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The Khmer Art 

Stylistics of Early Khmer Art published by IGNCAbrings back to my memory the image of its author Mireille Benisti, a French scholar of sublime perfection and unparalled devotion, whom I used to see at work in Paris in the Libraries of Musee Guimet and Ecole Francise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO) in 1960s. In her lifetime, she was admired for her deep concerns for details and graceful presentations of Indian and Cambodian art with a rigorous methodology. She was universally acclaimed for her refreshing insights into the study of stylistics of Indian and Khmer art.

Divided into three parts, the book under review offers English translation of Mireille Benistie's French contributions in 1a60s and 1970s. The first part, titled "Relations Between Early Khmer and Indian Art" covers almost half of the present publication (pp 1-182) and offers a major French monograph of the author, published by the s as its archaeological memoire non 5 in 1970: Rapports entire le premiere art Khmer et l'art Indien.

The second part - Research on Early Khmer Art (pp 183-223) includes an English version of a series of seven French articles written by Mireille Benisti for Arts Asiatiques (Vol. XVII-XXXIII) between 1968 and 1977.

The third part - Notes on Khmer Iconography (pp 325-388) contains English rendering of 11 French research papers Mireille Benisti contributed to the Bulletin de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, vol LI-LXIII between 1963 and 1976.

In the first section, Mireille Benisti offers a comparative study of 14 simple architectural decorative motifs, such as the kudu, the makara the monster-face, the hamsa-frieze etc and three complex motifs - the lintels, colonnettes and the edifice representations. These motifs are common to both early Khmer art of 7th and 8th century A.D. and the Indian art represented by various ties in south as well as north.

The decorative motifs in the shape of a dormer window or niche so common in Indian art, designated variously as chaitya-window, horse-shoe, kudu, gavaksa etc. retain her attention for a comparative study. The best term for this motif should be gavaksa (bull's eye), observes Benisti, which is mentioned in Silpasatra. But she sticks to the more conventional term kudu (koodu), meaning a nest in Tamil language. Kudu is widely used in architectural decoration in India in almost all periods and almost all regions. According to Coomaraswamy it constitutes a "key for dating the monuments". It has been used to establish a chronological succession of the Amaravati style of reliefs.

The motif is common in monuments of pre-Angkorian art. It was already known in Funan, as suggested by two baked clay specimens adorned with a head in the middle. These kudu(s) from Funan are "in the same style as those also in baked clay, found in Gujrat and Rajasthan which go back to the early Gupta period". It is supposed that these pieces were not made locally but imported from India.

The Asram Maha Rosei Kudu in successive stages resemble those on some Indian monuments, particularly the Son Kansari temple, Gujarat (Indian Archaeology, 19860-1961, P. 75, PL LXXXVIII A). The Phnom Da kudu recall a particular Indian type in the form of an arch with raised ends found at Gupta and post Gupta sites.

The kudu(s) have a human head in the middle, flowers in the framework, ends of the arch raised in a volute, absence of beading these are some of the elements which establish a relationship with the kudu of Badami and Aihole on the one hand and with those of early Khmer art on the others.

While the motif of kudu flourished in Indian art, it disappeared from Khmer art after 8th Century. A.D. From the comparative analysis, Mireille Benisti concludes that only some elements of the makara motif can be retained for establishing a precise concordance in both time and space between the Indian and early Khmer makaras.

Although Khmer art used the makara profusely in the beginning (Sambor style), the makara later got eclipsed before reappearing in what is called the Kulen style and Preach Ko style.

While the Indian kudu motif disappeared completely from Khmer art, the makara remained, the extant depending on the period, assuming forms with very few features in common with the Indian makara.

The monster face, designated variously as kirtimukha (face of glory) simhamukha (lion face), rahumukha (Rahu's face) etc., is a very common motif throughout Asia. Monster faces of early Khmer art and Indian faces of Gupta and post-Gupta styles thus have undeniable points in common, undeniable links, but in such an intersection, that there is no strong resemblance or a direct connection between specific characteristics of the two.

In contrast to India, the Khmer art does not use the motif of monster face spitting garlands and flanked by rearing animals, divergent or convergent makaras or flying personages. However, in Phonom Bayang the possibility of such a representation makes it strangely close to the one in Ajanata IV.

The Khmer monster face, already rare in Sambor and Prei Kmeng styles, seems to have disappeared later on. It reappeared in the Kulen style, (past revival?) Java influence (?) A combination of both (?) A new wave of Indian influence (?), to become very widespread in later periods.

The hamsa frieze appears as a characteristic of ancient Khmer art. The Indian and Khmer motifs became increasingly similar in the Gupta, post-Gupta and Pallava period.

The relationship between garlands of early Khmer art and Indian garlands of the period from the 4th (early Gupta style) to late 7th Century is evident. The relationship is particularly close with the Indian specimens in Ajanta XXVII, Ellora XIV and the sculpted ornaments in Ellora VI and Badami II, and hence of the late Gupta period and early post-Gupta period. The Khmer garland is not a replica of the Indian garland, except in some rare specimens. Despite several points in common, it always differs in certain features, in treatment and in workmanship. In its varied forms, it is the imprint of unquestionable originality.

Contacts between India and South-East Asian countries have taken place at all times, as shown by M. Benisti herself, when she casually presents the exportation of the iconographic theme of the Tamil saint Karaikkalammayar, playing tala at the fest of Natesa to Khmer temples of 10th and 11th centuries. The approach thus initiated by her unveils an open field of future research.

Her work appears especially illustrative of the methods of stylistics in plastic arts, by the fact that she has paid attention to several areas which had not been seriously studied before. With special care she has observed links and transitions between different styles, moments of evolution in which a style abandons some characters, adopts the primitive aspect of new characters of a style, which emerged later. Several articles contained in this volume bring to light moments of transition from a style to another, the borders of Prei Kmeng and Kompong Preah styles, the situation of some monuments which take their place at the end of Sambor style, eccentric lintels etc. The refinement of the analysis of a style depends on the selection of criteria. In the present study the reader will find precise definitions of decorative motifs, whose individual characters are clear-cut and make them fit for analysis, the bezel-band, the makara, the volute leaf, the beaded garland and pendant etc. Finally a few articles deal with objects often forgotten in researches. Mireille Benisti has surveyed objects, lintels, broken pieces, lying on the ground in abandoned sites, generally neglected, because they have been separated from the monument to which they originally belonged and of which they are sometimes of only remnant. It is a surprise to see a special study of pedestals of statues or lingas, which in India are generally left plain, but to which Khmer artists have brought a profuse décor.

Mireille Benisti conducted all her researches and site explorations over some thirty years from the fifties to the seventies. All her publications were in French. IGNCA has opened up a new area of stylistic research by bringing French contributions of the author in accurate, scientific English rendering. It has made accessible to the larger public what is the best in the French writing on Indian and Cambodian art.

Review by Prof. Sachchidanand Sahai, 
Fellow- Indian Institute Of Advance Study, Simla
Stylistics of Early Khmer Art by Mireille Benisti, Publisher IGNCA 2003. Co-Publisher Aryan Books International, PP XXXVI + 388, Halftone illustrations 533. Price for a set of 2 Volumes Rs. 4500/-


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