The Mughal empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was splendid, the richest empire of its time, sucking in even the gold of Spanish America; and Mughal art had its admirers from the start. At the von Hirsch sale in London last year there was Rembrandt’s copy of, or variation on, a Mughal portrait of Shah Jahan, the painter’s contemporary (the turbaned head more European, less royal, the legs less pneumatic and formal). A modest tribute; but, until the work of the contemporary British painter Howard Hodgkin, no tribute like it was paid to the related art of the Hindu, Rajput principalities within the Mughal empire, particularly the miniature paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their Hindu motifs were too mysterious or simple; their flat patches of symbolic color—the world observed only to be reduced to pattern, the physical world more felt than contemplated—answered no European idea of high art until this century. This private art sank with the courts that produced it, and was forgotten.
It was in the three or four years before the First World War that Ananda Coomaraswamy made his great collection of more than 900 paintings; and at that time, as Dr. Pratapaditya Pal tells us, good Rajput paintings could be bought in India for the equivalent of one dollar. For some time after that, in spite of Coomaraswamy, Rajput paintings could be acquired for very little. The true rise in Rajput painting has occurred only in the last twenty years or so; the boom has come in the last five. A big hunting scene from the old Kotah state fetched $60,000 in 1977; a similar painting fetched more than $100,000 in 1978. (How hard it is today, in the sale room or the dealer’s gallery, to think of Kotah as a still living place! And it is harder, in the waterlogged peasant fields of Kotah, to imagine painting and drawing going on in the palace, as they did until a hundred years ago, celebrating that land of forest and rock as the hunting ground of princes.)
There are still finds for the sale-room amateur, if he stays away from the more elaborate work of Kotah and Bundi, Kishengarh and Bikaner—and the boom has more or less bypassed the painting of Central India. But money is now one of the more important things about Indian painting; all scholarship, however unwittingly, serves that cause. Every catalogue adds value to the work it celebrates. This recent development is left out of Much Maligned Monsters, Partha Mitter’s history of European reactions to Indian art. The book, which reads like a doctoral thesis, and is useful as a ledger and a reference book, begins with medieval travelers, takes in Hegel and Ruskin and William Morris, and ends with Coomaraswamy (who was half English, and wrote mainly for Europe and the United States).
Dour theses tend to have breezy titles. But this title goes somewhat against the theme of the book. Much Maligned Monsters is really about European books and European writing on art; it is a book about the expansion of European knowledge and sensibility—Hegel working from very little, but speculating brilliantly about the limitations of the art of a people without a sense of history; Ruskin contemplating the divided color of an Indian shawl (“the minutest atoms of color [used] to gradate other colors, and confuse the eye”; ideas about color that were to reach Seurat) and arriving at twisted yet penetrating notions about the moral incompleteness of an art based on color rather than form. But the title of Partha Mitter’s book seems to turn this great European intellectual adventure into a tribute to India.
The maligned and misunderstood gods of India, the title suggests, have won through; it has taken Europe centuries, but Europe has got there. At the back of that suggestion is another, which runs deep in India and turns up everywhere. India has only to be herself; it is for Europe to arrive at a knowledge of India’s virtues. It is for Europe—while India lies corrupting in her own artistic and spiritual fertility—to rediscover Elephanta, to unblock the Ajanta caves, to reassess Rajput painting.
Sculpture in India is still an aspect of religion. Music and dance and the movies are more or less autonomous arts. But in painting, where there is no longer an Indian tradition, India is dependent on Europe, and has been for nearly a century; and Indian estimates of Indian painting vary with the shifts in the taste of Europe. When Coomaraswamy tried to give his collection to an Indian institution, he could find no takers. The collection, and Coomaraswamy, went to Boston in 1917—part of the flow of Indian paintings and drawings out of India which has continued to this day, abating only during Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency, when a couple of Indian dealers were arrested and foreign lovers of Indian art thought it better to stay at home.
Coomaraswamy’s own attitude to Rajput painting reflected not only his mixed Indian-English ancestry, but also his late-Victorian English upbringing. He was a Hindu rediscovering and cherishing an art that wasn’t thought to exist; he was also an Arts-and-Crafts Victorian, someone who (with a considerable inherited fortune) fancied he was in revolt against the industrialism of the age, and looked back, in a Ruskin-like way, to the Middle Ages as to a golden time. He installed William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in his stylish Tudor-Norman house near Chipping Camden; and he could afford to have his first book, Medieval Sinhalese Art, hand set over a period of fifteen months and issued in a limited edition of 450 copies. (All this is from Roger Lipsey’s recent life of Coomaraswamy.)
A “medieval” Eastern subject, the revival of “medieval” European craftsmanship: to Coomaraswamy in 1907 these represented a perfect fusion of East and West. And just as Gandhi, his contemporary (still in South Africa at this time), had arrived at “Indian” non-violence by way of Thoreau, Ruskin, and Tolstoy, so Coomaraswamy was led, by his English Victorian-medieval ideals, his Hindu sentiment, his wonderful eye, and his intuition, to the discovery of Rajput art. In Rajput painting he found the glory of the Middle Ages: a royal art and a folk art, answering the unity of a medieval society; anonymous craftsmen serving a preindustrial, God-filled universe. “From these heads, so serene, so confidently poised, from these sensitive expressive hands, these white and gold colored muslins we can reconstruct, as it were from the buried fragments of an ancient textile, the whole pattern of the Rajput civilization—simple, aristocratic, generous, and self-sufficient. No other evidence than this is needed to establish the magnificence of that old Hindu world that is vanishing before our eyes at the present day in a tornado of education and reform.”
Coomaraswamy’s style (of 1916) points to one of the paradoxes. The tones are Ruskinian; but Ruskin didn’t care for Indian art. It revealed to him, especially after the 1857 Mutiny, a callous and limited society that was the opposite of his own dream of medieval Europe. But India is no longer the political or cultural cause it was to Ruskin or Coomaraswamy; and appreciation of Indian painting today concerns itself less with Indian society—the aesthetic sense in India is a rarefied thing. Out of a love for Indian art, India can be forgotten, or simplified, or seen in sections. (Though there are still people in Rajasthan with Coomaraswamy’s anguish about change. During the elections of 1971, fifty-five years after Coomaraswamy’s “tornado of reform.” I met an old and honored state politician who disapproved—while buzzing about the desert in his campaign jeep—of piped water and electricity being taken to the villages. He wasn’t concerned with the revival of arts and crafts; he was a Gandhian, and had his principles.)
The paintings of Rajasthan make more direct signals to Europe today. What to Coomaraswamy was medieval is now seen to be also modern. The primitivist vision of the Douanier Rousseau can be found in a forest scene by a painter from Kotah (always special in Rajasthan art). Elsewhere critics find previsions of Picasso, Nolde, Matisse. In some early Malwa work Dr. Pal, in his recent catalogue of Rajput art, finds similarities to the Matisse cut-outs of “Jazz.” Such comparisons are an aid to appreciation, but they can also make that appreciation too rarefied. When East and West appear to coincide there is usually some misunderstanding. There is all the art of Europe behind Matisse; his adventure makes sense only in that tradition, and it is an adventure of a sort not possible to the Rajput painter, whose world is as finite and self-sufficient and “medieval” as Coomaraswamy perceived it to be. Rajput painting, in spite of its changing conventions and techniques, never strays far from its origins. Its themes and moods are fixed.
This is one of the points Dr. Pal makes in The Classical Tradition in Rajput Painting, and his purpose is to reassert Coomaraswamy’s views about the antique Hindu particularity of Rajput work. Coomaraswamy had wished to rescue Rajput painting (the work of what Dr. Pal calls Mughal-Rajput India) from being under the shadow of “Muslim” Mughal painting. He had intuited the existence of some pre-Mughal tradition to which the Rajput painters, even when their techniques were Mughal-inspired, were returning. What Coomaraswamy intuited, later scholarship has uncovered. Dr. Pal himself provides further impressive evidence.
One of the most delicate erotic motifs of Rajput Hill painting is of the lovelorn lady who wrings out drops of water from her hair, or casts her pearls, into the open beak of a crane or large bird. This motif, which seems so much an invention of the Kangra and allied schools, Dr. Pal traces back to the first century AD: it is there, complete, in the stone carving of a yakshi from Mathura. Seventeen hundred years! It is amazing, this more than Egyptian continuity, through all the disturbances of Indian history. It is perhaps also appalling. Dr. Pal quotes from a sixth-century Hindu text about the way artists should handle nature:
The sky should be shown colorless and full of birds and the celestial dome should be shown with stars. Earth should be shown with forest regions and watery regions with distinguishing traits. A mountain should be shown with assemblages of rocks, peaks, minerals, trees, birds, and beasts of prey. Water is to be represented with innumerable fish and tortoises, with lotus-eyed aquatic animals and with other qualities natural to water…. Night may be represented with moon, planets and stars, with people asleep or doing the usual nocturnal things. Thieves also may be shown approaching.
The thieves were forgotten. The sky at Bikaner swirled with lacy clouds and at Bundi it could be gold and hellish red. But generally, as Dr. Pal says, the prescription held.
“It is quite true that the art of India is delicate and refined. But it has one curious character distinguishing it from all other art of equal merit and design—it never represents a natural fact. It either forms its compositions out of meaningless fragments of color and flowings of line; or if it represents any living creature, it represents that creature under some distorted and monstrous from…. It will not draw a flower, but only a spiral or a zigzag. It thus indicates that the people who practice it are cut off from all possible sources of healthy knowledge or natural delight; that they have willfully sealed up and put aside the entire volume of the world, and have got nothing to read, nothing to dwell upon, but that imagination of the thoughts of their arts….”
The quotation (in Much Maligned Monsters) is from Ruskin, whose knowledge of Indian art was limited to textiles and a few pieces of sculpture. And this is from Hegel, who knew even less of Indian art:
These people…, through their confused intermingling of the Finite and the Absolute, in which the logical order and permanence of the prosaic facts of ordinary consciousness are disregarded altogether, despite all the profusion and extraordinary boldness of their conceptions, fall into a levity of fantastic mirage…a flightiness which dances from the most spiritual and profoundest matters to the meanest trifle of present experience, in order that it may interchange and confuse immediately the one extreme with the other.
The intuition of both men is quite remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that they and Coomaraswamy are more or less saying the same thing, defining, from their varying points of view, the Indian “medieval.”
Objects don’t exist for me except insofar as rapport exists between them, and between them and myself. When one attains this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence—what I can only describe as a state of peace—which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation.
It might be a painter from that medieval world, if one so articulate or self-assessing can be imagined. It is in fact Braque in his Zen-Buddhist mood, talking to the critic John Richardson. But Braque is talking of a personal adventure, at the end of a life of exploration and risk. He wants to be liberated from what he knows, but he can only be like a man pretending to forget. The opposite is true of the Rajput painter; he is a man always returning to the security of his God-filled, but physically limited, world, with its prescribed themes: the prince, the palace, the hunt, the Krishna legend, the thirtysix musical modes.
That is why Rajput painting, by itself, can be unsatisfactory, why those moments (and days and weeks) occur when one loses faith in the art and sees it as petty, thin, and repetitive. Great formal exhibitions can be especially dispiriting—like the British Museum exhibition last year, like the Paul Walter exhibition recently at the Pierpont Morgan Library, which links Mughal-Rajput painting with its archaic Hindu roots, and of which Dr. Pal’s book is the catalogue. It isn’t only that these small-scale pictures need to be handled or seen more intimately. It is also that Rajput or Mughal-Rajput painting, to be fully savored, needs its more naturalistic Mughal setting. There has—as with Matisse or Braque—to be that knowledge of what has been digested or discarded.
The various schools of Indian painting refer back and forth to one another. It is an antiquated nationalism that seeks to isolate a purely Hindu art, and makes Mughal art—so full of Hindu names, and in its greatest work so shot through with Hindu sentiment—part of Islamic art. Indian painting makes a whole, and it is as a whole that it is extraordinary. That was proved by the exhibition at the Colnaghi Gallery in London last year. The catalogue is a princely souvenir of that splendid occasion, and it makes a fine and original introduction to the subject.
Many of the paintings in that exhibition were from the collection of Stuart Cary Welch. Welch is not only one of the great American collectors; he is also one of the best writers on the subject. And he was needed. Writing about Indian painting is done mainly by scholars; and scholarship, still concerned with identifying and dating, establishing possible sources, and naming new schools, tends to be particularly dry. In a field as narrow as this, recondite knowledge can become its own end, can become the act of appreciation. Welch is, above all, his marvelous eye. He describes himself as a voyeur, a “looker.” He began young; he bought his first Oriental picture (with his $25 monthly allowance) when he was eleven. (The British painter and collector, Howard Hodgkin, bought his first Indian picture when he was fourteen. B.W. Robinson, one of the authorities on Persian painting, discovered Persian painting when he was nine, on Sunday afternoon excursions to museums in London; his delight in the art now, he says, is not greater than the delight he felt then, as a child.)
Art appreciation has its prodigies; and there is a touch of the prodigy (as well as the prodigal) in great and idiosyncratic collectors like Coomaraswamy and Welch. Welch’s taste ranges from the most finished Mughal work to the roughest sketch from Kotah, a scrap of paper on which the nineteenth-century palace artist, after pointing his brush in a cloud of black spirals, does some swift little drawing. Welch is a looker in every way. He is the collector as explorer; he brings back news. And there is something of this explorer’s excitement in his writing.
Americans have come late to Indian painting—some important collections have been built up only in the last twenty years or so—and their late arrival has given them a special approach. Not only have they come to the art in the century of Matisse and Braque; they have also come at a time when imperialism has ceased to be an issue, and Europe does not have its nineteenth-century need to define itself by contrast with Asia. In the Ruskin-Coomaraswamy war (if it can be put like that) the American latecomers can afford not to take sides; they don’t come to the art through an involvement with the country. Welch starts with the art, the paintings and drawings that he loves, and the India that it leads him to appears quite new. His is not a rarefied appreciation; his books are as much about India and Indian history as about Indian art.
A Flower from Every Meadow (1973) and Indian Drawings and Painted Sketches (1976) are catalogues to exhibitions Welch has mounted. They are delightful and instructive books in their own right and will last for some time. They occasionally reflect Welch’s own collector’s searches, and they show how hard Welch has looked and in what unlikely places. The exhibits, especially in the second book, are often unexpected; they give a new idea of the graphic art of India which, when it is informal, is like informal art anywhere, not mysterious, as direct (for instance) as the playful sketches done on pieces of stone by the artists of ancient Egypt. Welch’s fresh American eye is also a demystifying one. The strength of his books lies in their catalogue entries. Welch has made himself a master of the short form. His entries are elegant, light in tone, but packed with varied information; as one’s knowledge deepens one also sees that Welch has the ability to say complex, art-historical things in a simple way.
His new book, Imperial Mughal Painting, though not a catalogue, but part of a publisher’s series on manuscript illumination, is in the Welch manner. He has chosen forty pictures to illustrate the glory, limitations, and decline of Mughal court painting. An art that developed so fast, had Persia, India, and Europe to draw on, and appeared to be reaching out in so many directions (even, as Welch’s book shows, attempting realistic Europeaninspired background landscapes, landscapes of India)—why didn’t it do more? Why did this art, so human in the beginning, in the late sixteenth century, and so full of possibility, exhaust itself so quickly by the end of the seventeenth?
The answer can be inferred from Imperial Mughal Painting. The art was limited by the civilization, by an idea of the world in which men were born only to obey the rules—Islam was always in the wings, waiting to resimplify and stifle. The art was limited by the despotism that went with this idea, the despotism that dealt only in power and glory but could create no nation. The art was limited by the ignorance and absurd conceit of a court dazzled by its own glitter. It shows in the paintings.
In 1625 the Emperor Jahangir (reigned 1605-1627) had himself painted standing on the world and embracing the smaller figure of a frightened shah of Persia. Northern India is at the center of the world. Jahangir, prodigiously haloed, stands on a couchant lion, the shah on a sheep. Europe is an unrecognizable land mass to the west; Africa, made up only of Egypt and Abyssinia, is bigger. Such ideas of geography in 1625! Some years before, Sir Thomas Roe (to whom Jahangir had boasted of the skills of his court painters) had been the English ambassador. Roe had been to Turkey; he had also traveled across the Atlantic to Trinidad and the Spanish Main; his world was larger than anything anyone in the overbearing Mughal court could have dreamed of. Today the picture albums of that court are scattered all over the world. Some of the best Mughal pictures are at Windsor Castle; and the Persian treasury still holds the jewels of the fabulous Mughal Peacock Throne.
The most extraordinary picture in Welch’s book, and one of the great Mughal pictures (it is in the Bodleian at Oxford), is called “Inayat Khan Dying.” (See page 6 above.) Inayat Khan was one of Jahangir’s personal attendants. He was an opium addict and then, in addition, he discovered wine, which “maddened” him, according to the Emperor, who tells the story in his Memoirs.
He fell into a bad state of body At last, he became dropsical, and exceedingly low and weak…. He had petitioned that he might go to Agra. I ordered him to come into my presence and obtain leave. They put him into a palanquin and brought him. He appeared so low and weak that I was astonished. “He was skin drawn over bones,” or rather his bones, too, had dissolved. Though painters have striven much in drawing an emaciated face, yet I have never seen anything like this, or even approaching to it. Good god, can a son of man come to such a shape and fashion? As it was a very extraordinary case, I directed painters to take his portrait.
A drawing was done first, no doubt for the Emperor’s approval—it was the method of Jahangir’s atelier. (It is reproduced on this page.) The dying, wasted man, not allowed to go to Agra, is propped up on bolsters in order to be drawn, his shirt open to show his emaciation: to look at the drawing is to become a voyeur. But the painting done from this drawing is a thing of amazing beauty and serenity. As one lingers over the fine details of bone and clothes, one begins to feel that, in spite of Jahangir’s comment (“Can a son of man come to such a shape?”), and in spite of the decanters in the wall niches, there is no moral judgment in the picture. One feels rather that the Indian artists, while obeying the whim of their Emperor, have created a novel kind of Indian religious picture, one conceived in a purely human way: sensual excess as a religious experience (a tantric theme): Inayat Khan, more serene and more handsome than in the drawing, eyes less dead, liberated from the burden and illusion of his body: the three-dimensional figure in an almost abstract, “modern” setting, like a more somber kind of Rajput musical mode.
The picture does not speak to everyone like this. Welch finds in it the “cool” Mughal attitude to death. Dr. Pal sees it as evidence of “a cruel streak” in the Emperor, with his passion for fact—an attitude, Dr. Pal says, “totally alien to Rajput thinking.” He quotes a critic, Eric Schroeder, who believes that in the history of Mughal art the reign of Jahangir (between the reigns of Akbar, 1556-1605, and Shah Jahan, 1628-1658) was a period of “tragic individuation,” when “there was a sudden and partial tincture of materialism in the normal theism of the land.”
The profundity of “Inayat Khan Dying,” then, is not only an accident; it is an aberration. A delight in painting, in the ability of artists to capture the natural world, has led to an “acute hunger for fact,” and has taken men into alien ways of seeing and feeling. The heresy cannot last; painters have to be recalled to their proper court functions. “Inayat Khan Dying”—fascinating as a glimpse of a possible “Renaissance” development in Indian painting—leads nowhere. Islamic assertion later in the seventeenth century more or less stultified the art of the Mughal court. But by then Mughal painting had probably done all that it was capable of doing.
“You will find that the art whose end is pleasure only is pre-eminently the gift of cruel and savage nations, cruel in temper, savage in habits and conception; but that the art which is especially dedicated to natural fact always indicates peculiar gentleness and tenderness of mind…the production of thoughtful, sensitive, earnest, kind men, large in their views of life and full of various intellectual power.”
The quotation (given by Partha Mitter) is from Ruskin, writing in 1859. The Indian Mutiny was over; the British had sacked Delhi. The Mughal Empire had ended the year before, and the last Mughal Emperor was in exile in Burma, writing sad little verses. The tattered condition of some Mughal work—monsoon damp, neglect, rats—speaks of the calamity that can befall men who “have willfully sealed up and put aside the entire volume of the world.”
Indian painting in the British period is the subject of Stuart Cary Welch’s current traveling exhibition, Room for Wonder. The title comes from the Memoirs of Babur (1483-1530), the descendant of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, and the founder (1526) of the Mughal power in India; and the words suggest that with the coming of the British, as avid for fact and pictorial record as Jahangir had been, Indian painting had a second Mughal period.
Elegant pictures of animals were done, delicate natural history studies of plants, and some fine portraits—as always, Welch has looked hard and chosen well. But Indian painting is the art of Indian courts, the art of people with a special way of seeing and feeling. And this British-patronized art, cleansed of all but painterly feeling, is in the end a bazaar art, a native substitute (in the eyes of its patrons) for the real thing. The Indian artist is at last made to open up “the volume of the world,” and there is faithlessness on both sides: incomplete work is required and offered. A small, worm-eaten brush drawing of an ascetic (reproduced on this page), done as late as 1825 for an Indian patron, is shot through with veneration; it is more than a reminder of Mughal draftsmanship. A 1794 drawing of a wild-eyed holy man resting on his bed of nails in Banaras, done for an English administrator, is sensationalist, a piece of reportage. (See page 14.)
This art, when related to the Indian tradition, is interesting: it rounds off the Indian story. Seen in isolation, it has to be compared with the European competition (painters like Zoffany and Tilly Kettle went to India, and got commissions even from Indians), and then it is for the most part only quaint. At the Yale Center for British Art, where I saw the exhibition, the competition was available. Eighteenth-century conversation pieces showed the English gentry (the women curiously ugly) at home, with their attributes: their clothes, their houses, their grounds. In another room Indian paintings—with conventions not far from those of the conversation piece—showed similar people (without the women) in their Indian translations. The attributes have changed. In England, the house and land, in uncluttered paintings (the English artist charged according to what he had to paint). In India, the servants, always the servants (the Indian painter was cheaper).
The volume of the world is opened: it is a world of servants. Welch, in his epigraph, quotes what an Indian is reported to have said to an English amateur artist: “Why, sir, are you doing that? Could you not employ some Indian to do it for you better?” The art (away from surviving Rajput courts like Kotah) is a serf art in every sense. It has nowhere to go. It is waiting to be superseded, first by European or European-style skill, and then by the camera. In the end even Rajasthan crumbles. An 1875 portrait of a Rajasthani courtesan by “Gopilal the Painter” is clearly based on a photograph; an 1880 portrait of the Maharajah of Marwar is like a Victorian painted-over photograph.
Decay after this comes fast. Thirty years later Coomaraswamy “discovers” the now neglected Rajput art of three centuries and can buy good pictures for a dollar. He doesn’t find in the pictures a clue to their own neglect, or an explanation of the Indian tragedy he laments; with his Victorian-Hindu revivalist eye he sees only the perfection of a desirable, god-sealed, medieval world.
The cycle might appear to be starting all over again—and Gandhi, in 1915, was to return to India from South Africa. But Gandhi’s India was only “the refuge of the afflicted”; there was no room in it for Coomaraswamy. No Indian museum was organized around his collection; and not even Banaras Hindu University—in 1916, the year he published Rajput Painting—wanted him as a professor. India went its own way; Coomaraswamy, in Boston, after flourishing as a modern viveur, became more and more mired in medieval scholarship. And just as industrialization—in spite of Coomaraswamy’s laments—has taken more things of beauty to the Indian poor (the machine-made thing, of more than human precision, is an object of delight to people who know only the hand-made), and industrial skills have made more people conscious of themselves as makers, so the camera, and later the cinema, would appear to have set on its head every Coomaraswamy-like theory about the secular nature of realism, and the spirituality, and necessary instinctive abstraction, of the Rajput Hindu schools.
Hindu iconography, with its monkeygod and elephants and rats, would appear to resist naturalism: certain nineteenth-century Hill paintings, of deep religious content, skirt Disneyland. But the “my-thological” (so pronounced) Hindu cinema is a recognized and popular genre; and the influence of the “mythologicals” can now be seen in the machine-turned gilt plaques of Hindu deities, and in the cheap religious prints that are sold in village fairs. Men are thrilled by illusion; they cannot unlearn what they know. The camera makes it impossible to go back to the Indian tradition; but faith continues to be served, and now not only in the palace.
Dr. Pal tells of the Indian collector who recently presented some paintings to the former Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. The paintings, the collector said, were to be looked at on hot days, to “cool the heart.” Painting in the Hindu courts of India was essentially a palace art, a source of ritualized pleasure of this kind. It is otherwise with sculpture. Sculpture is a living, almost elemental, art of India. It is a religious art and a public art, the iconographic treasury of an old many-layered civilization.
“Indian sculpture is always religious sculpture,” Aschwin de Lippe writes in Indian Medieval Sculpture. “The temple is the complete work of art. It is both the house and the image of God, and thus the image of the universe. God, though ever present in His creation, is beyond the grasp of our minds and senses. Only limited aspects of the Divine Being can be defined by human thought. These are made visible in art as instruments of worship.” Art, in such a world, hardly has a meaning; and in Lippe’s book the camera, the eye of the art-seeker, is felt as an intrusion: many of the temple images, especially in the South, are still “in worship” after a thousand years, and shine with their anointings. But it is part of Lippe’s purpose to show the sculpture in its true setting.
In 300 photographs Lippe charts the developments of sculpture in north and south India from AD 550 to 1250—from Ajanta and Elephanta to the frivolities of Halebid. Much scholarship and love, and much difficult travel, are at the back of the book’s simple plan; and the result is a wonderful album that many people who themselves dream about temple travel in India would like to have. Supplemented by some work of poetic interpretation, like Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, the Lippe book is an education.
Indian iconography can encourage the simplest acts of worship; but it also gives substance to the most profound kind of wonder. Vishnu sleeping on the coils of a many-headed serpent is a difficult image. But Vishnu asleep between two Creations is something that can be contemplated: image and idea lead back endlessly to one another. If, beside the painting of Europe, Indian painting seems limited and thin, so Indian sculpture once it has begun to yield its meaning can have the effect of undermining one’s faith in the art of Europe. The loss of faith is temporary; but that shifting of sensibility, that sense of moving in and out of opposed civilizations, is one of the pleasures that come with the response to Indian sculpture.
A Historical Atlas of South Asia offers India in maps, and more maps. It is an atlas encyclopedia. It is based on the South Asian book and map collection of Charles Lesley Ames, a St. Paul publisher, who didn’t go to India until he was sixty-five, forty years after he began collecting; and the work has an obsessional, monumental quality. It has been sixteen years in the making, and it has cost a million dollars. Everything that can be put in a map is here: from the India of the epics to the India of history, to maps illustrating the growth of canals, railways, roads, towns, electric power. Agricultural maps, industrial maps, employment maps, caste maps. If you want a map showing the routes taken by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims between AD 400 and 700, it is here; if you want clear plans of various kinds of Indian villages today, they are here.
Out of wealth, the collection; out of the collection, obsession, scholarship, and the wish to spread the good news. The Atlas editor, Joseph E. Schwartzberg, writes: “Cognizant though he is of his debt to the citizens of the United States, the writer affirms also his citizenship in a larger and more enduring global community, the Family of Man.” His dedication and labor match his words. Though the shutters go down on intellectual inquiry in so many countries that have just emerged or come to wealth, and though revivalism and political simplicities always threaten to close up the world again, it is a kind of Golden Age that we live in, after all: books like Lippe’s and this Atlas—inconceivable at any other period and in any other kind of civilization—testify to it.
March 22, 1979