The book is an exploration of ancient Indian art from the perspective of gender. It focuses on the period from 181 BCE to CE 320 — a period of great turmoil in the politico-economic, socio cultural and religious spheres that gave rise to contesting ideologies and gender complexities in ancient India. It delves into the development of engendered representation in art, with the emergence of aesthetic and sexual archetypes and stereotypes of women: goddesses, mothers, wives, nuns, semi-divine yaksis, ogresses and others. It examines the nature of the stereotypes and archetypes that were constructed on the basis of gender roles rather than on sex and how these were reflected by various attributes of the representations — nudity or its absence, ornamentation, gestures, direction of gaze and context. It gives interesting insights into the intention, agency and patronage patterns in early Indian art.
The volume with its scholarly approach, providing fresh insights into early Indian art will prove useful to scholars, students and researchers of Indian art and history along with the cognoscenti.
Seema Bawa is an Associate Professor at Sri Aurobindo College, University of Delhi. She has written extensively on Indian art and artists. Her research papers and articles, especially on gender and sexuality in early Indian art, have been part of many scholarly books, and published in various newspapers and journals. She is also a regular columnist on art in Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. She has authored a book, Religion and Art of the Chamba Valley. Dr Bawa is also documenting the art and architecture of the Western Himalayan Region under the aegis of the German Research Foundation. She received the Indo-German Cultural Exchange Fellowship to read at the Institute of Oriental Art History, University of Bonn. She has been associated with the National Institute of Design, as researcher for Discovery of India Exposition at the Nehru Centre, Mumbai. Dr Bawa has edited ARTimes, and also co-curated Shatadru: Feminine Sensibilities in Indian Art for Lalit Kala Akademi and National Crafts Museum among other shows.
This book attempts to locate gender and image representation at the centre of both history and art. As such it is a socio cultural study of histories of power, of patriarchal dominance inscribed on monuments and sculptures through spatial relationships and modes of representation, a subject that has seldom been studied till now. The work focuses on a gendered study of early art because the visual discourse of this period is so rich in material pertaining precisely to this subject. By early Indian Art, I seek to refer largely to the art of the period from 181 BCE to CE 320. The art, as produced and consumed during the period, when examined from a gendered perspective reveals significant depth and meaning.
The period that has been selected for study (181 BCE to CE 320) is significant in that it was from this time onwards that we find a systematic and large body of art. It was a period of great turmoil and flux in the socio-cultural, politico-economic and religious spheres, giving rise to a number of contesting ideologies and gender complexities.
The early Indian period that has been elucidated in this work is that of development of engendered representation in art, with the creation of both aesthetic and sexual archetypes and stereotypes of various categories of women recovered from art and texts of females, of mothers, wives, nuns and prostitutes, semi-divine yaksis and ogresses and temptresses. Stereotypes and archetypes were constructed on the basis of gender roles, rather than on sex. The feminine is essentialised as beautiful and graceful but also as physically uncontrolled or uncontrollable, while the masculine is seen as mentally restrained, competent and physically brave, and this perception is mirrored in artistic production. While there is an effort at creating aesthetically pleasing male and female forms, masculinity is projected through strong, solid, straight- standing and frontally-gazing figures taking the forms of semi-divine beings such as yakas or human men.
The process of engendering is reflected by various attributes of the representations: nudity or its absence, ornamentation, gesture, direction of gaze, or context. For example, it may be concluded that nudity, especially with regard to female figures, is not universal in post-Mauryan art, and its depiction is predicated on the sex/gender representation sought to be projected through the art.
The female body is essential in engendering the art of early India, especially given that the female and feminine were defined by their physical attributes. The majority of female figures in the art of the post-Mauryan period display prominently marked genitalia (explicitly or through transparent drapery) and prominent, round, full breasts, especially in the Kuä13a artistic tradition. Ideologically women as sexual- reproductive beings are defined by their reproductive body. This is effectively elucidated through aesthetic representations.
The relative silence of the mainstream patriarchal religious discourse with regard to the identity and characteristics of certain female deities such as Lajja Gauri, Sasthi, and goat- headed goddess is significant. Our research reveals an attempt to make invisible and marginalise powerful and revered feminine images which were not, or could not be, assimilated into major pantheons as wives and consorts. The ignoring of the presence of such goddesses does not stop the production of mother-goddess figures. In an economy based on expanding agriculture, women play an important role both because their work is valuable in the fields and also because they have a control over nature’s ritual and reproductivity. The explanation for such a phenomenon may lie in various local cultic beliefs based on the relationship of women with life-giving sexuality, and on feminine socio-ritual practices related to pregnancy and childbirth.
This book views the engendering process not as a linear, monolithic development. Certain representations, both cultic and artistic, are representative only in this period and offer insights into the creation of gender roles both in art and society. The degree of patriarchal dominance is neither uniform over time, nor evenly spread over all religious ideologies. A multiplicity of voices have been discovered within rampant misogynisms that fracture, challenge or even invert this discourse.
The increased patriarchalisation of the organised religions leads to the disappearance of some female-dominated cults and figures, and of the bhikkhuni samgha. This is predicated upon the decreasing agency of women in the patronage of artistic production. This book is an attempt to recover the crystallisation of gender, and the setting forth of gender archetypes in the pre-Gupta period thus gives interesting insights into the intention, agency and patronage patterns in early Indian art. It is a matter of pleasure for me that the book is being published by D.K. Print world, a leading publisher of art and Indological books.
Aparadox that any study of traditional Indian art has to grapple with is the one between the profusion of representations of female figures such as goddesses and the submissive status of women in contemporary society. The inspiration for this work arose through a desire to examine not just why such a paradox exists but how it emerges philosophically and in the visual arts. Are goddesses not women/female/feminine? Art gives a vantage point through aspects such as clothing/jewellery/ posture and gaze to examine these concerns.
This book attempts to locate gender and image representation at the centre of both history and art. As such it is a socio-cultural study of histories of power of patriarchal dominance inscribed on monuments and sculptures through spatial relationships and modes of representation. This work focuses on a gendered study of that art because the visual discourse of this period is so rich in material pertaining precisely to this subject.1 By early Indian Art, I seek to refer largely to the art of the period from 181 BCE to CE 320. The art, as produced and consumed during the period, when examined from a gendered perspective reveals significant depth and meaning.
The period that has been selected for study (181 BCE to CE 320) is significant in that it was from this time onwards that we find a systematic and large body of art. It was a period of great turmoil and flux in the socio-cultural, politico-economic and religious spheres, giving rise to a number of contesting ideologies and gender complexities. In the field of art, it was a period when a number of archetypes (and stereotyping) related to religious iconography, body and gender roles were constructed and fixed. An exploration of these will reveal embedded or ideologically inherent notions related to form, femininity and masculinity.
Gendered readings provide one valid vantage point from which to view art. It is an approach that in conjunction with the art- historical processing of style, chronology and technique, opens up many layers of interpretation and analysis. The gendering of early art also makes available material that is helpful in viewing the art of subsequent periods, providing models that either continue or are transformed or get discontinued in Gupta and post-Gupta art, thus providing vital information about socio-religious processes that shape both the earlier and later periods.
Patriarchy informs all contemporary socio religious ideologies, whether Buddhist or Hindu, and it becomes clear upon investigation that patriarchy is a dominant factor in determining both the course and the content of art production. In this work I have attempted to investigate and interpret representations — visual and to a limited extent textual — that are available from the period under consideration, with a view to discovering what they may reveal concerning the specific art objects, but also concerning the male and female figures represented by them.
Historiography of Gender and Art in Ancient India
The literature on ancient India in general and ancient Indian art in particular has been gender- neutral if not gender-blind in the past. Richard Goldsmith has noted that there is an inadequate understanding of the profound role that social construction of gender has played in the formation of Indian social and religious life.2This paucity of adequate understanding has been accompanied by an inadequate analysis of gender and power relations in the social history of India, and the lack of it is still more noticeable in the field of art and architecture.
Cultural artefacts such as texts, buildings, images or figures are in the first place only representations. No rendering or description of artefacts can be politically neutral; each such system is inflected by ideology. Before being reread and scrutinised in the early twenty-first century they were viewed selectively to correspond to certain notions of ancient culture through the process of editing and photographing and written into histories that are modern reconstructions of the ancient past. One such perspective on art is exemplified in Western writers such as Fergusson, Cousens, Cunningham and later Vogel and Foucher. To varying degrees their critique is inflected by an imperialist agenda or a bias towards the superiority of Western models. Fergusson, convinced of the moral superiority of the Western Anglo-Saxon civilisation saw the Indian works as deficient, “effete” but not insane; Cousens too echoed a similar perspective but with lesser virulence. Kumkum Roy opines that “The colonisers attempted to term the entire colonised civilisation as feminine.” Cunningham saw in the plenitude or amorphousness of Indian art a certain feminine decadence or “lack” of robust rationality as against a rational masculine Western discourse. V.A. Smith, too, epitomises the Western approach towards ancient Indian Art. He wrote about the Mathura yaksis, and I quote, “They exhibit lasciviousness combined with grossness. While Chandra and Culakoka and their sisters have the appearance of heavenly nymphs, their unworthy descendants are mere courtesans, exhibiting their opulent charms and gaudy jewellery.
In direct contradistinction, Indian historians such as VS. Agrawala or A.K. Coomaraswamy chose to publish and comment on specific art styles such as Candhara and Mathura partly in order to prove certain nationalist agendas-related indigenous origins and inspirations for the Indian artistic genius and also in order to valorise depending on their ideological positions. Coomaraswamy articulated the argument that the “sheer physicality of the earliest male images from Mathura . . . was directly related to and emanated from pre-existing notions of male energy.”6 These histories were inflected by imperialism, nationalism and ideology, including the ideology of art history as a discourse of rationality.
Although much has been written on the position and status of women in ancient society, this exercise has largely been conducted within the larger discourse of imperialist and nationalist historiography. Imperialist historians stressed the ignoble position of women and the increasing dis-privileging of the sex. Colonial writing on Indian art tended to focus on nakedness and what was seen as “immorality” in secular portrayals, and viewed all depictions, including and especially its male representations, as feminine and effeminate.7 This was a strategy through which the colonised people and their culture were ideologically denigrated and perceived as powerless through the use of gendered categories.8 Another approach was to visualise the powerless and lowly “position of women” in text and art and to use this to designate a civilisation as barbarous and backward-looking. Position of women became an index of civilisation. “Women made an irreversible entry into the political discourse as symbolic pawn in a complex ideological battle.”
Nationalist historians like Altekar1° responded to an imperialist denigration of the Indian people through the use of history and art history by trying to establish the relative freedom and empowered status of women, especially in the relatively pure ancient period, untouched as it was by corrupting foreign influences where there was no seclusion of women or sati and there was late marriage and access to education. In order to achieve this aim they highlight individual instances of “visible” women such as Gargi and women seers in the Rgveda’ Altekar, in particular sees a decline in women’s familial status, religious rights, and in their participation in public life as against a marginal improvement in their proprietary status. He views women’s agency as problematic; he regards non-Aryan women as being partially responsible for the decline in caste women’s status. Alternatively, authors such as R.C. Dutt and R.G. Bhandarkar exalt the empowerment of women within the household, where they rule the domestic/private domain. However, they subscribe to the idea that the depiction of female images in Hindu art was obscene, immoral and therefore embarrassing. Thus they marginalised Indian art in general.
Early twentieth century nationalist art historians such as Coomaraswamy recovered the female figures and the feminine highlighting the visibility of goddesses within both the textual and the artistic traditions.’3 Coomaraswamy located the feminine within the philosophical domain, which according to him could not be, and was not, understood by the Western writers. By linking art production to maya and sakti, feminine and feminised abstractions, he gendered art production and located it within the discourse of plentitude and prosperity. Thus there is an engenderment of the feminine and it is seen as a positive as against the Orientalist denigration of the amorphousness as a “lack” but as a “presence,” a philosophical “is-ness” of maya and sakti. Coomaraswamy however abstracts these representations from the socio-religious milieu of the producers and consumers of the art.
Isabel Homer is an exception in so far as hers was the first sustained effort to locate women outside the stereotypical notions of women in early Indian societies. She not only viewed women in their social roles but also noted their economic roles. She also perceived the monastic order for women as providing an alternative women-based community, which provided them with specific forms of self-expression and articulation of religious experience. This analysis of women valorises them and takes them beyond the realm of dress, ornaments and aesthetics that “trivialise women.” She looks at issues such as female sexuality and not simply the decorative attributes of women.5 This analysis, though very significant for the gendering of women, does not relate to the realm of art. My study, on the other hand, does attempt a gendered reading through analysing aspects such as dress, ornaments, posture, gaze and aesthetics within Buddhist and other religious ideologies.
In feminist historiography of the ancient period, art and archaeology of gender are relatively new concerns. The emphasis of the feminist historiographer has largely been on studying prehistoric cultures of the Americas and Australia. Recent forays, however, have been made into reinterpreting classical archaeology from a gender perspective. The main area of focus of these efforts has been the relationship between women, space and archaeology. While in most of these studies art has been used as a kind of secondary tool to reinforce theories related to power structures within gender, interest in art as a valid category for the reconstruction of gender issues has been growing. In India, however, this interest has been very limited, especially with reference to ancient art.
However, recent historians of gender argue that in order to understand the roots of patriarchy and gender formation, and through this understanding create gender equality in society, it is not enough to investigate the position and status of women in ancient India. Instead they advocate an inquiry into the processes of creation and of institutionalisation of gender differences and oppression; that is the warp and woof of power and ideology of patriarchy. Such efforts open up “the possibility of situating women’s history within the broad perspective of social history, which in turn permits the raising of a range of questions.”
The first systematic attempt at gender analysis of Indian art is Vidya Dehejia’s edited work, representing the Body. Not only does it raise issues of spectatorship and agency, it is also the first to deal with the male sexual body as a gendered entity. It also looks at colonial and nationalist approaches to the female and the feminine in Indian art from the vantage point of agency. Vidya Dehejia uses the term “engendering Indian art” to explain how gender issues and differences can be used to offer an alternate perspective into various source materials. Such a perspective goes into the arche (archives) of the times to attempt to recover as to how the production and consumption of such sources were related to gender roles that existed or were being developed. Accordingly, Dehejia and other feminist critiques see these gender issues as “embedded” or inextricably entrenched in the sources in the form of notions relating to the feminine, femininity, masculinity, and gender stereotypes as well as archetypes (arche-type).
Some research has been done on the patronage pattern of male and female donors, especially in connection with Buddhist buildings. Upinder Singh and Kumkum Roy7 have analysed the do native inscriptions from Sand, and Barbara Stoler Miller’s edited work also reveals patronage patterns in art with special reference to women.
The writings on representation of women are deeply gendered and informed by the ideological framework within which the art was viewed. The imperialists, as seen above, used the irrationality and purported unnatural and immoral elements found in it to condemn the civilisation and culture of the subject people and thus glorify the Western artistic tradition. The nationalists marginalised the sensual and the secular aspects and highlighted the power of feminine force to justify female imagery. Later spiritualist- nationalist art historians propounded a very influential and effective theory, which located the feminine within the discourse of the mysterious, fertile and creative forces, thus valorising the feminine without necessarily examining or privileging femininity, masculinity or difference in gendering of these images. Recent intellectual exercises attempt to engender Indian art by seeing women as socio-sexual beings on one hand and by locating the female figures within the philosophic and spiritual domain on the other. These readings seek a balance between the metaphysical and material aspects of the artefacts and my project uses a similar methodological framework.
The historiography of early Indian art has been largely bifurcated into two approaches. The first approach is entirely art historical, and its emphasis has been on identifying and classifying sculptures into two schools of art, archaic, Gandhara, Mathura and Amaravati. Prodigious scholarship has been devoted to this task with pioneering work having been done in this direction by A. Foucher, J. Ph. Vogel and AK. Coomaraswamy. Recently the contributions of Lolita Nehru, Allchins et al., and R.C. Sharma have shed light on influences that go into making of post-Mauryan art styles. Some work has also been done on terracotta art of the period, significantly that of Amy Poster and Stephen Huyler, whose monographs on the subject have added immensely to the knowledge of this “minor art” of the period.
Under the second approach, research has focused on the process of urbanisation during the time, basing itself on archaeological and textual sources. The works of K.T.S. Sarao, C. Erdosy, Sjoberg, and F.M. Allchins are notable. Other approaches to urbanisation include that of Makkan Lal whose monograph reveals settlement archaeology of early India while Sunder Rajan explains the dynamics of the relationship between the town and the village. Menu Thakur identifies the typology of settlements. V.K. Thakur, A. Ghosh, F.R. Allchins and D.K. Chakrabarti have analysed post Mauryan urbanisation in its geo-political context and looked at material determinants that provided a boost to the urban process. Within this, production of art is taken up but an analysis of the urban character of this art is inadequate.
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