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Representing the Body

gender issues in Indian art
edited by
koli for women

In association with
N7301 .R45 1997
Representing the body :
gender issues in Indian art
Representing the Body: gender issues in Indian art
was first published in 1997 by
Kali for Women
B 1/8 Hauz Khas
Delhi llO 016
Individual essays with the authors, 1997
For d1is selection, Ka:li for Women, 1997
All rights reserved
ISBN 81-85107-32-7
Typeset by Systems Vision, A-119 Okhla Industrial Area,
Phase I, New Delhi 110 020
Issues of Spectatorship and Representation
Engendering Indian Art
Reflections on the History and Historiography
of Male Sexuality in Early Indian Art
Construction of Gender in the Paintings
and Graffiti of Sigiriya
Yoga as the Key to Understanding
'the Sculpted Body
Spectatorship and Femininity in
Kangra Style Painting
Women Artists of the Nathadwara School
Coitus Interruptus and Love Story
in Indian Cinema
From Co-star to Deity :
Popular Representations of Jayalalitha Jayaram
Body as Gesture: Indian Women Artists at Work
Notes on Contributors
Issues of Spectatorship and
persistent theme in the artistic history of India is the sensuous
female figure, often provocatively poised, and frequently presented
in eye-catching three dimensional sculpture. One need but glance
through the pages of a book on Indian art, or walk through a museum
display to be aware of the dominance of the theme. Yet, art historical
scholarship on India has avoided, or rather evaded, the subject of
woman. In particular, issues of spectatorship, agency and representation
have been ignored.
This volume has its origins in a session titled "Gender Issues in Indian
Art and Art History" that I chaired at the 1994 College Art Association
meetings held i'n New York City. It was a first in its field, as are these essays
that arose from the conference experience. I repeat here the list of
questions posed in the Session Statement since they help to set the tone
and accentuate the issues that are explored in the papers. Has Indian art
historical scholarship engendered the art oflndia? If woman and nature
are conflated within Indian art, what are the implications for women's
status in society? Under what conditions is woman a sign for auspiciousness
and what limitations does this sign impose on her? Do women have
agency in the formulation of their representation? How does the
gendered gaze function in Indian art? Most importantly, can western
feminist critiques be applied to the art of India, particularly in view of
the fact that so much of Indian sculpture was produced in order to
embellish a sacred structure?
It may be wise to preface my remarks with an acknowledgement of
the arbitrary and interested character of all interpretation. All of us
approach the subject of gender with certain initial assumptions about
it:S nature and, as far as possible, it is best to be open about these. Perhaps
the very awareness that there is no such thing as a truly "objective" view-
point will help. Issues of gender and art must, of course, be considered
in the historical context of age, class and race. Since Indian art historical
studies are oriented towards social history, this ;;tspect should pose
few problems. In this preliminary essay, I shall address issues in three
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the gendered language of official documents, and the actual position
of anci..:::nt women. It is certainly true that to examine ways of
representing gender, it is necessary to explore the representation of
both men and women in art. However, largely because woman is, in fact,
a central theme in India's art, the female is the prime concern of the
essays in this volume.
Spectatorship and representation
The opposition of nature to culture, and the equation of woman
with nature is today a familiar trope. It is no longer necessary to
emphasize the manner in which motherhood has been put forward
as woman's naturally ordained role, or speak of woman's connections
with bondage and the elemental. It is certainly accurate to affirm the
woman-nature equation in the- context of India. However, far from
being a demeaning equation, as has been argued in the western
the affiliation of woman with nature and fertility has positive
connotations. In India, fertility implied growth, abundance and
prosperity; by her biological link with fertility, woman too suggested
growth, abundance and prosperity. This association led to woman,
together with overflowing foliage and the couple, becoming a sign of
the auspicious. It this factor that, in large measure, explains the
ubiquitous presence of woman on the monuments of India, whether
they be sacred or secular.
The issue of spectatorship and the gaze has been a major concern of
first generation feminist scholarship, and it needs to be addressed in the
Indian context. Western scholarship on European art submits that
woman is the object of the gaze and that man is the bearer of that gaze.
John Berger, in his popular and influential Ways of Seeing, effectively
articulated that "men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women
watch themselves being looked at."
He elaborated upon this pointedly.
"You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her," he
wrote, "you put a mirror in her hand and called the painting Vanity, thus
morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for
your own pleasure,"
The beholders of such images are presumed to be
male. Feminist film scholar, Laura Mulvey, articulated similar ideas as
operati11g in the realm of film, and established that the female body is,
today, a site of contestation. She saw "Woman as Image, Man as Bearer
of the Look."
She affirmed that the gaze implied power over that which
is gazed at, and questioned the manner in which the determining male
gaze, paramount in film, is taken for granted. Looking is, of course,
always an act that involves a power relationship, and feminists rightly
question who looks and who is looked at. (Touching is equally a power
Spectatorship and Representation 3
similarly in certain areas of secular art; however, in several other areas,
it may not be too relevant. .
A sacred monument where such an application of spectatorsh1p
proves to be irrelevant is the early Buddhist stupa ofBharhut
to around 100 B. C. We may consider two of several sensuously pmsed
stone females carved against the pillars of the railing that encircled the
mt stupa. The heavy sensuality of one (Fig. 1), and the provocative
:of the limbs of the other (Fig. 2) might suggest, at first glance, that
11ere created to delight male viewers. To locate these images in an
1priate context, however, it is necessary to consider the patronage
:se works of art, the audience who viewed them, and the function
1 these images fulfilled.
ti'ig. 2 Chanda Yakshi, Bharhut stupa, circa 100 B. C. Indian Museum,
Spectatorship and Representation 5
The railing around the Bharhut stupa was constructed as a result of
community patronage in which each of its pillars, crossbars and coping
lengths were donated by different individuals. It would be so easy to
assume that these sensuous female images were created in order to
satisfy the viewing pleasure of male donors. But a study of the stupa's
numerous inscriptions enables us to set aside any such facile assumption.
Figure 1, labelled Sirima devata, was commissioned by a woman, and by
no ordinary woman but a Buddhist nun. Figure 2, labelled Chanda
yakshi, was donated by a monk, reverend Budharakhita who, the
inscription specifies, "has abandoned all attachment". Several other
comparable instances may be found along the Bharhut railing. Thus, the
curvacious figure of Sudarsana yakshi was donated by reverend monk
Kanaka, a preacher of the law, and Culakoka devata, standing beneath
a tree, was gifted by venerable monk Pamthaka.
Clearly, one needs to
take a few steps back to ponder over the situation.
Consideration of the intended audience likewise suggests a shift from
the spectatorship model of the West. The Bharhut stupa was a sacred
relic mound built to enshrine a casket that contained a portion of the
relics of the Buddha after his cremation. Buddhist pilgrims visited the
site to gain proximity to the relics and to experience the unseen
presence of the Buddha. The Bharhut stupa was ritual space and public
domain. Male and female, young and old would have made the
pilgrimage and, in the course of repeated ritual circumambulation of
the stupa, they would have been exposed to the images carved against
the pillars. We find, then, that the Bharhut images were neither
necessarily commissioned by men,_nor intended to be viewed solely by
What was the function of such imagery? This is a complex issue to
which there is no single, simple answer; rather, it requires
acknowledgement of the fact that more than one set of priorities was in
play. Two figures are labelled devata, a term applied to a minor female
divinity, and two are yakshis, lesser deities associated with nature. Clearly
these are semi-divine figures; yet their sensuous portrayal raises questions
and requires reiteration of the positive association of woman with
fertility, growth, abundance, prosperity and hence, the auspicious.
The popularity of the motif of woman standing beneath a tree, with
one. leg wrapped around the trunk and one arm pulling its branches
downwards, is partly explained by an ideology that glorified woman. In
ancient India it was believed that woman, by her very touch, could cause
a tree to blossom or bear fruit. Woman's fertility was thus transferred, in
a mysterious manner, to the tree; in turn, she too may have become more
fertile through contact with its abundant foliage. The most pqpular
ancient legend concerned the ashoka tree which blossomed if touched
:1e poet and dramatist Kalidasa, who lived around 400 A. D.
'duced this theme into two of his works, the poem Meghaduta or
ud Messenger" and the play Malavikagnimitra that tells of the love
ing Agnimitra for young Malavika. In Meghaduta the hero, parted
l his beloved, addresses the cloud whom he sends with his message
[here stands a scarlet ashoka tree, its branches swaying; a glorious kesara
ree near the bower of madhavi creepers bordered with red amaranth; the
tshoka tree craves, as I do, the feel of my beloved's foot; the kesara desires,
LS I do, wine from her mouth; these trees pretending they need this to
>ring them to blossom.
association of the flowering of the ashoka tree with the touch of a
an's foot became so well established that it was brought into play in
)aundarya Lahiri. Describing the radiance ofParvati's feet with their
lanting designs in henna, the poet tells us that the gods, not daring
uch them in homage, address them verbally in salutation. Mter all,
:twas inordinately jealous even of the ashoka trees in the pramada
;t that desired the touch of her feet.
later Sanskrit text, Tantrasara, codified these ideas and provided an
e list of trees and the exact action by which a woman caused them
ossom or bear fruit.
Thus we read that the vakula and karnikara
:len-yellow flowers) will blossom if a woman "sprays them with the
rosia of her ;mouth". The karnikara also blooms to the sound of
en's conversation. The mango and neem trees will blossom to the
d of their laughter. The tilaka (saffron flowers), nameru (rudraksha
s) and piyala (a type offruit) will blossom at the sound of a woman
ng. The kuruvaka and sindhuvara trees will respond if a woman
races them; the orange flowering kadamba and the fragrant champak
>lossom if the tree is just touched by a woman.
t texts known as Shilpa Shastras confirm that the potency of
en's fertility and its equation with growth, abundance and prosperity
o women becoming a sign of the auspicious. In fact, women seem
LVe served an apotropaic function whereby her auspiciousness was
cally transferred to the monument upon which she was sculpted or
ted. A royal palace, a Buddhist stupa, a Hindu or Jain shrine, gained
spiciousness and fortune when adorned with the figure of a woman.
lrissan art text of the tenth century, the Shilpa Prakasa,' that provides
elines for practising temple architects and sculptors, categorically
; that figures of women are a prerequisite on the walls of templer;.
wice of phrase underscores the significance of the theme. "As a
e without a wife, as frolic (play) without a woman, so without (the
e of woman) the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no
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Spectatorship and Representation 7
Fig. 3 Walls of Khajuraho circa 1100 A. D.
(Photo : Archaeological Survey of India.)
figures within the confines of an upright rectangle. The poses and the
manner of positioning these figures, as explicated in the text, find their
visual counterpart in the profusion of female images that decorate the
walls of temples in Khajuraho (Fig. 3) or Bhubaneshvar.
arrl'""\rrl;nn- f-J'""\ 1-'h.::. \:'l,,j]_,n, P.v-rrhrrr-.rt'co -+ ,.H ....... rv'IIO.,.... ,.......,...,,1,..1 h...,.
ror ( darpana), smell a lotus (padma-gandha), adorn herself with ketaki
rers (ketaki-bandha), or garland herself with a branch ( dalamalika). She
ld be young and innocent (mugdha), haughty and offended (manini),
sive (vinyasa), or bashful (gunthana). She could play with a parrot
asarika), be a dancer (nartaki), or a drummer (mardala), adjust her
lets (nupura-padika), or hold a fly-whisk (chamara). She could also be
other with her infant in her arms (matr-murti). Walls of northern
ples display all of these types, and additional images such as a woman
ing with a ball, fastening her skirt, or shooing away a monkey. As an
e, we might note that the reasons that motivated the production of
ale images are the very ones that inspired the carving of embracing
ples and overflowing foliage. Couples and lush vegetation were as
:h signs of the auspicious as woman herself.
)ne may then affirm that sensuous female images, including those
red against the Bharhut railing, were not produced to satisfy the
ring pleasure of men. Whatever the actual position of women in
ety during the first century B. C. such imagery is likely to have sent
a positive message and been viewed by women as a powerf1,1l
mation, and a sign of affirmative engenderment. As twentieth
tury viewers, inundated with exploitative female imagery, we perhaps
i to overlook the ambience, and the relative "state of innocence"
1r to the mechanical reproduction of visual images.
: is curious that the rich visual record has been so marginalized in
sidering the position of women in ancient India. There is a continued
iency to place credence in the Laws of Manu, written roughly two
turies after Bharhut was sculpted. In its infamous declaration that
ies woman any independence, this "legal" text articulates woman's
tion solely in relation to a male relative, first her father, then her
band, and finally her sons.
Margaret Miles's observations on the
>centric attitude in medieval studies are wholly relevant here. The
istian theological literature on which much reliance has been placed
produced by educated male monastics, and Miles criticizes attempts
J.nderstand a historic community entirely from study of the writings
few of its most uncharacteristic members"Y Whether or not Manu
a misogynist, he was certainly a member of a restricted educated elite;
study of a range of visual images is more representative of the values
Kiety in general, and likely to provide a better understanding of the
and position of women in his time. It is worth remarking that an
dent of chance, rather than deliberate choice, resulted in Manu
tg one of the first texts to be translated into English. Once it gained
status of the "authentic" legal text,
logocentric British and Indian
>lars marginalized both inscriptional evidence and visual artistic
erial in favour of the literary text. Buddhologist Gregory Schopen
Spectatorship and R4msentation 9
studies, highlighting the time-lag between the appearance of an idea in
a text and its widespread adoption by a community. He speaks of the
danger of using "textual sources as if they were somehow descriEtions
of actual behaviour," and highlights "the almost certain non-congruency
between an ideal and the actual" _13
Information at variance with Manu comes from an important and
ignored source-the numerous donative inscriptions found on the
ancient monuments of India. Over two-thirds of the donations at
Bharhut are from women, both nuns and lay women, indicating that
women held property in their own names and were free to dispense with
their wealth as they desired. Of the 631 donative inscriptions at the
Sanchi stupa, close to half record gifts from women. Similar evidence
comes from the richly adorned stupa at Amaravati (first and second
centuries A. D.) where women, including a number of nuns, donated
money towards the decoration of the stupa. At the adjoining Buddhist
monastic site of Nagarjunakonda (mostly third century), entire
monasteries, chapels and stupas were gifted by highly placed women
from the royal circle. While Manu wrote around the year 200 A. D. the
monuments at Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda span
the period from 100 B. C. to 400 A. D.
Manu's statement that groups women with shudras, as those to whom
education is denied, is also somewhat suspect. It seems to be contradicted
by the Amarakosa, a lexicon offourth century date. Side by side with the
terms acharya and upadhyaya, for religious instructor and teacher, it also
lists their feminine counterparts, acharyaa and upadhyayi. If women
were denied education as Manu indicates, it is even less likely that they
would have risen to the status of educators as suggested by theAmarakosa
lexicon, written shortly thereafter.
Even stronger evidence on the education of women comes from
another source-the literary output of women poet-saints. Here, I shall
restrict myself to the example of two women from Tamil Nadu on whom
I have written elsewhere, one belonging to the sixth century and the
other to around the year 800 A. D.
In the legends of their lives, their
education is never mentioned, and one may have assumed they were
uneducated but for the corpus of their poems which proves that both
were accomplished poets. Sixth century Karaikkal Ammaiyar wrote an
antati of 100 verses; in this mode, the last word of each verse is used again
as the first word of the following verse. To maintain such a complex mode
and a studied effect for an entire 100 verses testifies to her poetic skills.
Eighth century Antal used six different types of metres in her poems. She
was a master of rhyme which, in the Tamil system, is the rhyming of the
first syllable of each line. There is little doubt from the flawless manner
in which Antal's poems are constructed of her mastery over prosody and
I must clarify that I am by no means claiming that women had an
:vated in ancient times. The attempt to assign them a
:ondary role was constant and pervasive. A consideration of the
Lguage assigned to male and female characters in Sanskrit plays is just
e example. Whether in Kalidasa, or in later dramas, the king and his
1rt speak the courtly refined language of Sanskrit, while the queen
::l her circle of ladies speak in the popular speech termed Prakrit. A
)re blatant manner of reiterating gender distinctions is difficult to
e Goddess: positive engenderment
s intriguing to consider the dictum "Men Act and Women Appear"
:he context of the Indian tradition which proposes the exact opposite
asserting that the active principle is feminine. India's ancient
luential philosophic system of Samkhya speaks of the existence of two
mordial principles, Prakriti and Purusha. Female Prakriti is primordial
while male Purusha is pure consciousness. We are not back,
.vever, to the binary opposition of woman/nature and man/culture.
nkhya stresses the dynamic role of female Prakriti; she is the creative
trix from which all manifestations appear. Male Purusha is the
sive observor of the on-going transactions of Prakriti. A philosophic
that highlights the crucial role of the female is certainly a basis
positive engenderment.
<eminist writing has emphasized that the body is more than just a
logical entity; it is also a historically specific entity invested in ideology.
India's history, the home has been lauded as a woman's
ce, and serving her husband and bearing children has been put
.vard as her goal in life. The ultimate blessing given to a woman is
mangali bhava" or "may you be a sumangali (one whose husband is
1g) ".Implied in this blessing is the thought that a woman should be
'ortunate as to predecease her husband. Only the truly exceptional
nan defied this rigid system to move out of her home which was
posed to provide her total fulfilment.
'et, the position of the goddess, as exemplified in that seminal
Devi Mahatmyam or "Glory of the Goddess," provides a role
iel at variance with women's conventional identity. Devi is created
ombat certain asuras or demons whom the gods cannot or do not
1 to face (this is left ambiguous). She is so beautiful that the
:as wish to marry her rather than battle with her; however she forces
n into a battle which she wins. Devi challenges the stereotype in
she is on her own, unprotected by a male; in fact, she embodies
)le reversal of sorts. Her awesome and overwhelming power is
:ndary. When provoked and inflamed by the demons, a burst of
Spectatorship and Representation II
c e goddess Kali. Born from Devi's anger, and created to perform
1earsom , d f D .,
certain feats of destruction, Kali represents the darker Sl e o eVl s
personality. .
It is noteworthy that Devi is worshipped by both men and women; m
.c. e of the most powerful poetry on Kali, the dark aspect of the
1act, som Wh"l Ra p d'
goddess, has been written by male 1 e rna rasa s
Bengali poems to Kali, written m the m1d-e1ghteenth century, are
the best known,17 poets across India glorified the goddess. Twentieth
....,amil poet Bharati for instance, wrote several poems on the
century .1. ' b d"
ss and the verses that follow are from a hymn that em o 1es
greatgo e ,
his cosmic vision of her glory:
When the worlds explode and shatter
their collision
like clamour of thunder
provides the beat for your dance.
In that great void
blood dripping fiends sing in glee.
The refrain of their song
the rhythm of their verses .
blends with the rhythmic beat of your footsteps.
0 Kali, Chamundi, Kankali,
Your dance is a dance of ecstasy.
Mother, Mother,
like a magnet you lure me
to watch your rapturous dance.
Desolate space
seems to be drawn into
a vortex of empty darkness .
Forms disperse, dissolve ...
Shakti's dynamic hosts
scatter in disarray ...
Ghouls of extinction
shrieking "Hal hal hol hol"
roam in that great void.
There you wander,
growling in drunken fury
you dance your terrible dance.
Mother, Mother,
like a magnet you lure me
to watch your rapturous dance.
Bharati clearly visualized the .goddess as the vital active force pro_ posed
by SamkliY<J: philosophy. The major presence the m
Indian cultural and religious scenario indeed constitutes a mamfestatlon
Of nositiVP f"nO"PnrlPrTnPnt
V"ere there women artists in India?
'he first generittion of feminist art historians has demonstrated
b.at because we do not hear about women artists does not mean
b.at they did not exist. One of their accomplishments has been
b.e rescue of women artists from oblivion, although the attempt to
1clude them in standard histories of art has not been entirely
llccessful. We have learned, too, that "anonymous" often meant.
In view of the meagre evidence on the existence of women painters
1 tndia, I would like to point to an artistic convention that implies the
recise opposite. India has a genre of painting known as Ragamala,
terally Garland of Musical Modes, in which different ragas or musical
1odes were represented visually by specific artistic conventions. The
: ~ g a known as Dhanasri is traditionally evoked by an image of a woman
ainting a picture (Fig. 4), apparently of her lover. The verse that
ccompanies the painting reads, "Taking a lovely drawing board she
raws his picture in many forms- Dhanasri- the great beauty, with the
)Veliness of the blue lotus."
Such a visual convention could only have
risen in a milieu in which women painters were known, accepted and
A range of eighth to twelfth century literary works that have been
Lrgely bypassed suggest that women were competent portraitists, and
1at they frequently painted portraits of young women for use in
Fig. 4 Dhanasri Ragini as a woman painter, detail, Malwa, circa 1650.
Bharat Kala Bhavan. (Photo : Asian Art Archives,
Spectatorship and Representation 13
marriage negotiations. We know from experience with photography in
India, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that
women photographers set up "zenana studios" to photograph ladies
who did not wish to submit themselves to a male gaze, even that of a
photographer. It is likely that a similar situation existed throughout
India's history with regard to painted portraits of women, and this may
have encouraged women painters to specialize in portraiture.
ancient tale speaks of the great skill of a woman painter (shilpini) who
served also as her king's emissary to prince Sundarasena to whom she
carried a portrait of princess Mandaravati. When the prince remonstrated
that the princess could not be as beautiful as the picture, the shilpini
immediately painted his likeness so convincingly that Sundarasena was
reassured that Mandaravati's portrait too must be true to life.
authors of these narratives, probably male, did not speak of these women
portraitists as rarities, but in a most matter of fact tone!
The belief that women were specially renowned for line drawing is
expressed in a play by Rajasekhara (circa 1000 A. D.) titled Viddha-
Salabhanjika or "Portrait Statue", that centres around a king who falls in
love with a woman whom he sees first in a dream, then as a painted mural,
and finally as a statue carved against a pillar. Commenting on the painted
image, the king opines that it must be the work of a woman since the
outline has been drawn with such perfection that there was no need to
correct any lines.
The clear implication of the remark that is quite
incidental to the storyline, is that women frequently took to painting as
a vocation rather than regarding it as a mere hobby.
While it is probable that fewer women took to the art of sculpting in
the medium of stone, a Chan della stone image of the Buddhist goddess
Tara carries an inscription which affirms that it was carved by a woman.
However, the epigraph does not give us her name, it merely provides the
name of her father-in-law who was apparently a renowned artist. It reads,
"This [image], of the daughter-in-law of artist Sri Satana." However, it
should be pointed out that a companion image of bodhisattva
Avalokitesvara, carved by her husband, also mentions Satana. The record
reads, "This [image] of Chhitp.aka, proficient in a knowledge of all arts,
son of artist Sri Satana."
Did women have any say in the manner of their representation in art?
While this issue needs investigation, I would suspect that the question of
agency did not arise. The Shilpa Shastras carried instructions on how
images should be created. Judging from what little we know of the
production of authoritative "canonical" texts, we may assume that the
shilpa texts were written by men. Certain texts put forward the model of
a vajra or double-headed thunderbolt, and the damaru or "waisted"
drum for the torso of woman,
and the result of following such
rere faithfully passed down from one generation of artists to the next.
t is .worth noting that the same proportional scheme was used to
1roduce both sacred and secular images so that goddess and mortal are
qually sensuous.
In the context of the sensuous, I would like to echo Carol Duncan's
ounsel to view the erotic "not as a self-evident universal category, but as
culturally defined L that is ideological in nature".
As a corollary,
may that what is erotic in one cultural context may not be
tewed thus m another. If this seems a curious statement, one need but
onsider the body parts that are considered provocative in different
'arts of the globe. Where the length of leg is constantly covered, its
xposure provocative; where the midriff is always exposed, it is
.ot an erotic marker. The erotic in art is, indeed, a culturally loaded
'he gendered language of official documents
centrality of gendered language to a discourse on power is a self-
VIdent truth today. A cultural idiosyncrasy that is manifest throughout
adia's history is the manner in which official charters of Indian
10narchs make use of metaphors and similes of bodily possession to
:>eak of territorial conquests. Since the land itself is spoken of in
anskrit as Prithvi or goddess earth, it is perhaps not surprising that
ingdoms, cities, districts and boroughs are gendered feminine. India
, "Bharat Mata" or "Mother India," and popular calendar prints often
Spectatorship and Representation 15
portray her in map-like position (Fig. 5). The connotations are
interesting: Mother India gives birth to her people; she nourishes,
sustains and protects them.
However, India is unique in that the ancient official copper-plate
charters issued by rulers to record territorial conquests and victorious
battles, as well as the transfer of land and properties, are routinely
phrased in sensual or sexual terms. Here is the relevant portion of a
charter that records the capture of the city ofTanjore by Chola monarch,
Vijayalaya around the year 850. In place of military terms, bodily
possession is pictured.
He, the Light of the Solar Race, took possession of Tanchapuri [Tanjore]
which was picturesque to the sight, was as beautiful as Alaka, had reached
the sky by its high turrets, and the whitewash of whose mansions appeared
like the scented cosmetic applied to the body, as he would seize by the hand
his own wife who has beautiful eyes, graceful curls, a cloth covering her
body, and sandal paste as white as lime, in order to sport with her.
Comparable terms are used in this Rash trakuta charter that speaks of the
seventh capture of the Chalukya kingdom.
Then in the battlefield which turned into the courtyard where a maiden
chooses her husband, Subhatunga Vallabha, without having heed to the
circumstances, forcibly took away the maiden Fortune of the Chalukya
family, wearing the garland of the fluttering banner.
While territorial capture may lend itself specially to metaphors of bodily
possession, such language is employed even to describe the collection of
taxes within the Rashtrakuta empire by King Krishna III.
When the festival of the coronation of this beloved of Prosperity ... at
which celestial nymphs danced and heavenly Rishis pronounced
benedictions, had taken place amidst joy, the quarters which began to
tremble and to be submissive on account of his [Krishna III] preparation
to exact tribute, as girls would have manifested tremor and affection at his
preparation to take their hand, became pleasing to him in consequence
of their observing the proper time for paying it [revenue] of .their own
accord, as the others [women] would have been dear to him in
consequence of their keeping to the auspicious juncture for giving away
themselves [to him].
Just as the erotic is a culturally defined and ideological concept, India's
routine use of similies of female bodily possession and submission, too,
must be viewed as a culturally specific phenomenon.
Art, as Larry Silver phrased it, is "a powerful, active and vital shaper of
We would all atrree that todav's visual bombardment in the
t!l.d film, is indeed purposeful, active and vital. In ancient times, before
he age of mechanical reproduction of visual images,
images and
>aintings occupied an influential position of great power. We should not
mderestimate the authority and inspiration provided to its viewers by
mcient imagery. Art is a form of rhetoric, a deliberate, contrived and
egulated means of persuasion. We tend to think of rhetoric as a verbal
kill; the importance of visual forms of rhetoric is only just beginning to
>e appreciated. Its power of persuasion, often insiduous as against the
nore direct verbal rhetoric, should not be underestimated.
This edited volume does not pretend to be a comprehensive text on
render in Indian art. Rather, it covers an array of themes through
:ssays that focus on specific case studies. While it is not necessarily
epresentative of the art of India, it attempts to maintain a balance
1etween ancient art and contemporary practice. If it a greater
,wareness of issues of gender and encourages more comprehensive
tudies on the subject, it will have achieved its aim. The major theme of
he goddess and her role in the positive engenderment of women, is but
,riefly mentioned, and only in the introduction. The issueis complex
.nd multi-faceted and demands independent treatment in a separate
The first essay, written from a feminist perspective, examines how
has been manipulated in scholarly writings to diminish the status
,f Indian art; ironically, both colonialist and nationalist discourses have
. greed in this process of engendering. Annapurna Garimella points out
tow gender, as a system of representation, assigns meaning by representing
omething as masculine or feminine. She analyses colonial writings to
how how Hindu art has been gendered feminine four times over, so that
[nally Hindu art came to signify the "lack" characteristic of all entities
endered feminine. She suggests that gender was implemented as a
.ominant mode of representation in achieving intellectual colonisation.
'he nationalist discourse was somewhat differently driven. Embarrassed
'Y the "immodesty" of sculpted women, who were such a central theme
1. Hindu art, the nationalist agenda bfmarginalizing these "embarrassing"
spects led to the diminution of Hindu art in general. Annapurna
xamines writings on art that may be read as a counter-discourse and
:J.at adopt either a process of masculinisation or of aggressive femini-
:ttion. Neither is found to be a satisfactory solution; the author
oncludes that all these strategies need critical scrutiny "till they no
mger have the capacity to signify historical practices in polarised,
endered terms".
Vishakha Desai considers standing male images created in the second
nd third centuries A. D. under Kushan rule, and her paper serves to
::mind us that gender is not a female issue. Kushan male images, both
.. .... . -
Spectatorship and Representation 1 7
Scholars who happily describe female sexuality in graphic terms,
speaking of pudenda and display a cu_rious timi_dity wher: it
comes to male images. Descnpt10ns of standmg bodhisattvas With
scarcely concealed sexual organs, refer only to the folds swags of the
dhoti. By the sixth century, this part of the male anatomy IS abstracted;
why, is an issue that future scholars may explore. Vishakha
suggests that the accent on sexuality was aspect a
chakravartin or universal emperor, and that It heightened the physiCal
presence of a male Why then did this notion recede in
importance in post-Kushan times? And what happens when the male
body, rather than the female, becomes _th_e object of the
In a tantalizingly brief essay,J oanna Williams addresses the Issue of the
construction of gender in the paintings and graffiti at the Sri Lankan site
of Sigiriya. If we are to believe the graffiti inscribed the_ eigh_th
and tenth centuries, as many as 500 women were painted m pairs
along the rock's "mirror wall". Art historians have interpreted these
images variously as queens of King Kassapa, as celestials, or
personifications of clouds and lightning. There is a lack ?f c?nsensus m
ancient opinions, too, that belongs so much closer m time to the
paintings than we do. Some of the 685 believe that the women
are queens, others that they are celestials; none suppo:t the
personification theory. Writers generally address one directly;
male. writers express their longing for the heartless women, while female
writers either sympathize with the women or compete with them .
Williams concludes that we cannot indulge in a rigid feminist reading in
view of the pluralism seen}n these ancient inscribed graffiti.
In an essay that explores the tradition of yoga in India and its ideal of
the yogic body, Daryl Yauner Harnisch and I hope to promote a deeper
appreciation oflndia's artistic tradition. It is indeed time to set aside the
tired criticisms on the absence of musculature on male bodies, or on the
whimsy of artists who carved females pivoting in impossible poses. The
Indian artistic tradition ignores musculature not through anatomical
ignorance, but because the ideal was the yogic body. In the tadasana
standing pose of yoga, the thigh moves imperceptibly into the pelvic
region, and the shoulder flows into the arms without any deep indentations
or sharp differentiation. Stomach muscles are relaxed, not taut, and
breath fills the body. The so-called "corkscrew" twist of the swivelling
females is little more than the simple lateral twist of yoga in which both
sides of the body are in simultaneous action. It is but natural that a
knowledge of yoga should permeate the body portrayed in art in a
country where yoga was and still is a part of everyday experience.
Regardless of whether the artist was a practitioner, the yogic body was at
least as visible an entity in India as the jogging body in the United States.
mography of world art, the yogic figure seated cross-legged in deep

Molly Emma Aitken interprets a group of eighteenth and nineteenth
ntury paintings of the so-called Kangra style from a post-modern and
ninist viewpoint. Post-modernism holds that meaning is not fixed for
time at the moment of production of a work of art; later viewers
nterpret images and the meanings they assign are as valid as the
riginal" meaning. Molly's paper examines paintings of the nayika and
r attendants that seem to conflate the viewer's gaze with that of the
rer. Her essay examines the very nature of looking, to gain an insight
:o modes of spectatorship in the Pahari courts. She examines the way
which, by flanking their mistress, serving her, gazing upon her, the
endants turn the woman into an object of reverence. The white sheet
hold up to shield the young woman's modesty from male eyes turns
.o a frame that displays her. The essay draws parallels between
intings of the nayika's toilette and the ritual preparation of an icon
d its subsequent darshan and veneration. VVhile she assumes that the
Lle gaze is primarily invoked, she also examines the issue of the female
in terms of women loving women. She agrees with feminist writers
lt women learn to view themselves as desirable, or otherwise, in terms
men's viewing. Is Linda Nochlin correct in maintaining that the
1agery of sexual delight or provocation has always been created about
men for men's enjoyment, by men"?
Molly's paper suggests that this
.y not be wholly applicable in the artistic milieu of the courts ofRajput
lia. Yet, Nochlin's remark that the meaning of the term "erotic" is
1fined to "erotic for men" applies in the Indian context as well.
frynaLyons' study of the traditional art communities of contemporary
iasthan reveals that persistence in posing the right questions to the
ht persons pays valuable dividends. Every male painter in Nathadwara
ormed her that women artists did not exist, while most women in
ists' families affirmed that they did, indeed, paint. She speaks of how
men casually place works in progress under the durrie in their living
a, and documents an instance in which a woman quite happily signed
husband's name to a painting she had just completed. Despite the
10rdinate and circumscribed role of women in Rajasthan, painting is
xation allowed to them, probably because it can be pursued within
home. Because of Rajasthan's very specific cultural mores, Tryna
tcludes that women researchers will be better able to carry her
estigations further, and examine the extent and nature of female
ticipation in Nathadwara's artistic production.
'Coitus Interruptus and Love in Indian Cinema" analyses the manner
which cinematic images weave in and out of contestations over
ional identity. Films are perceived by the state as having tremendous
-.1 . 'I - -
Spectatorship and Representation 19
restrictions by the State Board of Censors have driven producers to
esort to indirect suggestive modes of depiction that are often coarse and
::Ulgar, and which end up conveying the very tha_t the
thorities sought to eradicate. The female body is the pnme Site of
and regulation and the object of maximum "coi_tus
interruptus" as a cinematic technique to camera
at the crucial moment, so that the screen IS filled mstead With close-ups
of a fragmented body. At the very instanc_e of to censorship
regulations, audiences are presented With Vle:'s of female
breasts and hips. Lalitha comments wryly that It seen:s that_ th_e
industry waitS with bated breath for the next censorship restnctwn ..
Preminda Jacob focuses on the gigantic "cut-out" images of Tamil
Nadu's ex-chief minister, Jayalalitha, many of which are over 70 ft. in
height and serve as dramatic facets of the visual culture of urban
She examines the pivotal role played by such representatiOns m
disseminating, regenerating, validating and consolidating political po':'er.
Preminda traces three stages injayalalitha imagery. In the pre-electiOn
phase, Jayalalitha was portrayed together with chief minister
and filmstar, MGR, with whom she had starred m twenty films. Once
elected to power, she was invariably portrayed alone, in a strictly frontal
pose, wearing a cape which functions as an attribute, enabling viewers to
instantly identify the portrait as Jayalalitha, regardless of its to
her. Pre-election images had emphasized her femininity; now all hints of
sexuality are suppressed. The vast pillar-like form, shrouded in the cape,
contains hints of androgynity and functions as a signifier of authoritative
power. In a later phase, the "cut-outs" functioned as icons. Jayalalitha,
known as Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader) is the deity of the
AIADMK party, known to her followers simply as Amma or Mother. Like
a temple deity, she too gives darshan, and just as boards in temples
announce the timings for darshan, so too a board outside her home
announces times when she will appear on the balcony and give darshan
to her supporters.
In her intricately argued paper, "Body as Gesture: Indian Women
Artists at Work," Geeta Kapur examines the work of two living artists,
Nalini Malani and Arpita Singh, in the context of two women who
painted in the first half of the twentieth century, India's Amrita Sher-Gil
and Mexico's Frida Kahlo. Sher-Gil represented her women subjects in
and through the experience of otherness; she was deeply protective of
them and allowed them their seclusion. Kahlo's paintings present a
sharp contrast to those of Sher-Gil; disgorged body parts and an aborted
fetus revolve around her and suggest a state of catharsis. Both these
influential women were of mixed parentage; Geeta Kapur proposes that
their hybridity and exoticism gave them an added edge, an advantage.
tting _to national sovereignty that the native woman of genius be only
t In the second half of her paper, Kapur demonstrates the
nner m which Nalini Malani and Arpita Singh are heirs to Sher-Gil
l Kahlo. their manner of relaying larger social issues
an autobwgraphy. Female trauma is the subject matter of
lam s male, when he appears, is androgynous and
Arpita Smgh IS seen to be heir to Sher-Gil's female ennui and
tic reverie, and a worthy complement to Kahlo in the manner in
.ch she_ breaks cycle of female masochism and makes the body
)I: agam. Despite the apparent attractiveness of Arpita's paintings,
pite the fact that her picture surface teems with ornament her
vasive theme is death and dying. Geeta Kapur's analysis focuses,both
the woman artist herself and on her painted image. What she calls
ture emerges_ from the person of the artist as an expressive moment.
lopefully, this volume of essays will raise a new consciousness. of
issues in the field oflndian art. It may even provoke a radical
ur:km? of art historical issues. This would be a significant
tnbutwn. As Gnselda Pollock so aptly remarked in the set of
:stions_ she raised for feminist art historians,32 art does not merely
>trate Ideology; rather it is constitutive of ideology.

. da Nochlin, "Women, Art and Power" in her Women, Art and Power and Other
ays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
.n Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC & Penguin Books, 1972), p. 47.
i, p.51.
1ra Mulve_Y, Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
:9), espeCially Chapter 3, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", p. 19.
details of inscriptions see Appendix 1 "Correlation of Donative Inscriptions
L Bharhut Sculptures" in my forthcoming Discourse in Early Buddhist Art: Visual
Tatives of India.
)ose translation of a verse from Kalidasa' s. Meghaduta.
.ndarya Lahiri: The Ocean of Beauty (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House
2), p. 229, verse 85. '
s _information was first brought to light by Pratapaditya Pal in his Hindu
gton and Iconology According to the Tantrasara (Los Angeles: Vichitra Press 1981)
). , ,
:_e Boner Sadasiva Rath Sarma, translated & annotated, Silpa Prakasa
tden: EJ.Bnll, 1966), p. 46. .
ndy Doniger O'Flaherty & Brian K. Smith, trs., The Laws of Manu
armondsworth:Penguin Books, 1991), p. 115 (Chapter 5, verses 147,148).
rgaret Miles, Image as Insight. Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and
ular Cultures (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), p. 9.
,..;,...,..1.,.,.. 1\lf,... ..... ... .._ ___ ... : ____ , __ _
Spectatorship and Representation 21
I3Gregory Schopen, "Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism: The
Layman/Monk Distinction and the Problem of the Transference of Merit", Studien
zur Indologie und Iranistik 10 (1985), p. 23.
I4For an analysis of inscriptions from early Buddhist sites, see my "Women Donors
and Early Buddhist Art" in a forthcoming volume of Marg on Women as Patrons
of Art and Culture.
IS See my Slaves of the Lord: The Path of the Tamil Saints (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal,
1988), Chapter 7, "Two Women Saints", pp. 117-38. Also my Antal and her Path of
Love. Poems of a Woman Saint from South India (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).
Isprior to the better known Vedanta.
I7Jadunath Sinha, trs., Rama Prasada's Devotional Songs: The Cult of Shakti (Calcutta:
Sinha Publishing House, 1966).
IBMy own translation of verses 1 and 3 of the poem "Oozhik kootu," which may be
as "Dance of Annihilation." For Tamil version, see K.G.Seshadri, "Shakti
and Other Poems" (Thanjavur: TRN Memorial Library & Publications, n.d.).
I9Klaus Ebeling, Ragamala Painting (New Delhi: Ravi Kumar, 1973), p. 116.
2oThe fact that Indian portraits do not aim at a verisimilitude is irrelevant in this
C.H.Tawney, Katha Sarit Sagara (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1968 reprint of
1880 original) Vol. 2, Book 12, Chapter 101:370.
Babulal Shukla Shastri, Viddhashalabhanjika-Natika (Varanasi: Chaukhambha
Oriental, 1976), p. 35. This is a Sanskrit edition with a Sanskrit commentary and
a Hindi translation .
K.N.Dikshit, "Six Sculptures from Mahoba", Memoirs Archaeological Survey of India
1921, pp. 1-4. The two inscriptions read: citrakara sri satanas tasya vadhukasya iyam
chha; and citrakara sri satan(LS tasya putrah sakala silpa vidya kusalah chhitnakas tasyeyam
Ganapati Sthapati, Shirpa Shennul (Madras: Toril Nutpa Kalvi Iyakkam, 1978), p.
197. This Tamil volume is a compilation from a series of ancient Shilpa texts.
Carol Duncan, "The Aesthetics of Power in Modern Erotic Art", Heresies 1 (1977).
Quoted is verse 45 of the Tiruvalanka<!.u copper plates. See South Indian
Inscriptions, vol. 3, p. 418.
Verse 10 of the San jan Plates, as translated by Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Cam-
bridge: Blackwell, 1990), p. 249.
D.R.Bhandarkar, "Karhad Plates of Krishna III: Saka-Samvat 880", Epigraphiaindica
4 (1896-97), verse 33: 289.
Larry Silver, "The State of Research in Northern European Art of the Renaissance
Era", Art Bulletin LXVIII (1986), p. 527-31.
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in
his Illuminations (New York: 1968), p. 217-52.
Linda.Nochlin, "Eroticism and Female Imagery in Nineteenth Century Art", a
1972 essay reprinted in her Women, Art and Power and Other Essays (New York:
Harper & Row, 1988), p. 136-44.
Griselda Pollock, "Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Histori-
ans". WnmPn.'< Art Tnnrnn.l4 11 9RS\). n. 39-47.
Engendering Indian Art
s an institutionalized discipline, Indian art history is approximately
1. 200 years old. Whether the scholarship is about the Buddha
te::Ople sculpture, or the conceptual capacity of native
b.sts, Indian art history ?e read as a gendered discourse. Reading
as has become a politically urgent issue, since this gendering is
Le maJOr reason for the marginalization oflndian art within the wider
ld of art history. By scrutinizing Indian art historical writings from
feminist perspective, I seek to chart how gender has been
to diminish Indian art. In part, my essay is to raise
abou_t the narration oflndian art history} But by reading
e history of Indian art as a body of knowledge constructed with
ndered I seek to resist institutional practices that
the dimmutwn of Indian art. Judgements made under
lomal atten:pts to secure dominance were buttressed by nationalist
10lars seeking to construct an authentic Hindu tradition. These
sires resulted in Indian art being variously deemed obscene,
and corrupt at the very moment when indigenous
Jst:r was documented and native spirituality celebrated.
It Is. at this site, of both difference and dominion, that the discourse
Ind.Ian art becomes gendered. Whether seeking to articulate
d_ differentiate western "vigorousness" or "virility" by characterizing
i1an art as "effemina_te" or "enervated", or by performing a counter-
moeuvre, b?th colo mal and nationalist scholars employed the rhetoric
WI_th masculinity and femininity as the two sides of the
com, entire history of Indian art was catalogued and
lanzed m relation to a given scholar's agenda. Using gendered
the "Indian artistic mind", characterised as fantastic and
was often diagnosed as degenerate or lacking conceptual
If colonial scholars constructed gendered histories to exhibit India's
lack, then scholars too deployed gendered metaphors.
mg many of the categones constructed by European scholars, writers
-:t. --....1 ............ ...- T-..J.: ... _ __ ...
Engendering Indian Art 23
problem of gender as a representational tool in the writing of history.
Given the discursive lineaments of Indian art history, is it possible to
redeem, as writers like Pupul Jayakar have attempted, a feminised artistic
practice? If not, what are the consequences for the writing of Indian art
history? This last set of issues will allow me to address the implications
of performing such readings, and of asking such questions.
Gender as representation
Contemporary feminist theory has recently begun to address the
problem of reading cultural processes and procedures as gendered
discourses. I am especially interested in the process of gendering non-
human entities. Feminisation as a mode of representation builds its
narrative power through "certain theoretical formulations of femininity
in relation to some other structure or ordering principle. Thus it is
femininity and therefore feminisation viewed and manipulated as a
discursive position and as the weak term in a binary opposition of
masculine/feminine ... [The] use offeminisation in this argument rests
on its being perceived within this cultural strategy of 'the feminine' as
a sign of lack or an absence."
Gender here works as a mode of representation which constructs and
works within a system, correlating sex to cultural productions based on
social values and hierarchies. This system assigns meaning by representing
something as masculine or feminine. It also creates and assigns identities
and values to entities and locates them in a hierarchy. How each entity
is placed is not fixed in.any culture or historical moment, but is always
a process of contestation between various constituencies. The hegemonic
representation emerges out of this struggle in which it is embedded.
Defined as such, gender and its use as representational mode allows
us to analyze masculinisation and feminisation as semiotic categories
consolidated through the use of metaphors. By identifying how these
metaphors are gendered, one may then examine how gender produces
"particular ideological positions through the promotion of some analogies
and occlusion of others, and even how analogy itself can displace analysis
by silently insisting on particular objects as simply reflections, expressions,
or homologies of a larger whole."
Gender as meaning effect
The feminisation of cultural processes and procedures is based on
dialectical constructions. In binary oppositions, two terms are marked
with the ascription of absence or presence. Alternately, both terms can
be assigned presence with the essence of one placed in polar
relationship to the other. Once a binary opposition is instituted to
rf'nrpo.;:pont rP-btinn"hin romf's into nlav. Gender as a
polarization is then resolved in a triadic relationship
th a third entity .. For example, in a gender dialectic, male might be
t forth as .the thesis and female as the antithesis. Synthesis might then
: located m faX:Uily, society, culture, humankind. Yet this mutually
.ces.sary relationship does not guarantee equal value for both entities
:fioency or lack on one of the proposition requires the
apparently contradiCtory proposition that is then reconciled
t a higher level of abstraction.
Teresa de Lauretis has argued that gender is both a socio-cultural
and a semiotic apparatus which produces meaning. She writes
at If. gender representations are social positions which carry differential
:amngs, then for to be represented and to represent oneself
or as female Implies the assumption of the whole of those
effi t "
- . ec s. . _Y extensiOn, characterizing non-human entities as
:sculme or femmme also implies the assumption of those meaning

T?ese meaning effects, created through the deployment of gender-
:cific construct the commentative and interpretive frames
C?mx:nentative writing in Indology acts as a frame around
and people. This framing allows the writer to take
and Indian an "Other" needing description and ordering so as
for a European audience. What is ordinary for
hke prayer and ritual, is re-framed as bizarre or exotic. By
Ituatmg the the. scholar becomes the agent who, via his or
r representations, domesticates the foreign. These descriptions most
en use m.etonymy (banyan trees are associated with India, banyan
es are India) and metaphor (Indian is analogous to jungle) to evoke
comfort or even fear .in .the reader. Interpretive writing adds another
me ar?und the descnption, by difference and reintegrating it
o hierarchy. For example, Hmdu polytheism is made different
savage) through description. This alterity is then
attnbuting it to the environment or the race. By locating
outsi?e agency of Indians, the interpretation tames the
eat. Tha: IS, Indrans are not responsible. The scholar then becomes
coun:ermg who is necessary to both imagine and diminish the
.In.dia represents. Once the scholar performs this interpretive
cnsis IS managed by returning Indians into union with all of
but at.a lo.wer rung of the hierarchy. Scholars utilize gender
India, Simultar:eously .making comparisons and ranking it
t the followmg section, I will argue that Indology and its
texts mtellectually justified the colonization that was being
tenally effected through economic and military weapons. I will also
ue th:-t scholars implemented gender as one of their dominant

Engendering Indian Art 25
Indology, hegemonic texts, religion and art
The rise of European commercial, political and cultural interests.
in India coincided with, and to a large extent underwrote, Indology as
a scholarly pursuit. But the history of Indology is part of the larger
history of Orientalism. Oriental scholars structured the history of Asia
along binary oppositions such as Orient and Occident, spiritualism and
materialism, savage and civilized, degenerate and progressive and,
most important for us, masculine and feminine. Indology and
Orientalism in general were premised on Europeans functioning as
producers and observers, while India and Indians became passive
objects. The objectified Other (India) was constructed and located in
a polarized relationship to the Self (Europe). As Gyan Prakash
indicates, once India was
construed to be outside and opposite of Self ... both the self and the Other,
the rational and materialist British and the emotional and spiritual Indian,
appeared as autonomous, ontological, and essential entities ... the two
essential entities ... made sense only in the context of each other and the
traces of each in the other, which suggested that heterogeneity and
difference lay beneath the binary opposition, although the process of
rendering India into an object external both to its representation and to
the knower concealed this difference.
This concealment obscured the conditions which permitted the writing
of Indian history: the production of knowledge was enabled by
colonialism, while the binary oppositions found in "knowledgeable"
representations of India became naturalized and thus justified
Colonization consequently synthesized the Self (Europe)
and the Other (India) in a hierarchical relationship in which they were
dialectically opposed.
Scholarly studies oflndian culture began in earnest in the eighteenth
century. As Europe began to expand its trade interests, and as travel to
cultures far beyond Europe increased, it became necessary to find
procedures that assimilated these fundamentally different experiences.
Nicholas Dirks writes that when Europe and the rest of the world
began to encounter each other in new ways, "colonialism provided a
theatre for the Enlightenment project, the grand laboratory that linked
discovery and reason."
With the need to make meaning from these
new experiences, political and commercial interests also became
"compelling reasons to invent systematic beliefs about cultural differences,
uniting such disparate projects as the precarious formation of national
identity and the relentless exploitation of economic resources."
Indology then was one such attempt to systematize and catalogue
cultural differences. It must be understood not just as an objectifying
- ...__- _, _
Indology was substantiated through two different yet
and poli_tical agendas. A general European
erest m the _ongms of Man, history, civilization was combined with
to the colonized subject as known, differentiated and
ed .. W1th agendas in place, the pre-eighteenth century view
India. and Hmdmsm as monstrous, incomprehensible and bizarre
:arne madequate.
2 ,
India became the site _of important scholarly debates
mt the languages, the antiquity of civilization,
i practice_ of religiOn m ancient and modern times. Once Europe
stnve "progress", its difference from the past and from
li_zations perceived as backward or dispossessed of time needed to be
:hed,. _and classified in order to construct European
demity. The affimtiesfound betweenSanskritandEuropeanlanguages
>wed sch?lars t? an "Aryan race" from which both Europeans
l Brahmms ongmated. This origin theory allowed India to be seen
has a "source" and a "past" for European civilizations. Unlike classical
long commercially unexploitable, ancient India was
tgmed as bemg alive historically incapable of change. This
European m search of their origins to be interested in
Sansknt while characterizing "Indian" as dispossessed of
o_gress Frozen under the scholar's objectifying gaze, India remained
s1ve and stunted.l

'or the contradiction between India's "essentially static
ure and the need to_ account for change and specific moments of
was th_tough the creation of a deus ex machina.
-Y penod1z:d s tory mto a series of "Golden Ages" and linked
to foreign. mvas1_on (Greeks, Muslims) or Aryan/Brahmanic
nmance. Art history m particular adopted this mode. For example
Gupta period was heralded as the Golden Age of sculpture and much
made of the products of the fourth and fifth centuries when
ldhist art a protracted gestation under foreign
uence. _artistic production was a mere prelude to the
)ta creative gem us while later works were judged on their capacity to
the Gupta idiom. Cor:structed through such paradigms,
ntal h_Istory then became the history of stasis, growth, decline,
eneration and decadence.
Jong Sanskrit studies, the study of Hinduism also became a
nary actiVIty for Indologists. This new interest in Hinduism and
by a growing European interest in the comparative
of by who speculated on universal paganism,
myths of different nations in the world ... in the belief
all .religiOns spread from one single original source."
But this
nn ... ._.... __ ....._ .......... ...] 4.- L- --- _,__ "'lo.T .'1
Engendering Indian Art 27
European scholars used indigenous religions, particularly Hinduism, as
the principal mechanism through which representations of the colony
were generated. These characterizations, more often caricatures, became
dominant and were then dispersed through hegemonic texts such as the
writings of James Mill and G.W.F. Hegel.
James Mill and Indian art history
Mill's The History of British India, first published in 1817, was-written to
. counter the admiration for India among OrientalistsY Using knowledge
acquired and produced under the aegis of imperialism, he wrote the
first complete account of the subcontinent's history.
In this book, Mill
expresses an extremely condemning view of India. Conflating India
with Hinduism, he stated that Hindus were incapable of any other form
of government except a theocracy.
He also imagined Hindus, under
priestly guidance, as negotiating everything from the ordinary to the
portentous by seeking divine sanction. Mill's fictional, bovine Hindus
became historically incapable of producing laws and social structures
on a secular basis. Hinduism itself was characterized as a vague belief
system where imagination dominated reason.
On the arts of India, Mill heaped a particularly virulent diatribe. As
Gauri Viswanathan argues, Mill formulated standards for evaluating
art based on a "doctrine of utility."
For him, indigenous artistic
production was instrumental in exposing contemporary social and
religious practices. Works of art were deemed successes or failures based
on their utility in advancing bourgeois notions of civilization, democracy
arid industry. In Mill's history, art is never evaluated on its own terms
or given agency; it is always representative. His evaluation of William
Jones's translation and interpretation ofKalidasa' s romance, Shakuntala,
is typical.
Shakuntala is a fifth century play about a king and his consort who
become estranged due to a sage's curse. Because the king loses his
memory of her, a miscarriage of justice almost occurs when the king fails
to recognize his wife. In the end, everyone is eventually reunited. For
Mill, the play represented the wilfulness of Indian rulers and the native
population's inability to recognize and challenge it. While agreeing with
Jones that Shakuntala represented the pastoral genre perfected, Mill did
notcelebrate this perfection. Instead, he argued that this achievement
indicated a lack of development in Indian social consciousness. So
incapable were Indians of mounting a critique against the despotism
evidenced in the.play, that they instead gloried in its romanticism. As for
the rulers under whom this art form developed, Mill saw their despotism
and desire for self-gratification as overwhelming any latent social utility
in Tnrli::m nroduction. Analyzing Mill's argument, Gauri
ove for self-gratification, which became the value by which he lived.
erything that he produced, even his art, was (seen as) a reflection of
, incapacity to perceive ahigher good or duty"
(my parentheticals).
:leed, a writer in a contemporary Asiatic journal article, obviously
ected by Mill's views on the Indian imagination, compared it
favourably to Europe's historical relationship to the imagination. He
ted that Europeans, unlike Indians, "did not convert the lux-ury of
!ir imagination into a means of weakening and ejfeminating their
nds; but they did it as prompter to activity and a stimulant to high
terprise (italics mine) ."
Mill, like many other thinkers ofhis time, held that the state of the arts
lected the state of civilization. He found Indian art to be in a primitive
te for three specific technical reasons. Hindus lacked a 'true' arch,
ilt distastefully gargantuan structures and failed to develop one-point
rspective in painting.
Mill's writings construct what I earlier
tinguished as a commentative frame around India and Indians. His
preach is empirical and descriptive, and his account of South Asian
tory purports to represent things as-they-are. Mill's history provides
! grist for Hegel's idealist mill. Hegel's account, in turn, constructs an
erpretive frame, returning India into the fold of human history, but
1 lower level in the hierarchy.
:gel, art and India
rgely utilizing James Mill's work, Hegel too represented India as
ng essentially religious. Positing China and India as the two great
ilizations of antiquity in Asia, he characterized China as all matter and
lia as all spirit. Comparing Hinduism to "western" religions, Hegel
egorized Hinduism as a "natural" religion and contrasted it to the
're developed beliefs of the Jews, Greeks and Christians. Having
tracterized Hinduism as a religion structured by a belief in the
1soriness of the material world, he then depicted Hinduism as
!rwhelmed by its own imagination.
[n Hegel's philosophy, imagination or representation was the
::!rative mode of the material level of the mind, while reason or
1cepmal thought was the mode of the spiritual level. Religion involved
: material level of the mind through representation or the use of
:tges. In contrast, philosophy or spirituality involved conceptual
1ught. This approach understands imagination as the capacity to
>erience, recollect, reproduce and associate sensual images.
in its highest form, that of the 'creative imagination' (Phantasie, also
feminine) it makes up images without recourse to recollection or
experience .... She is an inferior form of reason that attempts theoretical
thought hnt nnlv nn hu n.f c:o,-..nco,,'"ll ;......., ... rpJ.. ...... ,,.,.,.1-.,..1 11-.... .... z..: ... z..
Engendering Indian Art 29
which it represents) does it in a plastic or material form (architecture, sculpture,
"tal" . )26
painting... 1 ICS mme
Art or phantasie is practiced universally; it extends from body
painting of "savages" to temple architecture. But,_ compared to
and other intellectual pursuits, art is most pleasmg but least ngorous, so
that "these forms themselves nevertheless seem to fall the tru_e
d d
f lifie "27 Hegel even more dismissively wntes that art IS
en s an o . - . .
about indulging and relaxing the spirit, whereas more we1ghty
"exertion". Even though "the softening of the heart which
reqmre ..
preoccupation with beauty can produce" may not be art may
still enervate the intellect, leading to

Hegel, making art and contemplating Beauty (art 1s
with articulating the beautiful) can become a femm1sed practice, one
characterized by a lack of seriousness of purpose. .
Since art is a less-than-perfect mode for representing Beauty, the
means by which art seeks to achieve its in its essence. Even
when "art subordinates itself to more senous auns m fact,
more serious effects (like realizing the Divine), the It uses for th1s
purpose is deception."29 Hegel's idealism sees art as bemg
about deception because it seduces the senses rather than_ engagmg the
intellect . .A.rt thus has the capacity to fool and should The
polarization of representation and conceptual s
is based on fantasy, with imagination and representation bemg designate?
as feminised modes of knowing. In contrast, conceptual thought
designated masculine. Both are necessary,. but thought 1s
placed much higher in the hierarchy than Imagmation.
For scholars using this model, art was naturally the product of
or the feminine. Hindu art, in this frarriework, was
four times over. First, it is a product oflndia, the land of
a feminine trait. Second, Hinduism is a religion of the Imagmation
fantasy and largely devoid of masculine: conceptual Third,
plastic forms, a feminised mode ofknmvmg, Hmduthought.
Fourth, the artistic essence of Hindu art IS fantastic and
feminine.3o Once this quadruple gender indemnity of Indian art IS
appreciated, the process of engendering Indian art becomes clearer.
A colonial representation of Indian art history
Alexander Cunningham was a colonial engineer who gained fame as
an archaeologist. In his scholarship, he underscored the supposedly
derivative nature oflndian art through the nomenclature he employed
.to periodize its art history-Indo-Grecian, Indo-Scythian,
'Such hyphenated nomenclature, however, was not used to a
.. ....... .. ..... ... _t !-.!" ............ ...l ..........:t-..
and. further extended so that within the history of
art history,. Hmdu art was considered particularly fanciful.
artwere conceived as more "rational," partly due
the1r monotheism and partly due to Buddhism's contact with Greco-
man in the frontier provinces of Gandhara.
For example,
en the study of Buddhist monuments, Cunningham's
1ortauons were based on the lessons offered by Buddhism's political
tory. The .at Sanchi exemplified "the wonderful sway a
gle enthus1astlc mdlVldual may succeed in establishing over the
nds ?fa whole people."
In this brief passage, the tropes of oriental
;pousm and Indian passivity are pressed into service to characterize
istic patronage, while also hinting at the lessons to be learned for
: of the colonial enterprise. By studying Buddhist
:hite,cture; Cufolningham suggested the British could develop better
1teg1es for rulmg India.
C.unfolingham further legitimated Buddhism and its study by racially
Its genealogy to the Aryans.
He envisioned Buddhism spreading
erever and populated the land; variations developed
e .to the mteracuon between the prevailing local tradition and
Sb in India, Buddhism had the particular effect of
mmshmg the supremacy of Nature by elevating and asserting
: of Intelligence and Culture.
ther assooated dommant nineteenth century representations of a
ninine and passive Nature with Hinduism's essential "naturalness."
described Hinduism as a passive "sponge" or a ')ungle," and
11 India (conflated with Hinduism) as an amorphous entity that
.ked a world-ordering rationality.
Hinduism was essentialized as
'place" lacki.ng rational capacities, as a land of the imaginary, as a
td fecund WLth fantasy. Within this construction, scholars associated
iia with the feminine. By equating the feminine with irrational
,ture and the masculine with rational Culture, scholars like
al.socharacterized Nature as the dominant force guiding
i1a or Hmdmsm. Once India and Hindus were located in the realm
the European scholar functioned as the masculine "manager"
order a,?d control to the Indian, Hindu, feminine jungle.
this essentialized Hinduism had the capacity to be both
and. tolerai1t. For example, Cunningham attributed
lddh1sm s dechne as the result of native monks (Hindus until
succumbing or reverting to indolence and passivity.
> India, even a truly masculine, Aryan religion such as Buddhism was
.able to defend itself against the encroachments of a feminine, inertia-
ed environment.
Analyzing: the scholarship of writers like Cunning:ham allows us to
:. 'im;;;;

Engendering Indian Art 31
Throughout these texts, Hindu art became through its .
feminine nature, while its producers bednne feminised due to _their..
racial inferiority. Premised on the notion that art the essential
spirit of a race, and that a particular race can only produce a certain
kind of art, India, Hinduism and Hindu art signified . the lack
characteristic of all entities gendered feminine.
As scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
continued to study Hinduism, the process of inscribing gender and
race became further entangled with the inscription of Hinduism .
was divided into three periods: Vedic (up to 100 C.E.), Classic ( 400-600
C.E.) and Medieval (600-1700 C.E.). Underlying these three periods .
was animism, the timeless worship of fertility symbols for survival,
practiced continuously to the present. Studying Vedic textS, Indologists
arbitrarily isolated the principle of advaita or monism, and it
as their dominant philosophy. The Vedic period became the site of
authentic Hinduism which was characterized by an absence of images
or only aniconic images. During the Classic period, scholars . saw
Hinduism degenerating even as it provided the impetus for monu-
mental architecture and sculpture. It became less philosophical and
more religious or devotional (bhakti) as the gods Shiva and. Vishnu.
began to dominate the landscape. In this scheme, Medieval Hinduism
became the final capitulation to unrestrained polytheism. Shiva and
Vishnu accrued countless manifestations and to make matters worse,
goddess worship infiltrated a previously masculine unity. Traditional
scholarship negatively contrasted the first two periods, Vedic and
Classic, against both Medieval Hinduism and timeless animism. Advaita
became the philosophy of elite, more rational Aryan northerners, while
devotional bhakti was the religion of the Dravidians and Dravidian-
influenced commoners. Peasants were largely seen as practitioners of
the lowest form of Hinduism, animism. The lower the scholar
descended into Hinduism, the farther away he moved from the Vedic
period. The deeper he penetrated the southerngeography oflndia, the
more he realized how deeply the presence of the Goddess was
ingrained. He saw India's racial consciousness as essentially feminine.
Contemporary Hinduism was explained as the result of native Dravidian.
cults being "fertilized" by Aryan philosophies. This fertilization overcame
the Aryan at all but the highest levels.
Hindu art, with its gods and
goddesses, temples and roadside shrines, became the mongrel girl-child
of Aryan rationality and Dravidian imagination. . . .
Nationalism and the gendering of tradition
Ironically, the rise of Indian nationalism in the nineteenth century did
nothing to dislocate the European gendering of art. Many Hindu
>scribed to and augmented the historical model described above.
to construct an authentic, higher Hinduism, these groups
>meted the monist Hindu philosophy of advaita. But the elevation
advaita by these groups continued to inscribe race, class and gender
ough the very same processes found in colonial discourse. Once
tin, advaita was stressed as the dominant philosophy in the Vedic
riod. For many Hindu nationalists too, the Vedas and the Upanishads
:arne the locus of authentic Hinduism. Advaita was also thought to
vilege non-image-oriented worship by emphasizing the formlessness
the ultimate principle. Any image attempting to represent this
nciple was thus inevitably reductive. Medieval Hinduism was thought
represent not only the growth of devotionalism and goddess worship,
t also the resultant proliferation of temples and images. In fact,
:dieval Hinduism was posited to reflect the shift from relatively little
age-oriented worship to mainly image-oriented worship. It was the
cay of authentic Vedic Hinduism that allowed the growth of
Lytheism and goddess worship during the medieval period.
Nationalist groups also claimed a powerful Indian (that is Hindu)
:ntity based on "true" advaitic Hinduism.
Certain race, class and
:1der representations were consolidated to buttress this "rediscovered"
dition. The colonial construction of race had already opposed
avidian to Aryan culture. Using this model to historicize Hinduism,
Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj cast Aryans as masculine, militaristic
d culturally advanced as against the weak, effeminate and primitive
avidians. They championed Aryan supremacy. The polytheism of
:dieval worship, particularly its recuperation of the goddess, was
aracterized as a popularizing gesture. By diminishing the polytheistic
>ects of Hinduism, Hindu nationalists sought to create an "authentic"
:ntity; this identity, in its construction, largely mimicked colonial
lresentations of Hinduism. Paradoxically, the politics of identity
gaged the rhetoric of difference. The modem nationalist Indian
ndu was not effeminate or irrational; he was the masculine force
eded to expunge the colonizers. Yet the process of overthrowing
lonial power was modulated by colonial discourse. The promotion of
vaita as the authentic Hinduism was in many ways an internalization
the colonial critique of Hinduism. The reconstruction of an authentic
nduism in the early twentieth century within the boundaries of
lonial scholarship marginalized polytheistic Hinduism and its
actitioners. Representing them as the illiterate and unenlightened
tsses, many Hindu nationalists also moved towards the position
cupied by the colonizer on race-"Aryan is better." From this
)ment on, the new Hindu identity constituted a hierarchy based on
th race and class. But gender was an important tool in crafting a
Engendering Indian Art 33
In his ground-breaking article "Colonialism,
Colonialized Women," Partha Chatteijee argues that the natiOnalist
reconstruction project was premised on the "separation of the domain
of culture into two spheres-the material and spirituaL"
With this
bifurcation, the masculinised public sphere of the material world -could
be moderni:ed with while

feminised pnvate domam, the East reigned spmtually
had the task of modernizing India, women, even those haVIng acqmred
western education, were required to uphold Hindu religiosity. At this
juncture, worshipping and tradition became interlo:ked with gender
and art. Goddess worship in particular was already considered degenerate
by most colonialists and many Hindu nationalists. The of
Hindu art also proceeded in terms of the women who worshipped the
deities of polytheistic Hinduism. With the bifurcation of culture, the task
of performing rituals, particularly devotions to the god?ess,
women's work.
Many scholars saw these rituals, and the Icons at their
centre, as genealogically linked to a feminised :hus
Hindu art became doubly feminine, by its associatlon w1th medieval
Hinduism and by its centrality to women's rituals.
Patriarchal nationalists also asserted that discarding the degenerate
traditions of medieval Hinduism and returning to advaita would facilitate
the national reformation project. This collusion of nationalism with-, _
religious and societal reformation had a impact on the of
Indian, particularly Hindu, art. As the natlonahst agenda was
and consolidated with the changing relationship between India and
Britain, literary texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas gained
dominance over other texts and discourses. While Indian literature had
long been valued and studied in the European search for
logocentric European scholars devalued indigenous
Hindu nationalists too turned largely to literature to claim then own
origins and create an authentic Hindu tradition. But an even m?re
important factor in the marginalization of Hindu art was the perceptlon
of both nationalists and colonial scholars that the subject matter of much
artistic production, particularly sculpture, was too sensual in
content. Voluptuous women, copulating couples, gods by
phallic symbols and goddesses by vaginal symbols were all considered too
obscene, especially in a context where art and religion had been
inseparably linked.
The nationalist embarrassment extended particularly to the
"immodesty" of the women depicted in Hindu art. 'Whereas the literary
tradition could more easily be reconstituted, ancient Hindu artifacts
exhibiting women as sensual and sexual beings could not as easily be
erased from the national landscape.
For the nationalists, the best
tradition was to ignore or mask those aspects of older artistic production
that proved embarrassing. However, since women are a central theme in
anciei!lt Hindu art, the process of marginalizing these "embarrassing"
aspects led to the diminution of Indian art in general and Hindu art in
Until this point in my argument, I have read Indian art history as
a gendered discourse which seeks to identifY and evaluate a lack or
an absence. The question remains whether gender, as a representational
technology, enables an empowering counterdiscourse. I offer the
writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy as one such counterdiscourse.
Perhaps the most eminent nationalist historian of Indian art,
Coomaraswamy utilized the technology of gender to achieve two
simultaneous yet contradictory effects. First, he ascribed the fallen
status of Indian philosophy to insensitive European scholars who
perverted it into effeminacy. Taking colonial and European critiques
of Indian art into account, he wrote
Asia is like the artist in the modern city-doing nothing great, mainly
because nothing is demanded of him: it is enough if he pleases and amuses
us, we do not take him seriously. It is with something of this romantic
attitude that Europe and America have regarded India. The merely
philological studies of the universities have been conducted in such an arid
fashion as to be comparatively inaccessible to artistic spirits: on the other
hand, Indian thought has been popularized and perverted in many forms
that are vague, mysterious and feminine, and so brought into disrepute.
(italics mine)
Second, Coomaraswamy sought to reverse colonial characterizations
of Indian thought. To achieve this end, he adopted the strategy of
gendering Indian thought as a masculinised discourse. Reversing a
Hegelian dialectic which represented India as a lack, Coomaraswamy
utilized Sanskrit texts and Hindu and Buddhist art objects to reconstruct
Indian culture through the tropes of"vigour" and "calmness." Realigning
the colonial scholar's rhetoric oflndian passivity, he argued that Indian
thought was essentially vigorous and the Indian mind essentially calm.
But various colonial forces and their westernizing, "progressive" missions
corrupted this idyllic state.
India's antiquity and Indians' natural
intellectual vigour and calmness meant that Indians had arrived at
solutions for weighty philosophical matters long before the West.
Turning to his own historical moment, Coomaraswamy lamented that
"the impetuosity of youth cannot completely compensate for the insight
of age," therefore he demanded from "a coming race that men should
"""lrt- "' ... ,..;t-h ,:::.no10rr-ru -::anrl t-hinlr "':Arith Ac:.i-::atlr r".:\lTn "47 J..fp
Engendering Indian Art 35
peacefully, while each remained ontologically separate. The difference
in his dialectical model is that, ideally, there would be no hierarchy; both
the East and the West were equals engaged in the complementary task
of constituting a new world order. But because Asia was currently
devalued he took on the task of elevating its culture. Through his
writings, he endowed Indian culture, particularly artistic production,
with a quality which European scholars generally regarded as lacking:
the agency to produce through conceptual thought. It is exactly this
agenda that compelled him to state
the whole process, up to the point of manufacture, belongs to the
established order of personal devotions, in which worship is paid to an
image mentally conceived ( dhyatva yajet); in any case, t.."lle principle
involved is that true knowledge of an object is not obtained by merely
empirical observation or reflex registration (prayaksa), but only when the
knower and known, seer and seen, meet in an act transcending distinction
(anayar advaita).
By linking the Indian artist's creative process with conception and
advaita, Coomaraswamy reinserted intention and idealism into the
creative act. The Indian spirit is no longer a blind force residing mome-
ntarily in the empty vessel of the artist's body; instead the relationship
is one of interaction, a conscious coming together of distinct beings who
wilfully transcend their individuality for the creation to take place.
Refuting Hegel's characterization of Hinduism and Hindu art as
overwhelmed by a propensity for delusion with a dependence on the
imagination or fantasy, he turned to the Hindu philosophical construct
of maya (usually defined as illusion), and stated that "maya is not
properly delusion, but strictly speaking creative power, shakti, the
principle of manifestation."
Whereas, for many European scholars,
maya had been indicative of the sorry state of India's feminised
consciousness and deformed creative capacities, Coomaraswamy
the concept to reassert Indian intellectual superiority. For him,
maya entailed acknowledgment of the idea that all creation is illusory,
and that Indian intellectuals have historically recognized its value and
By linking artistic production to maya and shakti (both
feminine and feininise'd abstractions), Coomaraswamy accepted a
gendered art Yet this gendering extracted art from the
domain oflack or absence, and located it in the domain of plenitude and
This rhetorical manoeuvre allowed him to return image worship into
the hierarchy of ritual and intellectual worship, although he remained
ambivalent about the value of image worship in and of itself. Writing
about the instrumentality of icons, he stated
-- __ , ---- : ______ ,_ --- .......... 1 ............
visited temples and worshipped images, and certainty these greatest
thinkers did not do so blindly or unconsciously. A human necessity was
recognized, the nature of the necessity was understood, its psychology
systematically analyzed, the various phases of image worship, mental and
immaterial, were defined, and the variety of forms explained by the
doctrines of emanation and of gracious condescension. 5
tasks of analysis, systemization and definition were performed
the "intellectual orthodoxy," that is the Brahmin male elite.
'maraswamy thus reintegrated image worship into the range of
;ible theological stances assumed by a sentient worshipper, but only
n a feminised Hinduism was refined and made rigorous under the
lage of Hindu priests. While refuting Mill's characterization of
:sts as oppressors, he continued to imagine an intellectual and
tical hierarchy where. benevolent and enlightened priests guided a
:eful populus. Ultimately, Coomaraswamy used this argument to
rt Hindu monotheism by stating that "Indian religion adapts herself
t infinite grace to every human need ... the multiplicity of the forms
nages, coinciding with the development of monotheistic Hinduism,
es from various causes, all ultimately referable to the diversity of need
n.dividua:ls and groups."
Multiplicity of images is then what allows
theological synthesis" and "growth of theological speculation."
one rhetorical stroke, Coomaraswamy both reimagined Hindu
vtheism as essentially monotheistic and gave Hinduism the cachet of
losophy. Hinduism now is even better than "dogmatically
n.otheistic" religions like Christianity and Islam because of its sponge-
' feminine nature. In its capacity to embrace many diverse ways of
shipping, a flexible Hinduism reaches a wider audience, peacefully,
le maintaining its monotheistic essence.
utilized gender to individuate and portray an "othered"
stic production as well. In t.l,.e now well-known art historical debate,
countered his primary challenger, French scholar A. Foucher
) argued for the Greek origin of the Buddha image in Gandhara,
characterizing these Hellenized images as faulty. Coomaraswamy
ued that Gandharan Buddhas and Boddhisattvas with their "listlessness
l effeminate gestures" failed to "reflect the intellectual vigour or
devotional passion of Buddhist thought."
Applying the same
torical brush used by colonial scholars like Cunningham, the Indian
ionalist scholar dismissed these works. Because Gandharan Buddhas
e listless and effeminate and because they used a "foreign" artistic
abulary, they could not possibly be true, Buddhist creations. According
Coomaraswamy, the beauty of a truly Indian, Buddhist image
:ded to reflect the .rigorousness and devotion of a passionately
mind-set. Because Gandharan Buddha images are faulty
. '
Engendering Indian Art 37
" certain Indian formulae and Indian ideas are misrepre-
at Gandhara, for misrepresentation implies the
pre-existence of a type to

Through this
the origin of the Buddha Image IS once agam returned to an Indian
Throughout this essay, I have read art history as a
cultural discourse by tracing its progressiOn through the wntmgs of
both colonial and nationalist scholars. In the writings of Ananda
Coomaraswamy, I identified a counterdiscourse which sought tq resist
colonial representations of India and Indian culture through a process
of masculinisation. I have also read this counterdiscourse as a process
characterized by an ambivalence to Indian artistic production. while
Coomaraswamy masculinised Indian thought, Hinduism and its art
remain feminised in his writings. This allowed him to construct and
maintain his concept of a feminised Hindu tradition while allowing
for masculine intellectual stewardship. In a dialectic such as
Coomaraswamy's, feminisati.on may be empowering but only to the
degree that masculinised forces are in control. Clearly,. one cannot
speak here of feminisation as an empowenng mode of
representation. Feminisation here is a cultural proce.ss. can only
exist in relation to its -dominant counterpart, mascuhmsatwn.
Cultural historian Pupuljayakar,justifying the title of her book, states
that, "Reviewing the book, I felt the title The Earth Motherwould be more
appropriate, for the book deals with that germ of female energy
which all manifestations-nature, the arts, ritual and symbol-emerge."o
Striking an apocalyptic, note on the devaluation of tradition and
femininity, she seeks to refeminise an artistic tradition in order to save
the Goddess and her material manifestations from extinction. The
language Jayakar uses is familiar; Mill, Hegel,
Coomaraswamy, and many others have used it both to demgrate and
elevate Indian art. While I laud her mission, I cannot but see it as trapped
by its own binarism. The spectre of feminine inadeq_uacy and its polar
opposite, masculine supremacy, is always present; gender, as a mode of
representation, culls its metaphoric power from this polarization. With
this, I am left asking if feminisation as representational strategy
signifies anything but an inadequacy or lack? For Jayakar, the answer 1s,
yes. F eminisation allows her to wrench Indian art from a space of
modernity, westernizations and cultural disenfranchisement. But the
terms of her valorization-tradition, female energy-are historically so
overdetermined that their continued uncritical usage further embodies
these problematic constructs. A simple reversal begins the
.t art to a discursive space created by colonial and nationalist
olarship. In this intellectual and political sphere, feminisation is a
Jious strategy for empowerment.
What does all this mean then for the writing of Indian art history?
tere can a scholar find cracks and crevices to tease out other
;sibilities in the discourse? In colonial and neo-colonial writings on
lia's cultural history, India is arrested in history, occasionally prodded
) movement by the injection offoreign genius. Nationalist historians
i their sympathizers insert a dialectic through oppositions such as
.ovation versus tradition, royal versus lay patronage, women's versus
n's patronage, originality versus imitation, to reinscribe the process
:hange and contestation in India's cultural history. Yet such dialectical
noeuvres too, as Partha Chatterjee has argued, are gendered
would argue that these strategies need to be criticized till they no
ger have the capacity to signifY historical practices in polarized,
tdered terms. Art production as practice, as object, as context, as text,
:ds to be historicized to the point that generalizations rendered in
Ldered language cease to hold water. For example, why did specific
trts sponsor eroticized representations in art and to what ends? Who
dered and negotiated these representations? What architectural
ts did they produce and with what kinds of meaning? Leaving aside
production sponsored by courts, what kind of representations were
:le outside of this ambit? Even in moments where information is only
[lable through elite texts, scholars need to read against the grain to
cgine alternative histories. If this process proves an impossibility, that
>ossibility needs to be theorized and an absence acknowledged in
er to create a presence. It is by performing such analytical tasks that
es of"v"omen and men as patrons, subjects, objects, producers can be
.ressed with the utmos.t degree of scholarly integrity and intellectual
ght. Femininity (and masculinity) as construct, as representation, can
n be articulated in differential terms. Perhaps it may become possible
rrite of other spaces, texts, times when gender operated in other ways.
Kknowledge, represent and structure this difference, scholars need
rrive at critical strategies that provide us with the capacity to deal with
orical specificities and nuances that result in the production of any
This essay has been one attempt to start that process.
esa de Lauretis, "Semiotics and Experience," in Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics,
ema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.l8.
: Rogoff, "From Ruins to Debris: The Feminization of Fascism in
:man-History Museums," in Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, eds.
liel T. Sherman anrl Trit Roo-nff r..f' 1\lf;_V\,....,Ol"r..t-..... P ...... .:.c-co
Engendering Indian Art
1 k "Femi.nism Art History and Sexual Difference," Genders 3 (1988):
3 Lisa 1c ner; ' d
99. Gayatri Spivak has described her attempts to gen eras represen-
P . 1n what ways in what contexts, under what kmds of race and class
taUon as ' ki d fth' "
u s gender is used as what kind of signifier to cover over what n o mgs.
situa on ' p t dern Art and
'th nr-'ter Adamson in Discourses: Conversatwns zn os mo
Intemew Wl vvd.l M . N M
Culture, ed. Russell Ferguson, et al. (New York and Cambndge, ass.. ew u-
of Contem orary Art and The MIT Press, 1991), p.107. . .

de Technologies of Gender (Bloomington and Indianapohs:

Indiana University Press, 1987), p.5.
1 ssince the Enlightenment, the assignment gender via_metaphor and ana
has allowed for difference, sexual and otherwise, to be articulated." To lab:l a
" T d" (in the state of culture) and contrast it to another savage society
of being nature) is not a gender-neutral binary.
Bl h "Women and the Dialectics of Nature 111 Ig een

' French Thought," in Nature, Culture and Gender, eds: C.P. McCormack and
(New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp.25-
1. d. 1 1 dia (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1990), 6 See Ron In en, magmzng n ..
.36-43, for a fuller account of these two of:vnung. . , .
an Prakash, "Writing Post-Orientalist Histones of the Th1rd m
and Culture, ed. Nicholas B. Dirks (Ann Arbor: Umverslty of
Michigan Press, 1992), p.355.
Ibid. . . 6
9Nicholas B. Dirks, "Introduction," in Colomalzsm and Culture, op. cit., P. .
here to underline the specifically character of
post-Enlightenment notions about the driving force orgamzmg thed For.
a discussion of this concept as well as "humanity," see Raymon I 1ams,
E ds (New York Oxford University Press, 1983), pp.188-89.
eywor . M h.M l' dMonsters (Chicao-o: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 12 Partha Mitter, uc a zgne "
13 Prakash, op. cit., p.357.
Dirks, op. cit., p.9.
15 Mitter, op. cit., pp. 73 . . 11 l d
1s I d t p 43-44 First, it must come to the attenuon of mte ectua s an
n en, op. Cl ., P . d f Second
elites that have the capadty to affect imperial institutions an prac ,
the text must have the capacity to resonate with not stnctly mvolved
in the discipline, allowing its use by business and lea_ders as as
h l blc Thi'rd the text's authority rests on 1ts capac1ty to proVIde a
t e genera pu I , . 1 fil th
totalizing account of every aspect of Indian life, even scho ar I e
essence of Indiathrough one trope. Lastly, ach1evmg the t ree
the the_ discourse, forcmg all subsequent wnters to
contend with it in order to drum ngorousness. .
I write this with the understanding that tracing a one-to-one, _lme_ar
correlation between Mill or Hegel and all subsequent writing in Indo logy_ Is fuule
and beside the point. A hegemonic text has the power to :he
it creates and is rooted in it precisely because its presence felt m d1rect
indirect ways. The models instituted by Mill and Hegel Indology m a
diffuse and diverse manner, even when __
did so using the information gathered by Orientalists. In other words, Mill's anti-
India campaign would not have been possible without Orientalism.
This text was later used by scholars, students and civil servants of the East India
Company to know and rule this colony.
James Mill, The History of British India, ed. H.H. Wilson (rev. ed., London:
]. Madden, Piper, Stephenson and Spence, 1858), I, p.131.
Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New,
York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p.121. ..
Ibid., p.l22.
Quotced in Viswanathan, p.130.
Mill, II, pp.l-33.
G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trs. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1975), pp.1, 14. I:Iegel was not particularly interested in writing a history of
India but rather in synthesizing its essence into his grand disquisitions on the
philosophy of religion, history, the mind and aesthetics. But in order to
produce an authoritative, totalizing work, he claimed that subjectivities of other
cultures, both past and non-European, needed to be taken into account. For ex-
ample, when he spoke of scientific ways of treating beauty and art, Hegel identi-
fied four basic requirements: the first is an easy familiarity with
"immeamrable realm of individual works of art, ancient and modern, some of
which have already perished in reality or belong to distant lands or continents
and which the of fate has withdrawn from our own inspection."
Second, a vast accumulation of historical facts; third, the possession of a good
visual memory to recall details at will and perform comparative work. Finally
when all this has taken place, of art can be generated. And scholars could
only generate wholistic and valid theories of art by emphasizing broadness of
material and scope. Hegel also emphasized looking beyond one's own
national boundaries; by analyzing the subjectivity of others, the scholar can de-
fine the self more accurately. The Hegelian dialectic is furiously at work in this
formulation: by opposing other cultures to his own, he was able to construct a
synthetic and totalizing philosophy of aesthetics.
Ibid., p.94.
Hegel, p.3.
Hegel, pp.3-4.
Ibid., p.4.
For an extended discussion and critique of the dialectical model in Indian art
history, see Mitter, op. cir., pp.189-220.
Ibid., pp.257-59.
Alexander Cunningham, The Bhilsa Topes or, Buddhist Monuments of Central hidia
Comprising a Brief Historical Sketch of the Rise, Progress and Decline of Buddhism with an
Account of the Opening Examination of the Various Groups of Topes around Bhilsa
(Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1966), pp.2-3.
Ibid., X.
Ibid:, p.22.
Christopher Pinney, "Underneath the Banyan Tree: William Cooke and
Photogral?hic Depictions of Caste," in Anthrf!Pology and Photography 1860-1920, ed.
Elizabeth Edwards (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and The Royal
Anthropological Institute, pp.1992), 165-73. He writes of some colonial photog-
............. t... ... :- T--1!- __ ,_!_1-" . - -
Engendering Indian Art 41
rocess which renders darkness increasingly visible and the
turn, a d' 1 'bl "
object of colonial scrutiny correspon mg y mVISI e.
36 Cunningham, op. cit., p.2. . C 1987) 301
1 A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (repnnt, Bombay: Rupa o., P
Experiments in the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins,
1991), p.69. . . . d
40 "Indian" in this discourse of rdentrty, means Hm u. . r d W .
41 Partha Chatterjee, "Colonialism, Nationalism and Coloma. rze omen.
The Contest in India," American Ethnologist vol. 16, 4 (Nov. pp.622-33.
da K Coomaraswamy, Dance of Shiva: Essays on Indzan Art and.
- New York: Dover Publica?ons, Inc., 1985) represents the art hrstoncal
aspect of this nationalist constructron. , p
43See Sumanta Banerjee's article titled "Marginalization of s Sopu
Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal," in Recasting Women, eds. Kum urn angan
and Sudesh Vaid (Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989), pp.127-79. PT< E l' h 7i s
44 This hap; ens in literature as well. See Manmatha Nath Dutt, A os;18ngSzs e
lation of Harivamsa (Calcutta: Elysium Press, 1897), note on P: . e T t"
d K Lalita "Empire Nation and the Lrterary ex '
c'-uzture and Colonialism in India, eds. T. Niran jana,
V. Dhareshwar (Calcutta: Seagull Books, pp.199-219, for the hrstory o
ne text's collision with colonialism and nationalism. . .
d K C wamy ''Yioung India" in The Dance of Shzva, op.crt., p.l36.
45 Anan a oomaras , ' ddh' F
46 He too understood Indian art to be the art of Hinduism and Bu. rsm. or
example, his History of Indian and Indonesian Art largely ignores Persran and Arab
genealogiesC. "lrltellectual Fraternity" in The Dance of Shiva, op.cit.,
47 Ananda K. oomaraswamy, '
p.114. "Theory of Art in Asia " in Transformation of Nature in
48 Ananda K Coomaraswamy,
Art treprint New York: Dover Publications, 1956), p.6.
49 and Use of Images in India," p.158.
Ibid., p.162.
Ibid., p 161.
Ibid. . .
ss Ibid., "Buddhist Primitives," in The Dance of Shzva, op.crt., p.54.
Ibid., p.53. d Rit z Arts oif India (New
s7Pupu1Jayakar, The Earth Mother: Legends, Goddesses an ua
York: Harper & Row, 1990), xii.
Reflections on the History and
Historiography of Male Sexuality
in Early Indian Art
iscussions of issues of gender and feminism within the context
of an art historical discourse generally focus on the re-
tmination or re-evaluation of the role and representation of women
art. Thus, a study of Indian art history from a feminist perspective
1ld raise new questions about the role of women as art patrons or
to explore issues around representations of women as fertility
rits and/ or sexual objects. One could also try to understand the
eption of female representations by male and/ or female audiences
whom they were intended. Another way to use a feminist
spective on existing scholarship, as argued by feminist scholars
rma Broude and Mary Gerrard, would be to raise new questions
mt materials previously ignored or ask fundamental questions
mt art history as a humanistic discipline and so develop new
[his preliminary study of the significance of male sexuality in Indian
from the Kushan period, in and around Mathura, and about the
l.trllent of these images in scholarly literature is born of a feminist
spective, in that it raises questions about an important facet oflndian
which may have been ignored, at least partially, due to the traditionaJ
le dominance of scholarship.
['he genesis of this paper goes back to a casual conversation I had
1 a colleague at the exhibition of Indian sculpture at the National
lery of Art during the Festival of India in the U.S. in 1985. An art
.orian with a specialization in Chinese art and a serious interest in
ian art, my friend remarked how surprised she was to find such
:aphic rendering of male sexuality in early Indian sculptures. While
was aware of the importance of linga worship as well as of
1ictions of an erect penis in Shiva images such as the Lakulisa, it
the ever-present rendering of the male organ in other images,
uding the Buddha figures in the Kushan period, that she was
>repared for. We talked about the fact that while textbooks and
er publications were replete with descriotions of
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 43
Fig. 1 Semi-divine male figure of the second or third century A.D.,
Kushan, Mathura region.
significantly lacking. As one often does with such observations, I tucked
the conversation away somewhere in the back of my mind, thinking
that I would like to work on this problem some day. Casual rumination
over the years about the development of sculpture from the Kushan
to Gupta periods suggested that the topic was indeed worth pursuing,
not only because of the lack of discussion on it, but also because of
the possible significance of changes in the depiction of male figures
between these early phases of Indian art.
Even a cursory glance at representations of the standing images of
the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and other semi-divine male figures of the
second and third centuries A.D. from the Mathura region reveals a very
specific emphasis on the sexual organs of the images (Fig. 1). While
it is generally acknowledged that such Kushan images from Mathura
display great vigour and physicality, detailed descriptions of male
sexuality are conspicuous by their absence. This is particularly striking
when contrasted with descriptions of female sexuality, set in
abundant detail throughout the history of early Indian art. References
to the full, perfectly rounded breasts, broad hips and frank sexuality
of the female figure are so common that one can hardly read a text
on Indian art without coming across them numerous times.
Benjamin Rowland, for example, describes the female images in
early Indian art thus:
The implication of the Indian Goddess' procreative powers is contained
in the exaggeration of the globular pendulousness of the breasts which
appear like "golden jars," and there is a corresponding frank emphasis on
the widespread hips and pudenda .... the interlocking of the subtly
swelling convex plane that defines the bosom, abdomen and pelvis serves
to demonstrate, in appropriately abstract terms, the roundness and fullness
and warmth of an actual body without in any way negating the nature of
the medium.
Even Coomaraswamy, who has dealt with the conceptual basis of
nudity in Indian art more extensively than most other scholars, dwells at
greater length on descriptions of female nudity: "It will, indeed, have
been observed that there is scarcely a single female figure represented
in early Indian art without erotic suggestion of some kind, implied or
explicitly expressed and emphasized; nowhere, indeed has the vegetative
sexual motif been presented \vith greater frankness or transparency ... "
In descriptioD:s of specific Kushan period sculptures from Mathura
as well, authors are generally much more forthcoming on female
sexual body parts: "The rendering of the breasts with well-defined
nipples, the fleshy torso and the stomach wi.th deeply set navel are
more realistic ... ,"
or the following, "Although the heavy breasts,
-:::.rnnlP h;nc;: ":llT"''rl fJ,:::.cohu th;n-'hco a. .......... -rl-....,.. ... ........ t... ... y,..;,......,.l -..-.o.. ... .o. ...... ,..a.
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 45
volume. . . . Nevertheless, the
sensuous quality of the body is
enhanced by the upper edge of the
garment that 'closely hugs the hips
and the two fleshy arcs that indicate
the buttocks."
Fig. 2 Indra, red sandstone, Kushan
period, Mathura style, Ahicchatra (?)
second antnn. A. n. (Phntn: The
Notwithstanding the fact that early
Indian female figures are indeed
quite voluptuous and combine
notions of fertility and eroticism, it is
rather striking that the sexuality of
male figures is consistently under-
emphasized or not mentioned at all.
In the publication where Benjamin
Rowland describes female nudity at
length, his description of an early
male nude sculpture is particularly
vague by contrast:
... this statuette is completely Indian
in the sculptor's realisation of the
essential image, a symbolic rather
than descriptive representation of
anatomy, in which the articulation
of the body is realised in broad
convex planes of modeling .... the
fact that the figure appears potbellied
is therefore, iconographically,
completely right and truthfuL ... this
is not a literal imitation, such as one
finds i.n western sculpture, but a
suggestion of fleshiness by such
properly sculptural and abstract
devices as the interlocking of the
smooth and softly modelled convex
plane of the torso and the
exaggeration of the depth of the
The fact that the male figure in
question also has very well articu::'
lated male genitals is simply not
This is clearly a pattern mth most
descriptions of male nudes, even
visible as is the case with most of the standing male figures from
Mathura in the Kushan period. ,Note, for example, the descriptions
of some male figures in various publications. The sexual organs of the
standing large figure of Indra are abundantly evident (Fig. 2) but the.
art historical description of the image avoids any such mention:" ... the
style of the lower part of the body-with a transparent dhoti, a kutisutra
belt and a scarf that comes from the back and loops across the right
leg to the wrist of the left arm in the mode known as satavallika-
although found in early images such as those in the Friar Bala group,
is more closely related to the mature Mathura style."
For all of the
visual specificity according to the description of the drapery, the only
thing not mentioned is the scarcely concealed sexual organ of the
Another description of a Kushan Bodhisattva image will serve to
make the point about the lack of emphasis on male sexuality, quite
dear (Fig. 3). Once again the figure is as nude in appearance as
any female image of the Kushan period: its nudity is emphasized
through a transparent undergarment and through the heavy twisted
sash just above the penis. The description of the figure avoids any
mention of it:
The present sculpture, conceived in the round, is minus its head, arms and
feet. Its sensitive modelling and great beauty, as well as heroic size, classifY
it as one of the major images of this type that came from Mathura. The
Bodhisattva displays a slight tribhanga stance; his left arm rested on the hip
~ h e r e part ofthe.hand and the wrist remain), while the right one possibly
held a flywhisk (cauri) over the right shoulder. The transparent dhoti, with
the fabric gathered between the legs and its hemline marked, is held in
place by a narrow sash (partially visible on the left side) that is incised with
a rosette pattern and ends in tassels. Over it is a bulky scarf (uttariya)
that terminates in a loop on the left hip of the figure and cascades along
the side of the body. A single necklace made of strands of beads joined
by clasps (phalakahara) and bracelets (valaya) on the wrist of the remaining
left hand complete the Bodhisattva's attire.
Such descriptions of the sexuality of the male figure are common in
scholarly and popular literature, regardless of the iconography of the
image. Additionally, this pattern seems to be consistently evident
throughout the history of scholarship of Indian art, from the early
twentieth century to the present dayY When it is mentioned at all,
little attempt is made at trying to come to some understanding of this
rather visually prominent feature of many of the Kushan male images
from the Mathura region. Thus, one of the few times when the male
genitals are mentioned, as in the following description of a large
sculpture of a male serpent king or Balarama, there is no discussion
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 47
Fig. 3 Kushana Bodhisattva, red sandstone, circa 2nd century, A.D.
Mathura. (Photo: ]H. Wade.)
Notwithstanding the emphasis on mass and expressive contour with subtle
modulations of outline, conscious deviation from the vertical axis,
asymmetrical disposition of the projecting knot, and flattened but
animated coils of the serpent, this is a sculpture of enormous powet:-and
vitality. Noteworthy is the prominent delineation of the genital organ, a
typical Kushan-period feature.
This suggests at the very least, we need to address the issue of
the development of engendered male and female figures from a more
comprehensive point of view, rather than remain focussed solely on
female sexuality. Once we acknowledge that there is a greater emphasis
on male sexuality in Kushan imagery, then have to ponder the
reasons for and significance of such a development. The question is
particularly pertinent since most of the Kushan period images of divine
and semi-divine figures are among the earliest known visual
manifestations of many deities.
As noted by Pratapaditya Pal, the prominent delineation of genitalia,
male and female, is indeed one of the most characteristic features of
Kushan period sculpture from Mathura. The lack of any serious
discussion of this important development may be due to more than
a simple, unconscious bias; and to some extent, it may have been
overshadowed by arguments over the origin of the Buddha image, seen
as the principal issue in the first half of the century.
Vogel and Coomaraswamy were among the first writers to argue that
the sheer physicality of the earliest standing male images tom Mathura
such as the Friar Bala Bodhisattva (Fig. 4) was directly related to and
emanated from pre-existing notions of male energy as seen in the
yaksha images of the pre-Kushan period, and was completely unrelated
to the Greco-Roman ideals of Kushan images from Gandhara.
logic of their argument was based on perceived inextricable patterns
of continuity between the earlier yaksha images from the Sunga
period and the earliest known Buddha/Bodhisattva images of the
Kushan period. Thus, Coomaraswamy talked of the sheer physicality
in contradistinction to the tranquility and sweetness of the Gandhara
figures. He compared the "broad shoulders and the
masculine form with drapery that moulded and revealed the
flesh" of the Mathura figures with the Gandhara sculptures, where
the "body is concealed under the heavy folds of drapery and is
articulated in quiet repose".
These early scholars, in their efforts
to make a case for the independence of the development of a
Buddha image in Mathura from the one at Gandhara, strongly
emphasized the continuity of the indigenous Indian aesthetic
tradition. This meant that they neither observed any distinction
between Sunga or other pre-Kushan images and the Kusha:n
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 49
Fig. 4 Bodhisattva, Friar Bala, Samath Museum.
the changes that seem quite apparent today between the earlier and
later figures.
In comparison with the early yaksha standing figures, several
differences are obvious in the Kushan standing male images. The
Sunga figures are more extensively rounded with little articulation of
the body. The Kushan figures, on the other hand, are invariably more
articulated and with a greater sense of physical and athletic energy.
As Stella Kramrisch has observed, it was in the second century that
the "male body began to acquire a heroic chest, the disciplined
abdominal region narrowed and enlivened by a modelling as sensitive
as that of the chest"Y The treatment of the garment is also distinctly
different in the two traditions. "While the chests of the earlier figures
are exposed like those of their later counterparts, their lower garment
is quite elaborate. Thick and extensively pleated, the lower garments
and sashes invariably conceal the male genitalia. In direct contrast, the
sculptors of the Kushan period standing male figures use the drapery
and sashes in such a way that the sex organ is unmistakably emphasized
- it is as if the sashes of the earlier yaksha figures, falling heavily
between the legs, were deliberately moved to the side to reveal the
male organ.
A similar change is also evident in the depiction of female figures
in the Kushan period. For example, the yakshi figures from Bharhut
with their elaborate jewellery, beaded garter belts, pleated garments
and extensive sashes conceal their sexual organs in the lower part of
the body while revealing their naked upper bodies. Kushan period
yakshis from Bhutesar are unabashedly sexual by comparison, with very
explicit references to their sexual organs. In female figures this
emphasis on the explicit reference to genitalia seems to occur a little
earlier, initially showing up in terracotta figures. For example, there
are some terracotta figurines dating to the Sunga period that have
some suggestion of pudenda,
even if not as explicitly defined as the
later images. Similarly, some of the yakshi figures at Sanchi, dating
from just before the beginning of the Christian era, also have very
clearly articulated female organs. A similar emphasis on explicit
sexuality for male figures is actually not as consistently evident until
the development of the large standing male figures of various types
in the Kushan period.
That this evident emphasis on male sexual organs is a Kushan period
(Mathura) phenomenon is also clear when such images are compared
with later figures dating from the fourth century on. If the Mathura
Kushan male standing sculptures are described in terms of their athletic
presence, youthful vitality and sheer physicality, the Gupta sculptures,
even from the region of and around Mathura, are more abstract and
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 51
is a greater degree of formal abstraction a _corresponding
in their projection of masculine power. Sigmficantly, there IS also a
gradual de-emphasis on the depiction of mal_e sexual organ. By the
sixth century, this part of the male anatomy IS qmte abstracted for most
male figures. "When it is emphasized at all, it is normally reserved for
those deities who carry the specific iconographic feature of an erect
penis. This change has been ascribed to _a number ?f different
Joanna Williams suggests that the aesthetic changes m the Gupta penod
may be due to a greater "emphasis on the visual unity of the object".
As she says:
This quest was perhaps understood by the artist himself less in aesthetic
terms than in religious ones. The downcast eye integrated into the skull
indicated the meditative nature of the Buddha more fully than did the
outgoing Kushan type. The carving was not the god himself made directly
manifest but an image of him, to be perfected by human endeavour ... the
change was consistently realized in these formal terms, indicating that the
taste of the maker or patron placed a greater premium upon visual unity
than ever before or after in Indian art.
Stella Kramrisch also acknowledges that there is a greater emphasis
on the "meditative, yogic power of the body" in Gupta sculpture,
different from the earlier phases when "the body was a vessel of the
life sap, defined by a more or less abbreviate_d of its
o The implication of such ar:alysis IS that m the_ Gupta
period, the image comes to be seen as a VIsual symbol of the Idea of
godhead rather than as a physical form of deity
the sheer physicality of the Kushan male Images, dlVlne and
divine, is clearly a unique feature that undergoes a transformation
towards a more abstracted and conceptualised form in the subseql,l_ent
Such a comparative analysis of male images from the pre-and post-
Kushan period with those from the Kushan that th_e
rendition of the physical form of male figures, mcludmg the emphasis
on male genitalia, is a distinctive Kushan Mathura feature. One could
see this explicit emphasis as a purely formal or stylistic development
in the dialectic of art history, as a history of form unrelated to other
cultural developments. As Leo Steinberg has pointed out in his study
ofthe sexuality of Christ, such an explanation undermines the possible
theological significance of important visual For
example, he argues persuasively that the overt emphasis or: the
sexuality of the Christ child in early Renaissance art was not simply
due to a greater degree of interest in naturalism but was based on
a shift in the theological context of

coulcl hf' ::mme-cl that the increased focus on the physiCality of diVIne
. ..
in the Kushan period may suggest theological and corresponding
iconographic significances that should not be overlooked.
It is well known that the earliest visualisations of Indian male
divinities-Buddhist, Jain and Hindu-in the Kushan period, especially
from the Mathura region, are directly linked with the characteristic
features of a chakravartin mahapurusha, an idealised superman or
ruler. Thus, the thirty-two lakshanas or characteristic marks of a
chakravartin are often quoted as among the principal sources for the
creation of Buddha or Jina figures in Kushan Mathura images. This
implies that the visual conventions of the earlier depictions of male
figures are now with some of the iconographic requirements
for the new images of divine and semi-divine male figures.
In most early texts that deal with the thirty-two lakshanas, such as
Mahayana Sutralamkara, Kalinga Bodhi jataka, Lalitavistara and Chitrasutra,
there is a reference to the sexuality of a chakravartin. The description
begins with the characteristics of facial features and moves on to the
bodily parts. Interestingly, in some early translations of the texts, the
references to sexual organs are minimised. For example, Grunwedel
translates the twenty-third lakshana of the Buddha in the Lalitavistara
in the following terms: "Nature has concealed the marks of his sex."
This would imply that there should be no indication of sexuality in.
the visualisation of the chakravartin or the Buddha. A more careful
reading of this lakshana, however, suggests a different interpretation.
Most of these texts, in fact, indicate that the sexual organ of the
chakravartin should be properly visualised but not in a state of
In the Chitralakshana of Nagnajit, this is very clearly stated
in the section dealing with the measurements of the body parts of a
chakravartin: "Like an elephant-king, he keeps his sexual organs
withdrawn as if in a cavity."
In this text, which may date to the early
Gupta period or even earlier,
there are also very specific references
to the size and appearance of male sexual organs: "The penis should
be made of the length of six digits ... In the case of those who wear .
a lower garment and have a girdle tied around it, the part of the belly
below the navel should be made to the measure of four digits. The
penis is two digits broad, the scrotum is six digits long; the testicles
should not hang too much and both should be shown evenly round."
Significantly, such descriptions of the genitalia occur right after the
measurements for the face are described and before other body parts
are mentioned.. This may suggest that explicit references to the
sexuality of a chakravartin, and by extension of the Buddha figure,
were very important in the development of early images in the Kushan
period. Indeed, the most profound significance of this reference is
that a prominent depiction of male genitalia is an ilJlportant feature
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 53
It should also be stated that despite its relatively evident position in
the description of the thirty-two lakshanas, this feature seems to have
been de-emphasized by early writers on Buddhist art, indicating a
prejudice a view of art that would resonq.te with the non-
sexualized VIew of Chnst:J.amty.
If the depiction of sexual organs is specifically articulated in the
lakshanas of a chakravartin, it does not seem to be accorded the same
degree of emphasis in early descriptions of the

distinction further supports the argument that the depiCtl.on of
sexuality in the early representation of male divinities may not be
simply a formalistic development in the art historical sense, but
specifically related to the chan_ging. iconographic that
ultimately resulted in the persomficat:J.ons of the Buddhist, Hmdu and
Jain divinities in the Kushan period in Mathura. " . ,
There is another factor which may have led to the engendermg
or sexualizing of male and female images in this early period. It is
possible that the frank sexuality and youthful _openness of many
Kushan-Mathura images developed out of a desire to set up clear
alternatives to the well established system of representing the Buddha.
in anionic fashion, a complex of iconographic symbols through which
the Buddha was previously represented. In other words, the emphasis
on sexual organs of the early Bodhisattva figures such as the Friar Bala
image, may have come from the desire to create a new image that
would be as humanly direct and physically specific as possible, which
in turn may have affected the depiction of other images.
It needs to be stated that clearly not all of the images from Mathura
in the Kushan period are shown with sexual organs. This is particularly
true of seated images. As stated by Coomaraswamy, this would not be
unusual in such a period of "underdeveloped and unstable
After all, even such features as the urna and the usnisa,
features that become more consistently identified with the Buddha
images, are not seen consistently on all Buddhist images. In other
words, just because all of the Buddhist images are not shown with
specific depictions of male sexuality, does not detract from the fact
that this is a distinct feature of Kushan divine and semi-divine images
from Mathura.
In fact, the absence of the depiction of sexual organs in the seated
Buddhist or Jain figures from Mathura may also be due to yet another
conceptual and aesthetic consideration. For example, if the sexual
organ were to be evident in a seated figure, it would have to be shown
in some form of erection, and that would be contradictory to the
description of a chakravartin as articulated in the lakshanas.
Additionally, the artists may have deliberately o_ther
(urdhavareta) was associated exclusively with Shiva and was worshipped
by the Pashupata sect in and around Mathura.
Almost all of the
Kushan-Mathura depictions of Shiva show him as ithyphallic and often
represent him in front of a linga.
One could argue that, in fact, the
very popularity and prevalence of the urdhavareta Shiva of the
Pashupata sect may have played a role in the development of the
sexualized personification of other divine and semi-divine images in
the Kushan period.
This preliminary analysis points to three related factors about the
study and understanding of male images from the Mathura region in
the Kushan period. First, in order to better understand the
developmental changes in the conception of divine and semi-divine
figures, we need to carefully look at the depiction of such figures. In
a truly feminist fashion, we should go beyond the accented prejudices
that favvur the sexually explicit descriptions of female bodies and pay
attention to male sexuality. We need to "re-view" their bodies and revise
our understanding of male sexuality in early Indian art. Secondly, we
need to go beyond normally accepted generalisations about the
naturalisation of human figures in Mathura Kushan art and recognise
that these sexualized beings are based on mental constructs with
complex iconographic needs. In these sexual organ !s not
depicted merely as an imitation of natural form; it is made evident
because it heightens the physical presence of the male divinity and
conveys powerful notions of a sexualized super human being-a
chakravartin-in a quiescent form.
Norma Broude and Mary D. Gerrard (eds.) Feminism and Art History: Questioning
the Litany (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p.2.
This paper was first presented at an annual meeting of College Art Association in
1994. I should like to acknowledge Dr. Vidya Dehejia for her encouragement and
persistence to complete the article for inclusion in this publication.
Benjamin Rowland, Jr., Art in East and West (Boston: Beacon Press, 1954), p.19.
Ananda K. Coomaraswany, History of Indian and Indonesian Art (New York: Dover
Publications, 1965, 2nd ed.), p.64.
Stanislaw J. Czuma, Kushan Sculpture: Images from Early India (Cleveland: The
Cleveland Museum of Art, 1985), p.102.
Pratapaditya Pal, Indian Sculpture: Vol I (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum
of Art, 1986), p.177.
Rowland, East and West, p.16.
Rowland, ibid. Fig. 4.
Czuma, Kushan Sculpture, p.131.
Czuma, Kushan Sculpture, p.75.
''This discussion is aimed not at such obviously sexual representations of deities
as the urdhva. linga Shiva, but rather at more generalized images which are
----- _..._,__ ,-
The History and Historiography of Male Sexuality 55
12Pal, Indian Sculpture, pp.182-83. " ..
J3For a more detailed discussion of this subject, see Ananda Coosmaraswany, Ongm
of the Buddha Image," ne Art Bulletin, 9 June, 1927, pp. 286-329 and J.P. Vogel,
"La Sculpture de Mathura". Ars Asiatica, vol. 15. Paris & Brussels, 1930.
J4Coomaraswamy, History, p.37. . .
15Stella Kramrisch, Indian Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press), p.35.
16Amy Poster, From Indian Earth: Four Thousand Thars of Terracotta Art (Brooklyn: The
Brooklyn Museum), p.95.
17Kramrisch, Indian Sculpture, p.36.
'ljoanna G. Williams, ne Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1982), p.60.
Ibid. p.61.
20Kramrisch, Indian Sculpture, p.35 ..
2'Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in the Modern Oblzvwn
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.) . .
22A. Grunwedel, Buddhist Art in India (London: Sus1l Gupta (revised edn.)
1965), p.161. . .
23It is likely that such an interpretation of 23rd directly related to
a desexualized view of early Buddhism which was seen m direct contrast to the
more prevalent view of Hinduism at the beginning of the century.
24A. Dallapicolla and B.N. Goswamy (trs.), An Early Document of Indian Art:
Chitralakshana of Nagnajit (New Delhi: Manohar, 1976), p.102. . .
25There is no explicit reference to the Buddha or to the Buddha Image 1_n the
Chitralakshana. Because of this reason, some scholars have argued that text
may date to the early centuries of the Christian Goswamy and Dallapicolla,
however, date the manuscript to the early Gupta penod (early 4th century) on the
basis of language.
2sGoswamy and Dalapicolla, An Early Document, verses 705-34, pp. 88-89.
27For a more detailed discussion of yaksa imagery, see A.K.Coomaraswamy, Yaksas
(Washington: Smithsonian, vol. 80, no. 6, 1928.)
Coomaraswamy, History, p.69. . . .
2<JV.S. Agraval suggests that the Pasupata Shiva sect, to the pnnc1ple
founder Lakuli was established in Mathura by Kush1ka, one of the four diSCiples
of the founder: by the beginning of the second century. For. a more detailed
discussion, see Agraval, Siva Mahadeva, the Great Lord. 1966.) .
30for example, see Kramrisch, Manifestations, p.ll: One of the_ kt:own tmages
of Shiva standing in front of a linga is the Gud1mallam Sh1va whiCh IS datable to
the first century B.C. and comes from the southern region of Andhra Pradesh.
Yoga as a Key to Understanding the
Sculpted Body
he representation of the body, both human and divine, is certainly
a leitmotiv in the artistic history of India. While the sculpted and
painted human body has been admired for its sensuous beauty, it has
also been the target of a variety of criticisms. Prime among these is the
contention that the Indian artist never studied the human body, never
attended . "life" drawing classes, and consequently portrayed a body
devoid of musculature and lacking in realism The sculpted male,
whet:Jier god or human, has been disparaged as "effeminate," being
smooth, slender, supple and totally non-muscular. The pivoting female
figures carved in profusion on temple walls have been criticized for
being represented in contrived and "impossible" postures. This essay
is a brief exploration of the tradition of yoga in India and its ideal of ,
the yogic body; it will facilitate the viewers' evaluation of the sculpted
or painted human body and enable a better appreciation of the artistic
tradition of India.
The yogic twist
A recurring and eye-catching image in Indian art, and one that becomes
particularly dominant in post eighth century scutpture in north India,
is the provocatively poised female with her body turned so as to reveal
a view of her breasts as well as a glimpse of her behind. Frequently, the
flourish of her limbs suggests that she is dancing (Fig. 1), but just as
often she seems to be in a "holding" position. We may indeed speak
of'the artists' virtuosity and his desire to present a spectacular display
of the female body. However, critics who may be unaware of the yogic
tradition .from which these postures are derived seem to have
misunderstood these images. Scholars have commented on the artists'
skill in-revolving the body to make an impossible pose look almost
possible. A recent serious study of sculptural style used the descriptive
phrase "fully twisted like a corkscrew"
when making reference to such
images. The unfortunate term "corkscrew twist" suggests that the pose
<>n nnn-:>tnr<aJ -:>nrl PrrPntrir rrP':Itinn nf thP ':lrtist Th011!Th the DOSe
Yoga and. the Sculpted Body 69
lateral .twist of yoga practice in which both sides of the body are in
simultaneous action.
Four yogic asanas or poses are based on this lateral twist: three are
named after the sages Bharadvo:ja, Marichi, and Matsyendra, while the
fourth is known by the descriptive term of pasa or noose.
These poses,
are executed both as seated and standing poses; generally the beginner
or casual practitioner engages in them in the less demanding standing
mode. In the standing lateral twists, one leg rests firmly on the ground
while the other is raised and bent at the knee. In the Marichi asana, when
the left leg is on the ground, tl)e chest turns and goes beyond the thigh
of the bent right leg, while the left arm goes over the knee of the bent
thigh (Fig. 2). In the seated posture, a knee and a bent elbow are
anchored to counterbalance the body, enabling the spine to twist still
further to its maximum latebH extension. Of the various twisted poses,
the Matsyendra pose demands the maximum lateral twist of the spine
which is turned a little beyond 90 degrees.
The sculpted fem'ale figures.that twist and rotate on the temple walls
should be reassessed. with the yogic twist in mind. Yoga practice and the
raovements of classical 'Indian dance help the viewer to understand
poses that seem (:Xtraordinary only because they are not part of the
contemporary viewers' vocabulary. However, in Indian art and
yoga, they are rieither"abnormalnor unnatural. The artists' partiality for
such poses may have been due to the freedom which it allowed them in
the display of the human body. However, these poses became the
favoured mode at 'Certain periods of artistic history only because the
lateral twist was part of.regular yoga practice and visibly evident for the
artist to imitate:
The dvarapala guardians flanking the entrances to southern temples
are almostalwaysposedin the yogic twist. Thedvarapalas on the entrance
gateway of the Tanjore temple (Fig. 3), and indeed the guardians at the
entrances to all Chola shrines, are striking examples of this stance which
is particularly appropriate for a guardian figure. When turned to view
more than one direction at the same time, he (or she .in the case of a
dvarapalika) is enabled to keep better control over the temple precincts.
Patanjali's yoga suttas
The ancient antecedents of yoga in India are relevant to an understanding '
of these and other sculpted figures. Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word
meaning to yoke or harness, to direct, to concentrate one's
attention upon; it also means to join or unite. Yoga is a system of
philosophy established some two thousand years ago by sage Patanjali
who taught the means by which the human soul may be united with
the Snnreme Soirit and thus achieve a state of liberation known as
Fig.l Female figure displaying the
yogic twist from Khajuraho Museum.
(Photo: American Institute of Indian
Fig. 2 Mary Dunn in standing
yogic twist.
Fig. 3 Dvarapala from the Great
Temple at Tanjore, displaying the
yogic twist. (Photo : Archaeological
Yoga and the Sculpted Body 71
limbed) yoga which constitutes a complete system of discipljp.e which
progressively leads to samadhi.
To understand the sculpted b6dy in this
context, third a:nd fourth stages of yoga, asana or posture and
pranayama or the flow of breath and energy, are relevant. Today the
word yoga is popularly used to refer exclusively to these two of
Patanjali's eight stages.
Asanas in the original yoga context are not merely exercises but a
system of balances whereby the limbs of the body function as weights and
counterw'eigpts. They balance and tone the body's nerves, muscles and
glands and create a bodily harmony that is a prerequisite to the discipline
of the mind. The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and
makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit. The Yoga Sutra tells us that "Asana is
perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of
spirit. "
In the art context, however, the asana stage is relevant and
important because it provided a source of inspiration for the artist
sculpting the human body.
Equally important is pranayama, the fourth stage of Patanjali's yoga,
in which the flow of breath is controlled and regulated. The practice of
breath control influences both body and mind and produces that aspect
of serenity and fulfilment seen in many sculpted Indian figures. Prana
is much rp:ore than just breath; it is the principle oflife and consciousness,
the flow of the sum total of energy permeating the universe. In Patanjali 's
yoga, the control of this prana is chiefly instrumental in leading towards
the ultimate goal of samadhi. In the best of lndian sculpted images,
particularly those depicted in yogic meditatioil1 see this serenity, this
this transcendence: Even images in 'non-tpeditative poses
appear: to be shaped by, the control ofbreath and the mental calm which
arises from it. The scuipted figure seems to have transcended the gross
weight of the physical muscle-bound body, and instead to be
moulded by a sense oflightriess and a feel ofinteriors:pa!=e. If pranayama
is" cosmic poetry",
the viewer may perhaps see it reflecte:din masterpieces
like Vishnu in samabhanga in cave 3 at Badarpi (Fig. 4):
The yogic stance: tadasana
The Badami Vishnu just discussed is portrayed ih a frontal standing
pose known to yoga as tadasana, in which taaa means "palm tree" or
"mountain." The sculpted figure, whether male or female, stands
upright, steadfast and' motionless as though rooted to the earth
(Fig. 4). Tadasana is often described as a standing meditation pose. In
Indian art, the stately standing ascetic appeared first in the form of the
Jina, founder oftheJainfaith. The earliest ofsuchJina images may date
back to the fourth century B.C. Tadasana is equally a royal posture, and
hence as appropriate -for king and queen, god and goddess, as for
Yoga and the SculptedBody 73
The yogi in tadasana stands firm with weight evenly distributed
(Fig. 5). Kneecaps are pulled up, hips move inwards and the stomach is
held up but neither tightened nor sucked in. The chest is forward and
open; outer shoulders extend horizontally and inner shoulders relax
downwards. Chest and shoulde{s are further expanded due to the
rhythm of yogic breathing or pranayama. The spine is extended, the
neck is held straight and the eyes gaze straight ahead. Arms are held
down along the sides of the body; they do not hang limp but are charged,
with fingers energized, straight and pointing downwards. Sculpted
figures in this pose have sometimes been described as "archaic", a term
used in Greek art t_o describe early and somewhat stiff male figures
known as kouroi. The term is a misnomer when applied to Indian images
in tadasana; the smooth and rounded standing figures come alive with
the richness of breath and consciousness within.
Every south Indian bronze of the goddess, whether of Parvati,
Lakshmi, Sita or other divine or royal figure, has one hand raised to hold
a flower. while the other is ~ h e l d down alongside the body with fingers
extended and pointing downwards. While we may stand casually at ease
with one arm extended, none of us extends our fingers in such a manner.
The sculpturai convention of elongated arms with fingers extended so
as to reach down to the knees need not be attributed solely to artistic
stylization. It is explained at least partly by the tradition of tadasana in
which fingers are extended.
The Vishnu from Badami (Fig. 4) and a heroic male portrayed
in a Greek statue provide an interesting contrast. Greek poets, who
considered man to be the acme of perfection, wrote:
There are many wondrous things on earth
but none more wondrous than man.
The spear bearer (doryphoros: Fig. 6) presents the viewer with the
Mediterranean ideal of the athletic male, with pronounced musculature
of chest, abdomen and limbs. Greek sculptors created their perfect male
body by combining, in a single image, the exemplary individual parts
observed on different humans. Their sculptors could work easily from
nature since, as we know from contemporary writings by puzzled
foreigners, their male citizens moved around in the nude with only a
cloak thrown around their shoulders. Athleticism was the ideal of a
people who invented the Olympic games. Sculpted bodies depicted the
power and vigour of human competition and effort. The pectoral
muscles, the pelvic joint, the biceps and triceps, the thigh and calf
muscles are all emphasized; the kneecap is clearly defined and . the
p.bdomen is flat and tight. .
A totally divergent tradition and scale of cultural values prevailed in
India. In art, male figures are portrayed with a total. absence of
Fig. 5 Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar
in tadasana.
Fig. 6 Doryphoros ofPolykleitos.
Roman copy of Greek original.
(Photo: Met-ropolitan Museum
of Art.)
between the arm and shoulder is not emphasized; rather, the shoulder
into the arms without any indentation (Fig. 4). Neither
the pelVI.c JOI_Dt sharply differentiated; indeed, the thigh moves almost
Imperceptibly mto the pelvic region. The abdominal muscles of Indian
sculpted images, whether male or female, are soft and full so as to allow
the to flow easily. This ideal of the yogic body is visibly evident in
all Indian sculptures with their smooth non-muscular torsos, expanded
chest and shoulders, and relaxed stomachs. Critics should not question
the absence of anatomical detailing in Indian art; rather, they should
expect of the yogic concept of the human bod(The cultural
' ..
Yoga and the Sculpted Body 75
In a 1954 essay titled "Traditions of Indian Art," Stella Kramrisch
remarked upon the importance of yoga in Indian art. Her perceptive
words on Greek and Indian sculpture bear repetition.
The Greeks took as their ideal the disciplined, athletic physical body. The
Indian took the disciplined state, or subtle body of inner realization, on
which to model the shape of their images. Greek sculptors were not
necessalily athletes, nor were all Indian artists yogis. In either case, training
and environment equipped them with their own characteristic types and
The significance and implications of these remarks were never fully
explored. Kramrisch also recognized the relevance of yogic breath in
evaluating Indian sculpture although she never made use of the term
In Indian art the figures are, as it were, modelled by breath which dilates
the chest and is felt to carry the pulse of life through the body to the tips
of the fingers. This inner awareness was given permanent shape in art, for
it was daily and repeatedly practised and tested in the discipline of yoga.
It was found that by the concentrated practice of controlled breathing, an
inner lightness and warmth absorbed the heaviness of the physical body
and dissolved it in the weightless 'subtle body', which was given concrete
shape by art, in planes and lines of balanced stresses and continuous
movement. This shape, inwardly realized by yoga, was made concrete in

Kramrisch's somewhat abstruse writing style and her penchant for
metaphysical interpretation may have deflected attention from an
important observation.
The asanas and breathing techniques of yoga form a basis for the
classical dances of India with their dramatic poses and elaborate system
of mudras or hand gestures. In fact, initial lessons in classical dance are
lessons in yoga practice. Both forms of expression demand a similar
awareness of the human body and its function as a vehicle of the spirit
manifesting as breath. An even flow of breath is as important to classical
dance as pranayama is to serious yoga. The western tradition of dance
is markedly different. Time and again I have heard western dancers
being told by the yoga instructor: "This is not ballet; it is yoga. Relax the
stomach muscles; do not be conscious of your abdomen. Only then will
you be able to let your breath flow evenly." The difference in western and
Indian visualizations of the ideal human body is understandably reflected
also in their respective artistic traditions.
It is only natural then that a knowledge of the yogic body permeates
the portrayal of the human body in Indian art. For thousands of
individuals in India, yoga was, and still is, a part of everyday experience.
Mom" heen renresented throughout the artistic
known as vrikshasana; the god Shiva destroys demons in the yogic warrior
stance ofVirabhadrasana; teachers and saints sitting with raised knees
frequently use the yoga patta band as a support to maintain their
Yoga was so much a way of life that its influence is seen even
in a love poem like Chaurapanchashika or "Fifty Stanzas of a Thief'. In
page after page of a sixteenth century painted manuscript, the hero
Bilhana, sitting at ease beside his beloved, makes use of a yoga band
around his knees.
Sculptors and painters did not need to practice yoga themselves; they
would have seen asanas repeated and practised regularly; they would
have seen yoga masters in meditative poses. The yogic body was a visible
entity in India, to the same extent at least as the jogging body in the
United States. The sculpted body in India embodies yogic potential in
plastic terms. Its disciplined state, its fullness and vitality are the result
of the artists' observation of both yogic postures and the concentrated
practice of controlled breathing.
The meditating image
The Harappan Seal & Vastu Purusha Mandala India's greatest gift to the
grammar, syntax and iconography of art, is the figure sitting cross-legged
in a state of deep meditation. This heroic image is ;neither athlete
nor warrior, but the dispassionate ascetic who has always been held in
the highest esteem. It expresses not the muscular physical form, but
the serenity of the meditative state. It stands for an ideal state which
did and does exist in reality in the practice of yoga. In padrnasana or
"lotus" pose, the legs are crossed and placed high upon the thighs with
soles turned up. When arms are extended to rest beyond the bent knees
with forefingers and thumbs bent to touch each other, or when palms
are placed one within the other and rest in the lap facing upwards, the
figure is considered to be in meditation. The posture is also used by
g0ds and enlightened souls for preaching, in which case the hand
or hands are raised to display the gesture of teaching. A superb example
is. the Buddha image from Sarnath (Fig. 7), still half-absorbed in
the bliss of the meditative state from which he has awakened to preach.
Very closely allied is the siddhasana meditation pose, in which the
feet are brought close into the body; the left heel rests against the right
thigh, while the right foot is placed over the left ankle. Arms are stretched
so that the backs of the hands rest on the knees with palms facing
The seated figure in the pose of yogic meditation was adopted by the
various religions of India without being restricted to one or other faith.
The Buddha, the Jina, the Hindu god Shiva, the goddess Lakshmi when
lustra ted by elephants, the goddess Parvati, and several lesser figures of
Yoga and the Sculpted Body 77
is pan-Indian in its significance and application; it cuts across religious
boundaries, as also the boundaries of gender, race and caste.
While we have seen that Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutras some time
around 200 B.C. artistic evidence suggests a much earlier date for the
origin of certain yogic asanas. The earliest image of a seated yogi dates
to the third millenium B.C. and is seen on a well known Harappan seaP
from the Indus Valley Civilization (Fig. 8). Several curious symbolic and
iconographic aspects of this important and ancient figure merit serious
study, but our interest here is only in the seated posture. The figure sits
with his legs opening out from ~ groin, with knees extended outward
and down, and with feet joined one to the other at the heels and drawn
up beneath him with toes turned down. Arms are outstretched, with
hands extending out beyond the knees. He sits in fixed meditation, with
eyes lowered and seemingly focused on the tip of the nose.
It is clear that the figure is not in the standard lotus pose, nor does
it seem to be in siddhasana. The manner in which the figure sits is
suggestive of the posture known as baddha-konasana ("bound-angle
pose"). In this asana, the soles of the feet are drawn together, touching
each other. The feet are pulled in close to the body and the outer edges
of both feet rest on the floor (Fig. 9). Baddha-konasana is also a classic
meditation pose. However, yoga master Iyengar makes the wry comment
that this is how Indian cobblers sit,
as indeed one may see to this day
at street corners where cobblers ply their trade, underscoring the easy
familiarity with the postures codified in yoga.
If the artist of the Harappan seal intended us to read the yogi's feet
as having raised heels, the posture would be the allied mula-bandhasana
("root-locked pose"). Starting with the previous posture, the yogi raises
his heels while the toes rest on the ground. He then raises his body off
the floor with the help of the hands and gendy lets it down to rest on toes
and knees (Fig. 10). This is the most demanding of the three possible
p<;>ses of the figure on the Harappan seal. In the context of the erect
phallus of the yogic image on the seal, it is relevant to note that both
baddha-konasana and mula-bandhasana are specifically said to control
sexual desire and sublimate energy.
Of the three possible postures it
appears most likely that the meditating figure on this seal, and a
companion seal in the National Museum, Karachi,
is in baddha-
konasana. Regardless of the specific pose portrayed, the seals indicate
that the antecedents of yoga belong to a period several centuries earlier
than Patanjali's codification.
The influence of yoga was so pervasive that it is evident even in the
Fitual diagram utilized to construct a place of worship. The mapping of
a cosmic square known as Vastu Purusha Mandala seems to date back to
the centuries B.C. as part of the ritual used to construct open air brick
. i '
, I
I ,.
! I!
I I 'I
I ,
Fig. 8 Figure sea"ted in yogic
posture on seal from Indus
Valley Civilization. (Photo:
Archaeolor;ical Survey of
Fig. 7 The Buddha in
"lotus pose" from Sarnath.
(Photo : Archaeological
Survey of India.)
Yoga and the Sculpted Body 79
Fig. 9 Baddha-konasana. Fig. 10 Mula-bandhasana.
Fig. 11 Vastu Purusha Mandala diagram for floor ,.,.. ..
A.D., it was adapted by architects as a means to lay out temples and to
orient them ritually. The Brihat Samhita, an ancient text of the early sixth
century A.D., contains an entire section devoted to architecture which
gives us details of this mandala. Within a square of 32, 64 or 81 divisions
is placed a human figure, drawn in spare outline, and known as vastu
(building) purusha (man). The figure is placed along the diagonal of the
square; the crown of the head is in the north-eastern corner and the toes
are placed together in the opposite south-western corner (Fig. 11).
Depending upon the perspective, the figure is seated in either baddha-
konasana with toes and heels of the feet together, or in mula-bandhasana
with body resting on the toes. At the centre of the VastuPurushaMandala
is located the all-pervading, formless Brahman, the guardian spirit of the
ritual. In the squares of the diagram, around and upon the limbs of the
cosmic man, Vastu Purusha, are written the names of gods and demi-gods
in the appropriate directions and locations where they were to be placed.
This diagram is resonant with yogic overtones. The subtle body of
Vastu Purusha, with its parts, limbs and apertures, coincides with the
squares of the temple plan. The 32 squares are the asanas or seats of
different deities; the 32 squares also set up a parallel with the 32 asanas
or postures of yoga. The centre of the square and the centre of the body
(the navel) overlap at the centre of the diagram. It is at this centre in the
temple sanctum that the image of worship is ceremonially installed.
Profound significance attaches to this centre as it is here, through the
enshrined image, that the worshipper comes into contact with the
cosmic consciousness. A similar significance applies, in the practice of
yoga, to the nab hi or navel which is the centre of the body and which must
be correctly aligned in order to reach a state of harmony.
There is an
integration here, a yogic joining, of man and temple, infusing both with
the principles of yoga. The subtleties and ramifications of this significant
diagram are various; for our purpose, the emphasis is on the choice of
a figu:.;-e in yogic asana.
To be total and rewarding, all artistic evaluation must be related to the
traditions and cultural values of the country of its origin. Of utmost
relevance are the artists, their position in society, their craft and guild
traditions. For instance, the training of Indian artists according to
codified shilpa texts gave rise to much of the stylization and idealization
evident in their portrayal of the human form. Relevant too are the
patrons who commissioned specific themes in art, in part at least to
derive from it the aesthetic experience known as rasa. Within this wider
cultural context, we must recognize also the significance of the tradition
of yoga and its inevitable influence upon art. The Indian artistic tradition
ignores the depiction of musculature not through anatomical ignorance
or lack of artistic skill, but because the Indian ideal was the yogic body.
-- .._ L, _______L
Yoga and the Sculpted Body 81
ccentricity but through familiarity with the lateral twists of yoga. In a
e b .
on textual analysis of Indian art, yoga is only one key, ut an Important
~ n hitherto neglected key, towards an understanding of the sculpted
1 Vishakha Desai and Darielle Mason ( eds.), Gods, Guardians, and, Lovers (New York:
Mapin Publishers, 1993), p. 135.
2 According to the system of yoga propagated by B.K.S. Iyengar. See his Light on Yoga
(Calcutta: Harper Collins, 199 3 edn) .
3The eight limbs or stages of yoga are (1) Yama (moral precepts); (2) Niyama (self-
purification by discipline); (3) Asana (posture); ( 4) Pranayama (rhythmic con-
trol of breath); (5) Pratyahara (withdrawal and emancipation of the mind); (6)
Dharana (concentration); (7) Dhyana (meditation); and (8) Samadhi (a state of
enlightenment in which the yogi becomes one with the object of his meditation).
4Patanjali sutra II, p. 46.
s Prashant in personal conversation with Harnisch.
6 Sophocles, Antigone, 1.332
1 Stella Kramrisch, The Art of India (London: Phaidon Press, 1954), p. 15.
sibid. p. 27.
9Daryl Yauner Harnisch is working on a monograph on this subject.
10 See paintings of the famous Chaurapanchashika of circa 1550.
Seal number 420.
2 B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga p. 128.
Ibid. p. 346.
14 Mario Bussagli & C. Sivaramamurti, 5000 Years of the Art of India (New York: Harry
N. Abrams, n.d.) Plate 50c.
15 At the April 1994 ACSAA conference held in New York City, Harnisch made a
point of the importance of the navel and its alignment for the human body prac-
tising yoga and for the appearance of the sculpted body. Vishakha Desai, in per-
sonal conversation, repeated her experience with positioning gallery images, re-
marking that when the navel of a piece is centered, the sculpture seems appropri-
ate for its setting.