In Hitopadesa, its author, Vishnu Sharma/Narayana, says in a verse that the innate urges to have “food, sleep, fear and sex” are common for humans as well as animals and adds further that jnanam, which could be translated as knowledge, awareness, virtue and so on, is an additional quality of the humans, without which they would be like any other animal. This jnana of human beings surely has led them to produce art, literature and many other allied creative works that reflect all activities of human life, society, flora and fauna, etc.
For instance, the Royal Centre at the Vijayanagara archaeological site near Hampi contains a north-facing plinth with elephant balustrades and finely carved panels on the sides. A majority of the panels show tribal people hunting animals; two of them in particular are truly intriguing and thought-provoking, for they display themes that cover eroticism suffused with a subtle sense of humour and striking nuances of didacticism viz. to show compassion towards animals, even in a hunting expedition. Though I had photographed some of the panels in 2009, the documentation has eventually led me to undertake a serious art historical study of nearly about 100 panels on the plinth. The study has resulted in the publication of a book in 2019 entitled Realms of Tribal Hunting.
The panels show hunters and huntresses in the wild, using weapons like the bow and arrows, spears, daggers and swords for hunting animals such as the deer, nilgai (blue bull/cow), gazelle, sambar deer, boar, bear, tiger and lion. Often, men and women were shown wearing large leaves around the waist that made me identify them as tribal people. A few panels suggest that hunting expeditions were undertaken not just to kill, but to capture alive a few animals, like deer and a snake, most likely to tame them. Interestingly, no panel suggests any existence of gender disparity in the community; both men and women participate in hunting and share the workload equally. For example, a panel shows a man and a woman carrying on their shoulders a yoke to which prey are tied, upside down. Many panels also suggest that women had played a leading role in hunting, going either all alone or in a group and at times even while carrying a baby on the hip, without an iota of fear.
Innumerable works of art, across the world in general and in India in particular, cover erotic scenes. Vijayanagara art is no exception. Many scholars have written essays and books on the topic, including on many carvings of the period at Vijayanagara and elsewhere in South India. But to the best of my knowledge, the two panels that I would be considering here seem to remain unnoticed by the previous scholars. These panels contain no caption or descriptive text and hence, a visual reading of the subject seems to be the only option left for a common viewer or even a scholar.
One panel shows a hunter followed by a woman and a pair of deer mating in front of them. Apparently, upon noticing the animals, the hunter stretches forward the bow in his right hand and bends his left to take out an arrow from the quiver at the back of his left shoulder so as to shoot the mating pair. Immediately, the woman holds his left hand with her right and so the hunter turns his face towards her. Then, she places her right palm under his chin. These gestures, in my opinion, invariably suggest that the woman is indeed pleading with the hunter not to shoot the deer while they are mating. This seems to be a one-of-its-kind work of art that conveys ethics that need to be followed during the course of hunting animals in the wild. Indian literature, in Sanskrit and other languages, contains innumerable poems with didactic verses on all aspects of human life. In Indian art, sculptures in particular, it is indeed very rare to come across this kind of work that communicates didacticism through visual language alone.
Another panel shows, again, the bow-bearing hunter accompanied by a woman and in front of them, a pair of deer mating under the shade of a tree. Apparently, no sooner than they come across the mating deer, the hunter turns his face towards the woman and looks at her sensually with his wide open eyes. As his gaze conveys suggestive meanings, the woman becomes extremely coy and covers her eyes with both of her palms. To the best of my knowledge, no other panel at Vijayanagara or elsewhere in Indian art has depicted this kind of subtle humour that is connected with rather mundane eroticism. Both the panels, in my opinion, could indeed be highlighted as rare masterpieces of Indian art in general and Vijayanagara art in particular.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam