Indian sculpture, in a parallel to Western traditions, has held the female nude as an ideal. Much like the Greek kouros and the statues of idealized male figures that have come after, Indian art has held a tradition of idealized female bodies as central theme of its allegorical messages. The parallels are evident even in the similarities between the Western contrapposto of male statues and the bodily S shape of the Indian tribhanga seen in almost all standing female statues. Just as a male is idealized with his athletic musculature, the emphasis on female attributes like the large, spherical breasts, a narrow waist, and wide hips has been a constant throughout more than two thousand years of Indian sculpture. In addition, this idealized form is attached to the desirable, such as power, wealth, or godliness. While this stands in contrast to the social reality of women throughout Indian history, it gives their ideal form over as the physical par excellence in many contexts. This also holds true for the undesirable; its distortion, such as in the commonly emaciated body of the dread goddess Chamunda, signifies terror and wrath. Feminine sexuality, which should be viewed outside the lens of Western moral tradition if one is to understand its functions, is also a common allegory or metaphor for fertility, life, and spiritual progress. In the context of Hinduism and Buddhism, Indian sculpture is often reliant on the sexual nature of the female nude to signify a certain concept or virtue within a temple or shrine. In the colonial and post-colonial context, the exposed female body has come to represent the concept of primitivism and a harkening back to more pure, Indian roots and nationalism. The following exhibition will show the constancy of female nudes as a representative ideal, set apart but observable, of what should be meditated on, adored, feared, and strived for in Indian society from the ancient to the modern era.
3d-2nd century B.C.E.
Sandstone, 64 inches tall
Patna Museum in Bihar, India
Yakshini, guardians of wealth and from Hindu mythology, are common themes in temples and throughout northern and central Indian. There are a number of them responsible for different spheres and are often benevolent and comparable to fairies or muses. This particular statue, holding a chauri (a sort of ritual brush) in her right, is made of single sandstone block. It was found upside down on the banks of the Ganga, where villagers had been using its base for washing clothes. Recovered and put into the then British run Patna Museum, she has been held as an exemplar of ancient Indian artisanship. Her breasts are large and spherical, her waist narrow, and her hips wide. Detailed and polished, her belly shows folds and her lower body is clothed. These physical features appear repeatedly throughout the next two thousand years in India sculpture, along with similar supernatural abilities like the Yakshi’s.
Matrika (Mother Goddess)
Mid-6th century C.E.
Gray schist, 24.5 inches tall
Met accession number: 1993.477.5
Matrikas or mother goddesses, are consorts to the god and his aspects. There are seven of them, and combined they form the ultimate manifestation of femininity and power in the goddess Durga. As a the possessor of fertility in its spiritual abstraction, the mother goddess is depicted with emphasis her belly and breasts, the areas physically associated with reproduction. Standing in a classic tribhanga pose, she is nude except for a few piece of decorative clothing. Most importantly, she also has the divine halo-like disc behind her, showing she is more than an idealized women. Statues like this would have lined temples going towards or surrounding (depending on the design) a god or goddess, of whom they were a consort or aspect of respectively. The serene smile on her face is also common among male and female depictions of the divine. In this sense, the mother goddess is a source of warmth, motherly love, and protection as well as the promise of life through fertility.
Celestial Beauty (Surusandri)
11th century C.E.
Marble, 30.75 inches tall
Met accession number: 69.247
Surusandri, the Celestial Beauty, is considered the ultimate ideal female. Born of the churning ocean of the cosmos, she was the first materialization of beauty and sensuality. Commonly carved on to temples and walls, she is meant to infer that a place is one of calm and grace. Again, she stands in the tribhanga, with large breast, narrow waist, and wide hips. As the depiction of ideal beauty and grace, she should be seen as what a woman would strive to physically and temperamentally appear as. It is also important to note that she causes trees to blossom with a kick of her foot, giving her power over the creation of life. In this depiction she is not only surrounded by nature, but by divine offspring as she is the giver of life as well as the manifestation of beauty. As a result, one can see this depiction of Surusandri as the ultimate goal for the Hindu woman of 11th century Rajasthan, India where she was found
The Goddess Durga Slaying Mahisha
Bronze, 10.25 inches tall
Met accession number: 2012.444.1
Durga, the ultimate manifestation of female beauty, wrath, and power, slays the demon Mahisha. It is important to understand the context of the story, which gives the image so much power. Durga was created and given her weapons after the male gods of the Hindu pantheon lost to the demon. Durga, powerful and unstoppable yet still consort to the ultimate god Shiva, takes on the demons army and then the demon himself, who is in the form of a bull. She succeeds, and the image depicted is her killing the demon as he emerges from his bull form. The result is the end to the destruction he had caused. This back story, which any worshipper who looked on this image in situ at a shrine would have known, is transferred into the dynamic qualities of the sculpture. Durga is not passive and serene, but active and violent unlike the other goddesses seen. However, she retains her idealized beauty with large breast, narrow waist, and wide hips. Again, she is essentially nude yet is not solely an object of beauty anymore. The goddess is then the manifestation of not only maternal warmth and life-giving, but also of powerful righteousness and divine, feminine wrath against the forces of evil.
Chamunda, the Horrific Destroyer of Evil
Met accession number: 1989.121
Chamunda is the horrific manifestation of the goddess Kali ready to destroy all that is evil. She is often figured with Durga facing demon hordes, by herself fighting evil, or guarding temple walls and entrances to Kali or Shiva. Representing the more violent, wrathful aspects of powerful female divinity, Chamunda reflects this transition from motherhood to destroyer in her body. Rather than be presented as the ideal goddess, she is seen as death; emaciated, contorted features with decorations of skulls, snakes, and a scorpion on her torso, which is a symbol of death and illness. Her figure would have held lethal weapons in her twelve arms and her legs would have stood in a dynamic pose much like The Goddess Durga Slaying Mahisha. Similar to the previous sculptures, she is still nude in tribhanga but rather than as a sexual symbol of fertility and life, she is one of wrath, death, and destruction. Her fearsomeness and horror are a warning against evil, much like European depictions of hell and the devil in the medieval and late eras.
Sand and pebble sculpture
Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, India.
An example of R. Baij’s fascination with primitivism and especially the Santal tribe in India, Mill Call is a sculpture that would reflect the values of the independence movement (c. 1880’s to 1947). Drawn from Mahatmas Gandhi and poet Rabindranath Tagore’s celebration of the rural, primitive (non-Western) side of Indian life, the primitivist movement in India came to regard the nakedness of the Santal women as a call back to their purer past. Baij sought to depict people at work in hard rural labor. However, this sculpture somewhat stands out in its joyous depiction and its focus on women from some of his other works. The Santal models Baij used were modified to show the idealized women in the sculpture. The large, spherical breast and strong, youthful bodies with a dynamic pose are still used, in line. It would not be a far stretch to infer the new, divine reverence given to the rural and laboring peoples of India during the independence movement in India, which is contemporary with this work, is apparent here.