Superb catalog spans 4,500 years of Indian sculpture

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The Sculpture of India: 3000 BC-1300 AD, by Pramod Chandra. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press. Produced by National Gallery of Art, Washington. 224 pp. $60. Pramod Chandra's introduction to the exhibition he organized for the National Gallery is, as one would expect, lucid, up to date, and superbly illustrated.

The Washington show of more than 100 sculptures in stone, ivory, and bronze, assembled from both Indian and American collections, is exceptional both for its quality and its range. Of the Indian contribution, nearly half has never yet been seen outside its home country.

There is the Daimabad charioteer, for instance: nervous, alert, and almost purely linear. Is it a Giacometti? A Cretan bronze? No -- It's a Bronze Age figure newly discovered near Bombay.

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The life-size Didarganj goddess tosses a fly whisk over one shoulder, her rise and swell barely held in by the freckled, flesh-colored sandstone with its improbable polish. Her smile is tender and enigmatic, as though newly awakened. She is from Patna, the imperial capital of the Maurya Dynasty, circa 300 BC. Until recently she was plunged in river silt, and her rough, unfinished base at back was used by local washers to beat the weekly laundry.

In addition to the rare and lesser-seen pieces from India, there is also the elegance of better-known classics: Siva leaning on his (now-missing) bull, from the Thanjavur collection, for instance. This figure exquisitely reflects refined contemplation together with incipient male energy. Meaning is so understated as almost to lose itself in languor. Almost, but not quite. An inscription from the temple at Tiruvenkadu -- once a thriving atelier -- tells of its donation in AD 1011 or 1012.

In technical terms alone the collection is remarkable. The enormous time span of nearly 4,500 years is neatly delineated into six clear stages of development. Local and regional style is discussed simply and without clutter. Nevertheless, one has a sense that this is not a beginner's book. Like the exhibition, which gains if it is balanced against previous viewing, Pramod Chandra's introduction is interesting both for what it chooses to add as well as for what it excludes.

Art lovers who enjoyed the Washington show will most definitely find the catalog worthwhile. Each sculpture is cleanly analyzed. And anyone fresh to the world of Indian sculpture can wander at will through the primitive, the innocent, the brilliantly macabre, or the meditative.

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