated to case history after case history of the "life" of an image. The book is organised chronologically, beginning with warring kingdoms in medieval south India and moving on to the clash between Muslim and Hindu perspectives of the same religious focus. It covers the appropriation of images under British rule (there are marvellous discussions of the role of Somanatha and the chequered history of Tipu Sultan's celebrated effigy of a tiger mauling a British soldier) and concludes with modern examples.

There are occasional digressions, but these are always informative and interesting. Here and there errors creep in, such as Brahma confused with the (neuter) Brahman. But overall, this is the best kind of scholarly book, literate, with a sense of humour, genuinely informative, pertinent and consequential, and accessible yet highly erudite: a triumph.

Julius Lipner is lecturer in Indian religion and the comparative study of religion, University of Cambridge.

Lives of Indian Images

Author - Richard H. Davis
ISBN - 0 691 02622 X and 00520 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £30.00 and £11.50
Pages - 331

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