A tribute to ancient Indian sculptors

By R H Kulkarni  | Published: 22nd January 2021 07:47 AM

Ancient Indian art is highly rich in its traditions. Our myths and lore eulogise the artists. Indian scriptures speak about Vishwakarma and Maya as artist and architect. They are believed to be responsible for building magnificent cities and palaces for divinities in heavens and people on earth as well. The Mahabharata ascribes the creation of the city of Indraprastha to the legendary architect Maya.
The roots of ancient Indian art and culture go back to the Indus Valley civilisation.

The artists in those days were very creative with their sculptures and terracotta seals that have beautiful relief figures depicting animals and humans. These served as sources of inspiration to the succeeding generations. But the names of the artists who created these exquisite seals and sculptures are not known to us till date. The artists’ names in ancient periods began to appear from the Mauryan era. The Mauryan engravers left their names as part of inscriptions. They are known as lipikara (engraver of the script). The names of sculptors were found only in subsequent periods.

Yaksha sculpture (2nd century BCE) from
Maharashtra’s Pitalkhora sculpted by
Kanhadasa

A yaksha sculpture (second century BCE) found in Maharashtra’s Pitalkhora and now in the National Museum, Delhi, has the name of a sculptor called Kanhadasa. Incidentally, this yaksha’s name is Vishwakarma! There are several such instances in subsequent centuries where the names of artists have been engraved on sculptures. The early artistic activities were mainly associated with Buddhist sites like Barhut, Sanchi, Amaravati, Sannati, etc. The irony is that there are many sculptures that have no signatures, but their importance can be felt in the style and iconographic embellishment.

For example, Mauryan capitals with high-quality images of bulls, lions and elephants mounted as symbolic depictions, the sculptures on the Barhut stupa such as Chulakoka Devata, Mahakoka Devata and many such examples have no signatures of artists. As the eminent art historian and author Professor Deepak H Kannal has opined, “The anonymity of the sculptors is something that is romanticised by historians as the selfless gesture of the Indian master artists.

The names of the sculptors mentioned at the sites are not to give them due recognition but was a method to take their attendance and calculate their pay during those days.” A close study of these sculptures clearly indicates the style that is carried on further by the students of the master sculptor. The guru-shishya parampara in the ancient Indian context has left a rich tradition of tutorship and learning. It also establishes the strong pedagogy that is seen in the works of the students or in the school/style. There are several such issues that need to be addressed to understand ancient Indian art in a more subtle way. 

A recent book titled Lupadakhe: Unknown master sculptors of ancient India, authored by Professor Kannal and Kanika Gupta, looks into various aspects of the anonymity of the sculptor and style of the sculptures. Focusing upon selected areas of Indian art and starting from the very beginning, an inquiry into styles, schools and patronage has been made and narrated art historically in this work. This study on ancient sculptures and sculpture styles follows the traditional methodological frame of the well-known German art historian Henrich Wolfflin.

The formalistic features and their comparisons have enabled us to categorise certain groups of sculptures. Their identity and stylistic affiliation is also established in the context of the sculptural schools. “India has a great tradition in aesthetic theorisation but surprisingly it has totally ignored the possibilities of critiquing a specific aesthetic manifestation. Indian aesthetic tradition does not reveal a single occurrence of any theoretical or critical analysis of a particular creation: literary, performativity or visual,” writes Professor Kannal in his book.

Sembiyan Mahadevi, a Chola
bronze (10th century CE)

The study on the artists and styles gives a brief introduction to the artists’ community and art activity in ancient India and the most significant masterpieces of the past. The book focuses on issues such as employing the methods of intrinsic studies, mainly highlighting the stylistic typologies and morphological developments. It is a fact that such an inquiry into Indian art, artists and their styles has not been attempted earlier in our art historical writing barring some of the works of Prof. Ratan Parimoo, former dean at MSU Baroda. Lupadakhe, the title, is a reference to an artist whose love affair is noted at the Jogimara caves in Chhattisgarh, a record dating back to 3rd century BCE.

Here, the artist expresses his love to the devadasi Sutanukha. The term devadasi may be taken as synonymous with devaganika as seen in the early medieval period. The names do speak about the socio-political structure of society. The book also focuses upon the rich tradition of Chola bronzes, known for their technical and aesthetic values. Technically, artists created the images in beeswax and casted in the metal—the ancient melting casting technology known as madhu chista vidhana (lost wax process).

The artists in the Chola region supplied a large number of processional idols to temples built in the Chola period and even earlier. The artists created these beautiful processional idols comparable to their stone counterparts in the temples. Thanjavur, Madurai, Kumbakonam, Swamimalai and Cuddalore were known for their ancient metal sculpture-making places. Some of the sculptures are stylistically and iconographically unique in their representation. Hundreds of sculptures of Gangadhara Shiva, Somaskandamurthy, Shiva Nataraja, Lakshmi, Trivikrama and Tripurari were casted; they measured from one feet to six feet and weighed a few grams to a few hundred kilograms.

The Chola artists had the expertise to create beautiful images like the 10th century Sembiyan Mahadevi bronze and have left a strong legacy of bronze-making in that period. But surprisingly, the names of the artists are once again not known to us. The study of such examples tells us more about the tradition of artistic developments in India. Lupadakhe in its entirety enlightens us on many unanswered questions about Indian art and artists. 

R H Kulkarni  (rhkulkarniarthistory@ gmail.com)
Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath

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