Emotions and Indian sculpture

Frontage of Zimbabwe House, London (author photo)

Much Sanskrit literature is characterised by a high degree of attention to fine details such as literary qualities like alliteration and assonance, sophisticated verse metres and so on.  Indeed, not only poetry but in fact most philosophical and other theoretical works of Sanskrit literature are also written in verse form and characterised by such qualities.  Interestingly, this same attention to fine detail is also found in other domains of creative endeavour such as Indian art and architecture.

Thus in Indian miniature painting, what characterises the form is not so much the total size of the painting, but rather the scale at which the brushstrokes are executed.  Patrons of these art forms were also expected to have an eye for such details.  Thus the Mughal Emperor Jahangir writes –

“I derive such enjoyment from painting and have such expertise in judging it that, even without the artist’s name being mentioned, no work of past or present masters can be shown to me that I do not instantly recognize who did it.  Even if it is a scene of several figures and each face is by a different master, I can tell who did which face.  If in a single painting different persons have done the eyes and eyebrows, I can determine who drew the face and who made the eyes and eyebrows.”

[Jahangirnama, 267-268, quoted in ‘Domains of Wonder: Selected Masterworks of Indian Painting’]

Innovation in Indian painting frequently took the form of small variations on stock themes and standardised conventions of depiction of various gods etc.  Thus, in contrast to the above quote, another story tells about painter who presented an artwork on the theme of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa to his unappreciative patron, who was only able to see in it the standard iconography of this imagery and failed to recognize the finer details that made it a bespoke image tailored to the particular context it was painted in.  We may compare this with the well-known story of the king who didn’t know his Sanskrit grammar.

In architecture, too, we find attention to detail in the profusion of sculptural figures ornamenting every surface of Hindu temples and some other examples of classical Indian buildings.  Indeed, this form of architecture provides gives the eye defined places to rest when surveying the surface of the building, providing a sort of logic of vision.  Indeed, studies in modern psychology also show that the human brain is primed from birth to recognize and respond to the human face and body.  Thus it could be said that this type of ornamentation brings the built environment into harmony with the social environment and human psychology.

In this way, it can be seen that the Indian figurative arts are anchored in the human dimension, including the variety of emotional and psychological states that are fundamental to our lived experience.  These states are conventionally depicted through bodily postures, facial expressions and mudras, or stylized hand gestures, which are common to depictions in sculpture, dance and other forms of artistic expression.  The 9th century AD Sanskrit work Abhinayadarpaṇam of Nandikeśvara catalogues and describes the various bodily postures, glances, ways of moving and hand gestures that are to be used in Indian classical dance.  For example –

If you stretch the head from side to side like a chauri (whisk), [that’s called] ‘pulled about’.  ‘Pulled about’ head should be used for [depicting] infatuation, for the pain of separation, for devotional praise, for contentment, for rejoicing, and for deliberation.

[Abhinayadarpaṇam 64-65ab; my own translation]

In this way, architecture and other arts and sciences are able to explicitly represent or otherwise engage with the variety of human emotions and thus connect more directly with the emotional character of our lives.

Through Ananda Coomaraswamy and other such mediators of cultural interpretation, aspects of the classical Indian tradition also seems to have had some fragmentary and inconclusive influence on the emergence of British modernism, as seen in the image above.

The American-British sculptor Jacob Epstein was a good friend of Ananda Coomaraswamy, who had some significant influence on him.  The sculptures depicted above on the façade of (what is now) Zimbabwe House in London were designed by Epstein to represent a form of modernism which took influence from Indian classical sculptural traditions.  However, according to Wikipedia –

“the Strand sculptures were controversial for quite a different reason: they represented Epstein’s first thoroughgoing attempt to break away from traditional European iconography in favour of elements derived from an alternative sculptural milieu – that of classical India. The female figures in particular may be seen deliberately to incorporate the posture and hand gestures of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu art from the subcontinent in no uncertain terms.”


Unfortunately it seems that this controversy over the sculptures led to some degree of defacement, resulting in them reaching the condition depicted above.   It doesn’t seem possible to find any picture of these sculptures in their original form.  Doubtless, however the postures and hand gestures referred to are the mudras of the classical Indian tradition, as described for example in the Abhinayadarpaṇam, which was in fact translated into English by Ananda Coomaraswamy.  We may end with another well-known idea from this work –

Where goes the hand, that way the eye
Where the eye, that way the mind
Where goes the mind, that way the mental state
Where goes the mental state, that way the emotion

[Abhinayadarpaṇam verse 36; my own translation]

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