Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Across the Himalayan Gap > 


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]





Art is an index of culture. It has sociopolitical basis having correlation with the growth and nature of the culture of a particular group of people at a given time. The more a people progresses from its primitive life the more it evolves a complicated social structure which is reflected in its art, science and literature.

Every human race has passed several stages of life. Civilization grows out of the interactions of the cultures of different ethnic groups. The discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization shows that India was not isolated from the rest of Asia and this was also the case with China. In fact, the culture of a place is not purely self evolved. Cultures are typified in the mythology of different nations.

Culture is acquired by diffusion through various sources. The civilization of a people does not evolve always of its own accord. The more the histories of the growth of the present day nations are traced out, the more we hear of the interconnections of the cultures of different ethnic groups. From a holistic view this is the phenomenon of interface and synergy. The discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization has opened a new vista to the eyes of the Indians, that Indian civilization did not come out ready-made It was the result of the interaction of many historical forces. India was never isolated in her long course of history. The New researches have proved that from the earliest period the culture of China came into contact with the West. These cultural contacts have been typified in Chinese mythology. In other words, the cultural goods of Western and Central-Asian civilizations have been introduced in different ages in China and these have been described as different epochs of Chinese history.

Cultural treasures are international in their character and they never remain as the monopoly of any specific nation. The best example of this is provided by the cultural remains of Central Asia (a large part of it lies now in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China). It was in the region where many races and peoples met and developed a composite culture. It was in the region where the language spoken was MO-European, the religion was Buddhism, and the civilization, Indo-Iranian. The art of the region was also cosmopolitan bearing the stamps of Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese traditions. This art serves as an index to the cultural condition of the people of this region. As the time passed the Hellenistic tradition disappeared and there occurred here the triumphal march of the Persian art, when Persia asserted her national independence under the Sassanian Dynasty from the 4th to 7th century AD.

With the advent of Islam, Persia lost its importance. The prestige of Iran fell, low. At this stage Bamiyan which was an important centre of Iranian culture turned to India for inspiration and the art of Central Asia was revitalised by Indian art traditions and the Indian way of Me assimilated by Bamiyan to this region. During this period the Gupta and Ajanta art exercised a profound influence on the art of the oasis towns of the Tarim basin specially in Khotan, Kumtura and Kizil.

Reverting to the undivided sub-continent of India, the first great achievements of Indian people in the field of art and culture are represented by the Indus Valley Civilization belonging to the chalcolithic period (around 2500 BC). This civilization was also known as Harappan culture. This culture indicates a distinct change from the hills to the organised urban communities. In this period iron remained unknown and copper was mainly used. The planned towns and houses with developed drainage system and well-laid roads show a high degree of urban development.

Excavations at Harappa have brought to light a large number of objects including statuettes, steatite seals with inscriptions (which are yet to be deciphered), terracotta female figurines with fan-like head dress and eloborale jewels, animal figures skillfully modelled, painted potteries, beads of different types and many other objects of utilitarian interest. The female figures show the popularity of the Mother-goddess cult in harappan sites. A terracotta from Mohnjodaro is of special interest representing a toy chariot of which the forepart consists of the head of a horned ram and the rest, its body and tail, of a bird. This type of bird chariot we see from Basrah (Bihar) till the Gupta times. It is not impossible that the representations of the bird chariot in Chainese art of the ;Han period were derived from India.

The Harappan artists have shown special skill in carving animal figures. They are bold and spirited. Most of them show realistic treatment. Dancing girl in Bronze from Harappa is marked by its highly attenuated form. It appears that dancing as an art was widely practised by the Harappan people. Dance has been held in high esteem in the Indian society throughout the centuries as it is very popular even today. Dance is the most divine of all arts.

Harappan seals and several other objects would indicate that various types of religions, in addition to the mother cult, were prevalent in Harappan sites. They include the worship of snake, tree, phallic etc. The Siva-Pasupati cult was existent in Harappa in a rudimentary form as is evident from the well-known seal from Mohenjodaro that contains the representation of a figure in Yogic form surrounded by various animals. The seal was recovered from Mohanjodaro by Sir John Marshall. He has identified the seal as Siva-Pasupati who is also a Mahayogi (a great yogi or ascetic) and Mahatapa (one who exercised great austerities). This seems to be the archetype or precursor of the later Vedic Siva who has been hailed as an ideal yogi. This shows the interrelationship between the Indus culture and the Indian art and thoughts of the Vedic and later periods. Another instance of this kind of interrelations between the Indus culture and the later Indian civilization is indicated by the Mohenjodaro female figures and the goddess of Lauriya Nandangarh. Such figures, nude and steatopygus, occur frequently in the ancient world in the Neolithic times from Central Europe to the Gangetic valley. These figures represent the great mother. The female ideal and its creativeness play, as we know, an important part in Indian art. Thus the feminine idea of beauty, though canonised by Indian art later, goes back to a matriarchal society where the mother exercised her authority and was sanctified. Her exaggerated forms indicate the power of fertility, abundance and prosperity. Few other art in the world has preserved the ancient ideal of feminine beauty as Indian art has done. Here I am reminded about the magnificent feminine figures I saw at the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang-ths Bodhisathras, deities, flying figures etc. These pretty and graceful figures seem to have developed along the Silk Road, and reached their highest perfection at Dunhuang. Then, there is Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy in the East, which had her enchanting feminine grace, dignity and authority arising from the scenic grandeur among the Yulin caves during the post-Tang creation, expanding in time and space into innumerable art symbols in China, Japan, and Southeast Asian countries that can rival the whole Indian tradition from Indus Valley to Gupta goddesses, to Tantric Taras, and to Durga and Kali of later periods. All such developments point to the unity of Asian and international art. Cultural movements transcend time and space, and cultural symbols transpose from one context to another, from one country’s territory to another.

To understand Indian art it is necessary to acquaint oneself with the background which made its distinctive evolution possible. It is bound up with India’s great past. That past has expanded and developed over an immense expanse of time and space. Through the ages many great events took place which have left their indelible impression on Indian culture and its character. Many tribes and races such as the Aryans, Parthians, Greeks, Sakas, Kushans, Huns, Turks and Mongols made this land their home. They brought with them their indigenous cultures and then merged with the races already here. This mingling of races and cultures and their absorption into what may be called the mainstream of Indian civilization proved to be a significant historical process rich with many possibilities.

The exact nature of relationship between the Indus Valley Civilization and early Vedic culture is yet to be worked out accurately as no appreciable form of art has come to light which can integrate the Harappan Civilization with Vedic India. It may however be possible that the Vedic Civilization too was perhaps a part of Chalcolithic civilization.

The regular history of Indian art begins with the Mauryan period (4th to 3rd century BC). The Magadhan kingdom which was rooted in the heart of India challenged successfully the Greek political expansion. Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of this dynasty, was responsible for creating an all-India empire. He entered into matrimonial alliance with the Greeks as he married the daughter of Selukos who inherited the eastern possessions of Alexander the Great. King Ashoka (grandson of Chandragupta Maurya) who preached the Buddhist doctrine erected many pillars surmounted by animal’s capitals which are majestic in form and execution. The Ashokan pillars are marked by such high standard of polish peculiar to them, Some scholars hold that these pillars were executed by foreign sculptors like the Syrian Greeks, There are others who hold that Ashokan art is, indigenous in origin and development.

We have two theories about the lion symbol of the Ashokan pillars, some say that lion was indigenous to India, others think it was a borrowed symbol from Egypt through West Asia. Interestingly, while the Chinese have the word for lion “shi” obviously borrowed from West Asian languages, the many stone lions that have been carved out in various historical periods, and have been guarding the imperial palaces and Buddhist shrine (I saw many of them in the Dunhuang caves) seem to have an Ashokan touch. Lion, after all, has been alien to the Chinese legendary animal kingdom doing duty of guarding ancient Chinese graves, They have strengthened the guards’ brigade of Chinese palaces and shrines due to India-China culture synergy.

The Kushan kingdom was inhabited by various peoples, Bactrians, Tocharians, Iranians and Indians. According to Xuanzang’s record, Kanishka who was the greatest of the Kushan kings had conquered also Kashgard and Khotan. The Kushans were selective in their religious outlook as is evident from their coins which contained representations of Indian Saivite and Buddhist gods including Buddha figures and Iranian and the Hellenistic deities which led to the growth of a composite culture.

The Kushan period is memorable for more reasons than one, first and foremost being the fact that Buddha came to be represented in anthropomorphic form for the first time during the Kushan rule albeit that the origin of the Buddha image is still a debatable subject. Secondly, the Kushan rulers took great interest in the expansion of the Silk Road trade which connected China with lndfa and Western Asia: with the northern route running through Taxila, Kapisa, Kashgar, Kucha, Karashar, Kizil, Turfan, Hami and Anxi and the southern route through Yarkand, Khotan, Dandan-Uliq, Niya, Miran and Lopnor. The two routes finally met at Dunhuang on the western frontier of China. The diverse peoples of the Tarim basin used different languages: Sanskrit, Chinese, Syriac, Sogdian, Turkish, Tokharian and Khotanese though they were all greatly influenced by the Indian culture from Kashmir, Gandhara and Bamiyan under widespread influence of Mahayana Buddhism, whose devotionalism and compassion were entirely congruent with the needs of a fluid, cosmopolitian Oasis culture. The Mahayana stressed the ideal of the laymen thus bringing the religion closer to life. It aimed at Universal Nirvana rather than the personal salvation which was the goal of an Arhat. During the Kushan rule many monks went to China to preach Buddhism.

Under me Kushans flourished two important schools of art, one in Gandhara and other in Mathura. The Gandhara school was a hybrid product - a combination of Indian Buddhist theme, and modified Hellenistic art style. The Kushan school of Mathura was however founded on Indian tradition. It was earth-bound and voluptuous. Another contribution of the Kushans was that King Kanishka introduced the saka calendar which is still followed in India side by side with the Vikram era, The Kushan age was a peaceful, prosperous and dynamic epoch in Indian history.

The Kushans were, followed by the imperial Gupta rulers (4th to 7th century AD) who carved out a vast empire comprising the whole of Northern Indian and a part of the southern peninsula. The Gupta Age is the golden age of Indian history. During this age, the art and literature reached their zenith. The Gupta emperors belonged to Brahmanical faith but they practised religious tolerence, and made handsome grants also to the Buddhist shrines. The peace and tranquillity of the Gupta Age with its sufficiency of leisure for its refined nobility resulted in the efforescence of all kinds of art, painting, drama, literature and stories of love and adventure.

Cave art, an Indian invention which reached its zenith in Gupta period, expanded further afield along the Silk Road. If we liken Ajanta to the fountainhead of cave art, the river flows along the Silk Road to Bamiyan, to Turfan and Kizil, to Dunhuang, to the central and eastern part of Gansu (Binglingsi, Maijishan etc.), and further east to Longmen at Luoyang, and Datong near the Sino-Mongolian border. Ajanta and Datang form the two ends of the garland of magnificent cave art on the Eurasian continent. I am told that the thousands of scattered art caves in Gansu and Ningxia in northwestern China were even out-numbered by the carved sites in Sichuan province where the worlds greatest Buddha statue is located. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts is privileged to be in collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy of China. We have hosted an international Seminar Of “Cave Art of India and China” and an Exhibition on the Mogao Paintings In New Delhi in 1991 in collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy, having the personal participation in these two historical events of Prof. Duan Wenjie, We have also brought out a volume on Dunhuang Art which is the only one of its kind in English literature. However, what the Dunhuang frescoes have revealed is a Brave New World in art, in cultural synergy and syntheses, in India-China interface which deserves much greater attention and India-China academic collaboration to unveil its magnitude and historical significance. My Visit to Dunhuang and interactions with Prof. Duan Wenjie and his Colleagues both in Dunhuang and in New Delhi have Convinced me about the importance and urgency Of strengthening in-depth studies on India-China cultural interface and synergy based on available source materials. 

Whether one subscribes to the view that there is an Asian culture or even to something which could be called Asian art in contra-distinction to European art, it is obvious that there are certain underlying aesthetic principles which are manifested in the artistic traditions of many parts Of Asia. The affinity is not only at the level of world view theme and content and shared faiths, but is also evident in certain conventions which are pervasive in the Asian continent and which can be clearly identified, This history can be traced back to the 2nd century SC and continues until the 15th century AD or sometime

Indian scholars have an important role to play in the endeavour of in-depth study. In the sphere of cave art, much of the ideas, motifs, and styles originated from the Indian minds although they were developed, modified, and adapted by Chinese artists in Dunhuang and other places. Inspite of all the modifications and adaptations, the striking similarities in Indian and Chinese cave arts are evident. I wish to delve a little into the motif of India-China flying figures. To begin with, I wish to say that while in European art, angels are known and they are invariably winged, while except for a few notable examples in Sanchi and Bharhut and two examples in Burma (Myanmar) there are no winged angels in India and also in Dunhuang. I would like to call such a figure the flying messenger - a type of Vidyadhara or Kinnara. The motif is a pervasive intra-Asian phenomenon.

A conscious understanding of the movement of the body which could suggest the release from the ground or freedom from the gravity without either extending the upper limbs as wings of a bird or, in fact, conceptually or virtually losing contact with the ground, is evident from the Indian text of Sharata, namely, the Natysastra. In Chapter IV it describes a variety of movements. One amongst these is the vrscika karana.

The most important feature of this karana is an extension of one leg, either sideways or forward or backward or crossing with the other leg. The cadence takes its name from this important feature, and all the cadences belonging to this category arrive in a moment of time at a pose which gives the impression of kneeling in static positions and flying in dynamic moments.

The Natyasastra lists nearly ten karanas of this variety such as the nikuncita, the vrscika kuttila, the lata vrscika, the vrscika recita, the vrscika, the mayuralalita simharksita, the lalatatilaka. To these could be added the three karanas which derive their movements from the cari position and which may be roughly grouped as the bhujangatrasita recita and bhujangancita: one more karana called the vidyudbhranta could also be added. The latter four form a distinct separate group which is characterised by a crossing.

In terms of kinetics, one has to understand this as a movement of the lower limb, either by using the whole leg as a unit or as two sections of the thigh and the calf with a break in line by an extension of flexion of the knee resulting in an acute or abtuse angle. The static leg is usually bent with the knee turning outward sideways, termed in the Natyasastra as the ksipta position in some contexts, and nata in others. The torso, the lower waist and upper chest can be treated in a variety of ways and so can the upper limbs, with a similar lower limb position: mainly it can be frontal or profile or a posterior view of the lower limbs and anterior view of the upper torso.

I mention such details because I think they can be kept as the basis for reference for anyone taking up the study of Dunhuang flying figures. I have seen some of them on the walls of the Mogao caves (of course, a lot more from published materials), and find that they have been developed into a special genre of art motif and style. No wonder that the flying figures have become virtually the logo of Dunhuang. Though the Dunhuang flying figures look much freer from the attraction of gravitation thus marking a departure from their Indian prototypes, they still bear the familiar characteristics as having been demonstrated in Indian cave art and elsewhere.

I may also mention, here, the close connection between dance and sculpture in the Asian and Indian artistic traditions. Any lay observer is aware of the similarity of approach and treatment of the human form in the twin arts. From the earliest times, the dancing figure inspired the sculptor and the sculpturesque beauty of line and form inspired the dancer: the connection was not just on the level of spirit and content but also concrete form. Indonesian, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, Burmese and Ceylonese and some aspects of Chinese dance and sculpture leave the same impression. There is an awareness immediately of an intimate connection between the art forms in a region and amongst different traditions of dance and sculpture of the geographical area.

I can easily see the influence of the Dunhuang flying figures (though, in this case, the art form is chiefly painting, not sculpture) on modern Chinese dancing performances. When I was at Dunhuang in 1990, I met scores of art students (including dancers) from Beijing and other places of China who had taken a lot of trouble to journey to the Mogao Grottoes to assiminate the inspiration emanating from the flying figures. Dunhuang seems to have become the Mecca for Chinese dancers as the Konark Sun Temple having been for Indian dancers over a millennium or more.

While it is not possible to go into the fascinating and complex history of interaction between Indian and Asian artistic traditions, it would be worthwhile to understand the nature of this similarity and distinctiveness in the context of a specific motif, such as the vrscika karana on account of its extraordinary popularity in the dance techniques and its continued depiction and portrayal in the sculptural mural and fresco traditions of South East Asia, and East Asia, particularly China.

In India, one of the first portrayals of this occurs in the context of the motif of the flying vidyadhara, gandharva, mithuna, dancing kinnara and other miscellaneous riches and corner figures. While it is true that most of them do not depict dance poses and very many of them have not been modelled with the dance in view, many of them can be classified as dance poses even if they occur on arches, niches and corners and fulfil a purely architectural function.

The sculptural representation of gandharva and apsara and of male and female forms flying are found in Indian art from the earliest times, Actually by the time Bharata codified movements of dance, a high degree of stylization must have already taken place to enable him to prescribe the rules for movements suggestive of flying, leaping and kneeling in many chapters of his work. The sculpture representation may well have preceded Bharata’s codification.

Movements of flying could have been suggested in a variety of ways and an obvious one could be to take a leap in the air by losing or suggesting a loss of contact with the ground. In the absence of visible wings, Indian. Chinese and other Asian traditions cleverly use poses, cadences and apparels to inject dynamism into the flying figures to win cognizance from the viewers. There is mastery, even perfection, in the artistic treatment of the Indian and Chinese flying figures which is, at once, stylised and symbolic even with the impression of natural ease. In the Indian treatment the principle uniformally followed allows movement only of one leg and at no time is the forking of the legs allowed. This is virtually adhered to in all representations of the motif throughout the sculptural, pictorial and dance traditions of the region covering the Indian Sub-Continent and many countries of South East Asia and East Asia specially China, extending over a period of fifteen centuries and more. In Dunhuang, of course, this adherence to the principle is more liberal, but one cannot describe such liberalism as observance of the principle in contravention. Here, one observes the particular enthusiasm on the part of Dunhuang art creators to make the flying figures appear flying. This enthusiasm is shown particularly on the creation of the fluttering apparel almost always with long silk bands as if wings are added.

I do not intend to give the historiography of the art genre of flying figures in this study, but perhaps, I should trace its genesis to the Vidhyadhara from Ranigumpha. Udayagiri caves which is one of the earliest examples of the genre. A celestial figure carrying a tray of garfands is seen with one knee bent in front and the other leg extended at the, back in an arch. The weight of the body is on the foot of the bent knee in front and the tray of flowers in one hand helps the forward thrust of the figure.

There is another example of a flying figure found in a portion of a frieze from the Ananta Cave at Khandagiri. The figures on either side of the arch are flying forms perhaps coming to worship the hood of the Naga: the torso of these figures leans completely forward in the direction of the front bent knee and the other leg extends backward; the foot is raised to a higher level than the knee so that it is vertically in line with the thigh and hip. We have other examples of flying figures from the Ramgarh hills and the stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi.

In the Karle caves, there are two reliefs of flying couples sculptured in arches. Although these figures have been identified as early examples of Mithuna. their poses also fall into the category of vrscika karana from the point of view of movement. They seem as if the precursors of the characteristic knee bend and the slight back flexion which was to develop into the beautiful and dynamic motifs of the flying figures seen on the arches of the stupas of Amaravati and Negarjunakonda. In the Karli figures everything is restrained: a slight bend of the front kee balances the back extension of the other leg. It is this back extension which leads to the flowing curves of the Amaravati sculptures, Here their arms clasp suggesting a typical pindi and in one of the reliefs the female figure has a pair of anjali hasta above her head,

In the Amaravati and the Mathura sculptures the portraiture of flying movement has developed remarkably with grace and elegance. The artistry of the flying figures shown in the Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Mathura have reached their artistic zenith, and are hard to excel. I am not itemizing the numerous specimens at other places in India as the list is too long to be exhausted.

The flying figure is just one of the Indian cultural treasures that have been carried to China by the “Great Carrier’ -Mahayana. It was, beyond doubt, created to help the disciples of Buddhadharma’to expand their imaginations onto the worlds beyond the prosaic surroundings of the ancients. The invention of this motif helped strengthen the vivid depictim of the Heavenly Bliss of the Buddhist paradise. That this Indian invention and its aims and functions have been greatly appreciated and even more enthusiastically emulated by the disciples of Buddha in China are eloquently testified to at the Mogao Grottoes. Of course, we see at Dunhuang that this Indian genre had already undergone modifications and adaptations through its travel along the Silk Road. As a result, the Dunhuang flying figures bear more resemblance to their next-door sisters of kizil and other sites in Xinjiang than to their distant cousins at Amaravati, Nagarjunakond and Mathura. Dunhuang, indeed, has turned a new leaf in the history of the development of the art genre that is dedicated to the lying figures -a new genre of culture and art that serves the specific interests of socio-political development of China in the first millennium A.D.

I have already said that art is an index of culture. When we study the flying figures of India and China we automatically enter into the arena of India-China cultural interface and synergy. I hope this brief study induces research interest and dedications to this arena which is not only a fascinating field, but also a path not trodden by many scholars, particularly by the scholars India and China who should have taken a lead in the study, and are culturally equipped for the task.


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

[ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher. 

Published in 1998 by 

Gyan Publishing House

5, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj,

New Delhi - 110 002.