Art and Icon (Essays on Early Indian Art)

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Item Code: NAD635
Author: Devangana Desai
Publisher: Aryan Books International
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788173054389
Pages: 335 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.0 inch X 8.5 inch
Weight 1.52 kg
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Book Description
About the Book

The author’s love for ancient Indian art and several years of intensive research are reflected in the essays included in this book. The essays cover a wide spectrum, from the sensuous to the sublime, from an analysis of narrative Ramayana sculptures, to a discussion of the relevance of Tãntrism to erotic temple sculpture, to a study of ancient terracottas in a socio-cultural context. Art and Icon brings together for the first time 16 selected essays from the 90 that Dr. Devangana Desai has written over a period of 35 years, many of which are not easily accessible. These have been edited and updated with new material. The essays are divided into six sections:

i) Approaches to Art, ii) Terracotta Art,
iii) Iconography,
iv) Iconology and Meaning in Art,
v) Art and Eroticism, and vi) Narrative Art.

Icons and images, sacred objects of veneration, are generally guided by elaborate rules and conventions detailing their size, stiffing or standing postures and hand gestures. Artists have more flexibility when depicting non-iconic subjects. However, the line between art and icon is rather thin as is evident in some magnificent images published in this book. The author reveals the interrelationships and interactions between various fields of art — sculpture, dance and narration of stories — as can be noticed particularly in the articles on the dancing Ganea, the auspicious motifs of alabhañjikã (woman-and-tree) and surasundari (celestial nymph), and the figures in the narrative sculptural panels. The article “The Temple as an Ordered Whole — The Iconic Scheme at Khajuraho” is a significant contribution to an iconological study of temple art.

This well-illustrated book will be valuable to scholars as well as students of Indian art and will also appeal to general readers.

About the Author

Dr. Devangana Desai, art historian, is author of Khajuraho—Monumental Legacy, 2000 (13th impression, 2011), The Religious Imagery of Lhajuraho, 1996, Erotic Sculpture of India—A Socio—Cultural Study, (Seconded.) 1995, and over 90 papers on various aspects of ancient Indian art. She has participated in many national and international seminars and conferences. She obtained her Ph D. from the University or Bombay in 1970. Dr. Desai is recipient of the prestigious Dadabhai Naoroji memorial Prize, the Silver Medal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, and Homi Bhabha Fellowship.

Dr. Desai is Vice-President of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. She was the Hon. Editor of its Journal (1900-2009). She was Chairperson of the Museum Society of Bombay for nine years, from 1983 to 1992. She was Consultant on a Project on the Museum Images of Khajuraho, Franco-Indian Research, Mumbai. She is a Trustee of the Sarabhai Foundation, Calico Museum, Ahmedabad. Dr. Desai is Editor of the Monumental Legancy Series on the World Heritage Sites in India, Oxford University Press. She is Hon. Professor, Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, University of Mumbai.


This book covers a wide spectrum of subjects, from an analysis of narrative Ramayaiia sculptures, to a discussion on the relevance of Tãntrism to erotic temple sculpture, to a study of ancient terracottas in a socio-cultural context. It brings together for the first time 16 selected articles, out of the 90 I have written over the years, many of which were presented at seminar proceedings, or which appeared in felicitation volumes or journals, and which are not easily accessible.

The essays are divided into six sections: 1) Approaches to Art, 2) Terracotta Art, 3) Iconography, 4) Iconology and Meaning in Art, 5) Art and Eroticism, and 6) Narrative Art.

The essays presented in the book span the period from 1978 to 2011. They show developments and changes in my ideas and views with the passage of time. My book Erotic Sculpture of India (1975) had a socio-historical approach, which was continued in my study of the terracotta’s of ancient India, published in 1978 (Article No. 3). Art is presented in these works in relation to its patrons and the public, and in the context of the social setup of the time.1

Art has to be treated in a total framework against a network of relationships— social, economic, cultural, religious, etc., a network which is dynamic and which changes in different periods of history.2 within the broad social framework, I began to realize that it is also possible to have a closer view of art. While researching on the placement of erotic figures on the temples of IKhajuraho, I observed minutely the sculptural imagery of the mature temples of that site. What attracted my attention, apart from the erotic figures, was the meticulously planned manner in which divine images were placed in the temples. Puns and double meanings were also noticed in the sculptural presentation. It seemed as if the architect had achieved the balance between the left and right side of the temple by pairing two opposite or complementary divinities such as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Sarasvati, the goddess of learning.

I felt that when I employed a sociological approach to temples, I talked in general about its art, and could bypass the intricacies of its specific imagery. But while walking along the temple and quietly observing the details of the figurative sculptures and divinities whose images are placed on its walls, we can have an insider’s view of the temple, and we can understand how the master architect had planned the temple. It is important to study the underlying conceptual scheme in comprehending the monument. The more conscious the architect was of the central purpose of the temple and the religious system to which it belonged, the better were the possibilities of his translating of the metaphysical system into an iconic one. It is this observation arising from an inner or closer view of sculptural imagery that led me to pursue an alternative approach in studying temple art.3 Noting the placement of images in the mature temples of Khajuraho, I realized that images are integral to the whole iconic scheme; they illustrate the idea of the temple as an ordered whole, a subject I have presented in article No. 9 of this book.

Icons and images, sacred objects of veneration, are generally guided by elaborate rules and conventions detailing their size, postures of sitting or standing, hand gestures, and so on. The Silpa texts describe and give prescriptions for making icons, but do not discuss narrative or story-telling kathã scenes. The placement of narrative scenes is decided by regional schools of art as we see in my essay on Ramayana sculptures. Artists have more flexibility in non-iconic subjects.

Indeed, there are limitations of icons as objects of art, to which Prof. Niharranjan Ray4 drew our attention. But he also observed that iconic art was not without an appeal of its own, and appreciated the fact that figures of gods and goddesses on temple walls are shown almost human in character, with expressive face and graceful stance, despite the conventional and hieratic prescriptions of iconography and iconometry.

The line between art and icon is rather thin. Art and icon though theoretically separate, can often merge, as is evident, in some magnificent images such as the Sarnath Buddha (Fig. 1.6), Sadãiva (earlier called Tri-mürti) at Elephanta, the powerful Varãha lifting the Earth goddess carved out of rock in Udayagiri (Fig. 1.5), Durgã-Mahishásuramardini at Mahabalipuram, and child Ganea attempting to dance in the company of iva-Natea at Badami (Cover). These are icons, conventional in composition, but also great works of art. The artist of Ellora has captured Rãvana’s might in the scene of his shaking the mount Kailãsa (Fig. 1.10). One of the most remarkable icons is Varãha, the Cosmic Boar, at Eran and Khajuraho.

The study of iconography is essential, but identification of individual images need not be an end in it sew an iconological study of the context of images is equally important. It is meaningful to examine the configuration of images, observing how these are placed in the iconic schemes of monuments. In some of the well-planned temples, such as those of Khajuraho and Tanjavur, we get glimpses of the imageries that master architects conveyed through the sculptural schemes of the temples.

This book reveals the interrelationship and interaction in various fields of art—sculpture, dance and narration of stories. The interrelationship between the plastic and performing arts can be noticed particularly in the articles on the dancing Ganea, various alluring postures of dlabhañjikds and surasundaris, and the figures in the narrative sculptural panels. Artistic manifestations related to literature are noticed in the essays on the veta-dvIpa devotees of Vishiu lãrayaiia, and in the narrative relief’s of the Vãli-vadha scenes of the Ramayana.

It may be mentioned that not all the essays in this volume are reproduced in their original form. The articles have been edited, certain changes made and new material and illustrations added, so that they take a new form. Particularly, the articles on “Social Dimensions of Art in Early India” (No. 1), “Goddesses in Clay” (No. 4), and “The Temple as an Ordered Whole” (No. 9), have new additions and alterations. The papers on “Social Dimensions of Art”, “Mother Goddess and Her Partner” (No. 6) and “Tãntrism and Erotic Temple Sculpture” (No. 13) when originally published had no illustrations. Also, not everything is included from the published articles, e.g. some material from article 2 “Relevance of Textual Sources in the Study of Temple Art”, has been shifted to article no. 9. In some cases, a few sections of the original article have been omitted to avoid repetition, and other remarks added. The article on Kurma (No. 11) has been collated from three sources, from which material was partly selected.

For the convenience of readers, the system of transliteration adopted in the book is that followed by the publications of the Archaeological Survey of India and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Series on History. Cola is written as Chola. Cha is used in as in Chandella, chha as in Chhatarpur, sha as in Yakshi, and S as in Siva.


Acknowledgements ix
List of Illustrationsxv
Credits for Illustrationsxxi
I. Approaches to Art
1 Social Dimensions of Art in Early India1
2 Textual Sources in the Study of Temple Art34
II. Terracotta Art
3 Ancient Indian Terracottas in their Social Context (c. 600 BCE—CE 600)50
4 Goddesses in Clay — The Ritual Art of the Indian People76
III. Iconography
5 Dancing Ganea88
6 Mother Goddess and Her Partner108
7 A Remarkable Kushãiia Image-Liñga from Mathura114
8 Bronzes from Sopara — Seven Buddhas and Maitreya124
IV. Iconology and Meaning in Art
9 The Temple as an Ordered Whole — The Iconic Scheme at Khajuraho134
10 salabhañjikã and Surasundart — Auspicious Figures in Art154
11 The Symbolism of Kürma in Art and Myth181
V. Art and Eroticism
12 Erotic Literature195
13 Tãntrism and Erotic Temple Sculpture207
14 Beyond the Erotic at Khajuraho232
VI. Narrative Art
15 . The Rãmayaiia Episode Vãli-vadha in Indian Sculpture (up to CE 1300)247
16 Sveta-dvipa Devotees of Narayaiia — A Unique Panel at Khajuraho269
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