A Textual History of Indian Art, Religious rather than Profane

Kristoffel Lieten

There surely always is a need for a comprehensive overview of the history of art in the subcontinent. Partha Mitter’s Indian Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Vidya Dehejia’s Indian Art (London, Phaidon Press, 1997) and Joan Cummins’ Indian Painting from Cave Temples to the Colonial Period (Boston, MA: MFA Publications, 2011) are compelling studies. The book by B. N. Goswamy and Vrinda Agrawal is of a different nature – it has a vast collection of texts which may (or may not) have a bearing on the development of architecture, paintings, and sculptures in the long history of the subcontinent.

The book promises the view beyond: ‘one can hear the past speak, and see the arts of India, which have been lost to history, come alive’. But ‘seeing the arts’ is actually out of question. It is a massive volume without one single image. The book intends to provide documentation on the state of iconography, aesthetics, patronage, and artists. Many of these texts go back deep into the Vedic period. The authors mention that the surviving manuscripts ‘contain no images’. That cannot possibly be the reason why we have in hand a book on Indian art which does not contain one single visual?

It is a book on ‘Readings’, but also a book without the much needed annotations to accomplish the texts. As a consequence, all texts remain in a void, unconnected with ‘art’ as it came into being and changed overtime and in different regions of the subcontinent. The authors have conducted an exhaustive search for any bit or piece closely or vaguely related to the world of art. To my mind comes the connotation of a vacuum cleaner: sucking up, and afterwards displaying, without discrimination, and without much illumination.

The book contains an abundance of religious writings, mainly Hindu and some Buddhist text. The moot question, however, is how rules on aesthetics and iconography dealing with mythologies in the heavenly world had any bearing on the earthly world. The authors refrain consistently from linking text with practice and providing insights. There, for example is a Brahmanical text (Pratimalakshana, possibly 10th century) ‘Buddha’s own recommendations about how images of his should be made’. The text contains 49 prescriptions on everything possible, from the size of the upper lip to the length of the different toes. Very interesting indeed, but if one would be interested to know how the image of Buddha has undergone changes, for example between the Gandhara school in the first century AD, possibly under the influence of Hellenistic art, and the Mathura school later on and in the Gupta period (4th to 7th century AD), the book provides no solace. One wonders if there is any connection between sacred texts and the work done by the artisans.

A more direct link between text and practice, images and architecture, is available from the golden age of Moghul governance in India, both in Northern India and in the Deccan, by and large in the 15th-17th century. The authors state in the introduction that the Ain-i-Akbari (the governance of Akbar, five volumes) by Abul Fazl, was ‘unparalleled in respect of the information it contains’. When it comes to the ‘reading’ of that text, we are left with one page describing how Akbar had the icons on the playing cards altered. The other information in the chapter on arts, validated as ‘unparalleled’ is not provided, with the simple argument that it is a document ‘that is all too frequently cited’ (p. 61).

The period of the Muslim sultans witnessed a syncretism of the Persian and Indian styles and the accomplishment of miniature paintings in the Mughal courts. Akbar himself had received training in painting and his royal patronage drew the best artists (both Indian and foreign) to his court. More attention should definitely have been allocated to this ‘non-Hindu’ period in the history of the subcontinent.

The vision of a vacuum cleaner remains with me while going through the book. One example among many is the page on Cornelis Claesz Heda. Is it on Heda, the famous Dutch 17th century still life painter? No, not Willem but Cornelis, his uncle. He worked for around one decade at the court of sultan Adil Shah II in Bijapur and was provided with a honorary title. In the four-line excerpt, Heda writes that ‘the King had long wished for a painter from our land, and had me clothed with great honour’. Here the authors, if they thought it was an interesting encounter between European and Indian art, could have added more interesting background information. Heda worked for the German emperor, was then engaged by the Shah of Persia, but on route to Persia he was captured by the Portuguese (the colonial competitor of the Dutch East India Company); he was taken to Goa from where he could flee to Bijapur. Deborah Hutton and Rebecca Tucker (The worldly artist in the seventeenth century: The travels of Cornelis Claesz Heda, Art History 37(5): 860-89) have researched his travels and art. No paintings of his have survived, but the subtle changes – introducing mannerism – among the court painters, suggest that Adil Shah II did well to engage Heda. The authors of this book have abstained from going into and adding such annotations which would have put the ‘readings’ in their proper context. On the other hand, I must admit that without this reference to Heda, I would have never known about the man. Incidentally, the 16th- and early 17th century was a period of extraordinary renaissance of the arts and of religious tolerance in South Asia. Sultans were deeply interested in arts. It unfortunately has received a stepmotherly treatment. The focus lies elsewhere.

Indian painting has a history that spans 2500 years. This book goes back even further and seems to have a distinct inclination for ancient Hindu texts. These texts should ‘provide insights into or descriptions of works of art’ (p. xvii), but going through the text, page after page, any relationship with the practice of art in the real world is hard to find. The authors actually admit the same. Even in the shilpa shastras (craft shastras), ‘the information is sometimes thin and scattered’ (p. 141). In those distant days, well into the 18th century, art was religion, but not each reference in a sacred text should be identified as a source in the history of art.

Only in the last section of the book (Early Art Historical Writings) do we get some down-to-earth treatment of art and aesthetics. ‘Early’ in this context refers to the 19th century, and those reflecting on art, except for notably exceptions such as A. K. Coomaraswamy and N. C. Mehta who were colonial writers and administrators like Baden-Powell. At the beginning of the section, on page 355, the authors repeat their claim that the ancient texts reveal ‘a deep understanding of what art is and does’. In the next sentence, however, they add that ‘very little’ seems to have been written on the history of art: ‘Schools and styles are seldom if ever discussed; chronologies do not seem to exist, there are no catalogues of collections…. It would in fact be hard to locate any text prior to the nineteenth century that took account of the history of art as such or tracked its development in India’.

Should one start taking the book on ‘Readings in Indian Art’ seriously from this section onwards, or rather only from the early 20th century since from that time onwards histories of art were undertaken. The explanation could be a simple one: before that period ‘art’ was the activity of shilpa, craftsmen who worked on religious iconography and portraits of the profane rulers.