Art History:   Grade 6 Lesson 3

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SENEGAL TO HONOLULU -  Art of India   

India is a land of contrast and diversity. Imagine a country that is geographically smaller than the United States supporting a diverse population using 16 languages and hundreds of dialects. India is both one of the oldest and one of the most modern civilizations in the world. Planned cities and towns date back almost 5,000 years. Archaeologists and historians have found evidence of early discoveries in metal working, astronomy, and mathematics. With these early roots in technology, India has evolved into one of the leaders in the scientific and technological communities. The richness of the country lies in the coexistence of its ancient traditions with modern civilization.


  1. Pectoral, 2500-1700 BC Steatite carving (soapstone), National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi, Reproduction photograph
    A proud bull, among the earliest animals venerated by Indians, adorns this 4,000 year old carving. A typical Indus valley "unicorn". Exact place of origin is not known. Hollows were for inlay of semi-precious stones. The object under the muzzle is related to an unknown rite, possibly connected with purification.

    Throughout their long history the diverse peoples of India have shared a fascination with, and respect for, animals. Cattle have always been held in particularly high regard; by the pre-historic Indus Valley tribes, which left hundreds of seals like this one bearing meticulously worked carvings of bulls; by the later, Aryan herdsmen, who considered cattle the basic unit of wealth and used them as currency; and by the Hindus, who forbid killing them even to this day. This attitude went far beyond respect for the usefulness of animals. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains regard all forms of life as energy or life force. They believe that when a creature dies, this energy is reincarnated in some other form. Killing a living thing is thus unthinkable. Even an insect may be the revitalized form of a relative or friend. On a still higher plane, Hindu mythology endowed the gods with animal attributes. Even the 16th century Muslim conquerors of northern India were captivated by this attitude towards animals, and they commissioned some of the finest representations of them in Indian art.

    For countless centuries cattle have been the most essential animals in India. Bullocks served as draft animals and chronically inadequate food supplies made cows' milk a basic food. Because of a perennial shortage of wood in some areas of the country, cow droppings have been the only household fuel. To the Hindu, veneration of the cow is an inseparable part of life, rooted in deep tradition. Yet cows are not truly sacred; the Hindu religion merely prohibits killing them. Cows also represent pastoral life, which is considered idyllic. The god Krishna grew up among cattle and cowherds and the story of his childhood with them is a favorite Hindu tale. To the Hindus, the bull rather than the cow was "sacred". Symbols of procreation since prehistoric times, bulls were also associated with the god Shiva, and were carved for his temples.


  2. Buddha in Meditation, 5th Cent. Sandstone statue, Archeological Museum, Sarnath, Reproduction Photograph.
    This, one of the most beautiful statues of the Buddha, is from Sarnath where the first sermon was preached. The Buddha sits in the lotus pose and his hands are in the teaching posture. In the face is a wonderful expression of peace. Behind the head is an aura of light and two god-like figures fly above it. Beneath the throne a small group of disciples prays before the Wheel of the Law, itself an ancient art form representing Buddhahood.

    The first sculptors of the Buddha depicted him as a preacher, with his audience carved to the same scale. But by the time this magnificent sculpture was produced, the figure of Buddha had become enormously enlarged, and the scene showing his first preaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath was confined to a frieze at the base. It was in this era that the noblest sculptures of Buddha were produced, embodying to perfection the Buddhist ideals of serenity and spiritual harmony.


    Turning of the Wheel of Law

    1. The World is full of suffering
    2. Suffering is caused by human desire
    3. Suffering is eliminated by renouncing desire
    4. Desire is eliminated by following the 8 Noble Truths, which lead to salvation.

    The Noble Truths


    Right thought


    Right belief


    Right speech


    Right livelihood


    Right moral effort


    Right concentration


  3. Vishvarupa Vishnu, 9th-10th Century, Nepal, (Hindu) Gilt copper, 31.8 cm H. Museum of Fine Arts, (Himalayan Gallery) Boston
    The ten-armed god stands firm like a column on a plain pedestal. He wears a dhoti of printed design, held with a girdle, a necklace, earrings, an elaborate crown with the face of glory, a sacred thread, and bracelets designed as serpents. His attributes are the lotus seed, battle-axe, sword, discus (chakra), elephant goad, bow shield, mace and conch. The back of the figure is as richly finished as the front, the ten arms emerging coherently from the shoulders, and the hair falling over the neck in stylized but well-groomed curls. With his ten arms, the god here reveals his universal form.

    Bronze casting was already a developed art in Nepal by the 7th Century as attested by visiting Chinese dignitaries, and the superb bronze shows the technical dexterity of the Newari artist in this field.


  4. Shiva Nataraja, 12th - 13th Cent., Bronze, Nelson Gallery, Kansas City
    Shiva, as Lord of the Dance, performs the ritual which symbolizes the act of creation. In one of his four hands is a small drum, the sound of which signifies creation, and in another hand he holds a flame, symbol of destruction. They are held at the same level to illustrate the balance between the two. Beneath Shiva's foot lies a dwarf, personifying evil, which is crushed in the dance. Shiva is one of Hinduism's two mightiest gods.


  5. Taj Mahal, 1632-1650, near Agra, India. Reproduction photograph
    Grief-stricken when his favourite wife died in childbirth, Shah Jahan, one of India's richest and most powerful rulers, determined to build her a mausoleum "as beautiful as she was beautiful". Through 19 years of marriage she had been his constant companion; she was called Mumtaz Mahal, "chosen of the palace". To build her suitable monument, 20,000 expert craftsmen and laborers, summoned from all over India, Asia and Europe, worked for 22 years. Shah Jahan, a Muslim based the design of the mausoleum on Islamic concepts, but native materials, motifs and craftsmanship were what finally gave the building its special quality. it is a brilliant fusion of Muslim and Hindu styles, the jewel in India's architectural diadem; the Taj Mahal.

    Graceful patterns of Muslim derivation, including arabesques and chevrons, decorate the octagonal faces of the Taj Mahal. Kiosks encircle the main dome, their tops capped by lotus blossoms, an ancient Hindu motif. The main sanctuary contains the public memorials to the emperor and his empress. The screen around them was carved from a single slab of marble. The burial crypt is beneath the memorials on the main floor. During Muslim rule, the crypt was opened annually but only for Muslims. Today it is accessible to all.

    Above all, the Taj Mahal is feminine. Much of its ornamentation , like the beautifully carved marble flowers on the wall of the alcove, conveys a sensitive, almost perfumed loveliness. Both inside and out, the marble reflects the light and mood of the changing day - dazzling at noon and glowing at dusk, soft and ethereal in the moonlight, like the varying moods of a beautiful woman. It is fortunate that most of the delicate beauty remains. Within 60 years following the death of Shah Jahan, India dissolved into warring states. Marauding bands ransacked the monument and Hindu Indians reviled it as a reminder of the Muslim overlords. The Taj Mahal was not fully restored until the early 20th Century. Today it is an object of national and international admiration, and is the symbol of India for the entire world.

    bullet Links
    bullet Virtual tour of the Taj Mahal


  6. The Summer Elephant, c 1750, Rajasthan Bundi, miniature painting, Prince of Wales' Museum of Western India, Bombay. Reproduction Photograph
    Playful elephants wallowing in the lotus pool, dancing on the shore are depicted under a blazing sky before the monsoon. According to Hindu mythology, the first elephants in the world had wings and consorted with the clouds. It was still in their power to call upon their former heavenly companions to bring rain. For this blessed ability elephants are still honoured in India. Particularly revered are the pure white elephants traditionally kept by kings, who consider the discovery of one of these rare specimens to be an omen of good fortune. Worshipping them is associated with rainfall and bountiful crops. Even today the symbol of good luck is an elephant-headed divinity called Ganesha, to whom Hindus pray before every important undertaking.


  7. Avalokitesvara, 6th century, Sarnath, India, sandstone, Boston Museum of Fine Art. Reproduction Photograph.
    bullet Avalokitesavra - Buddhist deity -

    avalokita means “observes the sounds of the world”

    isvara means “lord”


  8. The Holy Family in a Cave, c 1810-1820, Mandi School, Punjab Hills, N Pakistan. Opaque watercolor on paper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Reproduction photograph.


  9. Cambodian figure of Avalokitesvara, , 5th century, 48 1/2" high, sandstone carving, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Bodhisattva of Compassion 


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