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Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture (A Book)

Item Code: NAH869
Author: Alice Boner
Publisher: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: ENGLISH
Edition: 1990
ISBN: 8120807057
Pages: 299 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.0 inch X 7.0 inch
Weight 1.20 kg
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Book Description
About the Book

The present work represents an approach to a hitherto unexplored aspect of Hindu sculpture. It deals with pre-medieval sculpture and, leaving aside the historical, the doctrinal and the aesthetic aspects of this art, it concentrates exclusively on the question of composition.

The principles of composition which are here discussed and defined, have resulted from a careful analysis, carried on for a number of years, of the great sculptures of the Rock-Temples at Elura, Badami, Mahabalipuram and others, that is to say of sculptures of the pre-medieval period of the Rastrakuta, Calukya and Pallava schools.

In these sculptures the author first detected the existence of a cogent compositional lay-out. And since, as compared with later schools of sculpture, this lay-out appears to be here in its basic and purest form, they have been elected for the present study.

The work consists of two parts. The first is a general introduction explaining the origin and reason of this research, with a description of the compositional principles found in the sculptures and a theoretical discussion of their character and meaning.

The second part is a demonstration of the principle described above, in form of detailed analyses of 21 sculptures: each analysis is accompanied by a photograph of the sculpture with a short description of the subject-matter, and by two lines diagrams one presenting the Space division or Measure, and the other the Time division or Movement. Each of these divisions is described separately and then brought into a synthesis, on the basis of which the deeper content of the image can be explored.

The book had been out of print for some time and i now for the first time published in India as a reprint, with an additional foreword by Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, an appendix containing some important reviews, and a general index.

About the Author

Alice Boner (l889-1981), was a sculptor and painter who settled in Varanasi, India, in 1936 and became one of the outstanding scholars and interpreters of Indian sculpture and temple architecture. For her unique contribution to the understanding of Indian art, she was awarded 'Padmabhushan' by the President of India in 1974, and an honorary Doctorate by the University of Zurich. After this, her first book, she also published Silpa Prakasa (Medieval Orissan Sanskrit Text on Temple Architecture, Leiden 1866), New Light on the Sun Temple of Konarka (Varanasi 1972) and Vastusutra Upanisad (Delhi 1982). A Commemoration Volume was published in her memory. Rupa Pratirupa, ed. by Bettina Baumer, Delhi 1982.


Alice Boner belonged to a generation of world citizens who as if from their very birth had eschewed barriers and confines of narrow national boundaries. In the late 19th and 20th century seers, scholars, art historians emerged in Asia, India, Europe and America, to affirm a universal vision. Born as an English woman Annie Besant was more than an Indian. So was Madeleine Slade, later called Meera Behn. So also were Sass Brunner and Elizabeth Brunner. Complementary was the group of A. K. Coomaraswamy, Eric Gill, Romain Rolland, Mircea Eliade, even Hermann Hesse. There were others of the Ascona group. Each was rooted in a particular tradition and each grew to embrace the world through his or her particular discipline.

Today half a century later the work of these savants, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, art historians assumes renewed relevance and values. Almost tired of fragmented microscopic analysis, the physicist, the micro biologist, the philosopher and the art historian is striving to grasp unitary principles governing multiplicity and plurality of phenomena. Equally important is the urge to identify fundamental principles even at level of the form and technique, discretely sifted from the avarana (clothing) of specific content.

Alice Boner, a trained western sculptor, a keen observer of visual forms, responded with refined sensitivity to plasticity everywhere. She came to India charged with the fire of movement of dance, was bestilled with the centred dynamism of Ellora caves. Without aid of texts and conventional guidelines the monumental reliefs of Ellora, the dynamic movement of the dance arrested in stone shed all flesh and muscle and revealed the essence of the bone structure to Alice. The Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture is the result of this revelation by a sculptor. Deeply introvert, capable of receiving energies within herself she could revisualise and recreate, through a trained eye and skilled brush and chisel, and power of words unmatched.

The visual evidence of the geometrical diagrams that had resulted from the -analysis of sculptures was at the beginning not backed by any acknowledged authority. This new interpretative approach consisted in discovering the basic geometrical patterns governing these sculptures. Alice Boner laid the foundations of identifying two basic structures, one of a space dimension which provided a static aspect of the image and a time sequence which revealed' the dynamic aspects. Her eye was flawless; her argument born out of actual experience has been confirmed during these decades by a corpus of textual material. She herself followed the Principles of Composition by textual work relating to the Orissan texts Silpa-Prakasa and Vastusutra Upanisad.

The work originally published by E. J. Brill has been out of print. The reprint of this her most original work is timely because historians of Indian art have arrived at a stage when they can move from rudimentary chronology, iconographical identification to more fundamental issues of theory and principles of artistic composition. The reprint of this volume in the Kala Kosa series of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts will, it is hoped, complement the collected works of A. K. Coomaraswamy and other authors like Paul Mus.


The present study on the Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture was ready in its substance many years ago. I did not however venture its publication, because I had nothing else to prove the correctness of my thesis, but the visual evidence of geometrical diagrams that had resulted from the analysis of sculptures. There was no theory of composition known to me that could confirm my findings, or at least show that my research had a positive object in view. I knew, that a purely empirical approach, not backed by any acknowledged authority, to a problem that had never so far been seriously studied, was not likely to carry much conviction. In order to find the much needed support for my hypothesis, I searched in all the known Silpa Sastra texts for some reference to the principles of sculptural composition. But for a long time I could not find any written documentation of this kind. Even my consultations with eminent scholars did not yield any results, since none of them knew of any text, ancient or modern, that treated this subject either from a theoretical or a practical point of view.

A. K. Coomaraswamy, to whom, among others, I had submitted my problems, encouraged me to describe and publish my observations without waiting for the confirmation of a theoretical treatise on the subject. Still I could not overcome the fear of exposing my observations and conclusions to the reproach of being fanciful, without having in my hands the wherewithal to substantiate and to defend them. Besides, I had not yet reached the end of my investigations, neither had I given up hope, that in a country like India, so rich in theoretical texts on every form of art, a treatise on such an important subject might yet be found.

In the meantime I sought clarification of my problems in the study of the principles of composition that had existed in the various traditional forms of European art. In the books of modern interpreters of the Art- theories prevalent in classical Antiquity, in the Middle-ages and the Renaissance I found much useful information and stimulating thought. Above all, I gained the conviction that no great style of art, developing on natural traditional lines had ever existed, whose forms in architecture, sculpture, painting and all minor arts had not been based on strictly mathematical and geometrical principles. Nowhere, however, could I detect any system of composition identical with the specific type which had come to light in the Hindu sculptures so far examined.

As a last attempt, with the hope of perhaps discovering among living Sthapatis some still surviving knowledge about the laws of composition, I went to Orissa in 1957. I approached Pandit Sadasiva Rath Sarma of Puri, who, I had been told, was the only person who would be able to put me in touch with traditional Sthapatis and could serve me as an interpreter. In order to explain to him my query, I drew the diagram of a sculpture I had analysed on a scrap of paper. To my great surprise, Pandit Sadasiva Rath, without a moment's hesitation drew a similar diagram for another sculpture, and thus gave me a striking proof, that he perfectly knew and understood what I was looking for. When I enquired how he had discovered this manner of composition, he said he had found it described in an ancient Oriya palmleaf manuscript on architecture. On my request, he with great generosity consented to study this manuscript with me, and if necessary, to help me in translating it. The study and translation of this work took up the better half of the summer 1957 and confirmed to my great satisfaction, that what I had been searching so long was not an empty shadow.

This Orissan text, whose title is SILPA PRAKASA, is written in Sanskrit and profusely illustrated with line-drawings. It is presumably of the 10th or 11th Cent. A.D. and deals with the construction of a Temple to the Devi. In its outlook it is entirely based on Tantric doctrines. Between the detailed descriptions of all architectural elements of the temple, it also gives the dhyanas for the images to be carved on the walls, and together with the dhyanas, the diagrams and the exact rules for their composition. These diagrams, dealing as they do with a later type of sculpture, are not quite identical with those that had resulted from my own investigations, but they have sufficient points of affinity to show that ultimately they depend on the same basic principles. The very fact of their existence justified my assumption, that laws of composition, although not explicitely mentioned in other Silpa Sastras, had never been limited to the architectural elements, but had always included sculpture as well.

This documentary proof of the existence of theories and rules for the composition of sculptures at last gave me the courage to publish my own work. The Orissan text, which deals with one particular type of medieval temple only, has not been made use of, except for one technical term that simplifies the English circumscription. But it stands as a warrant and a justification for my research, and will, I hope, corroborate and amplify the present study by showing further developments and changes that took place in the schemes of composition during the transition from pre-medieval to medieval times. It will in due course be published with an English translation.

A further great encouragement I received through the interest shown in my work by Prof. P. Mus. His confidence in the fundamental validity of my findings induced him to write a Preface to this book, and thus to introduce an unknown author to Orientalists, Art-Historians and to all those interested in Hindu art. I shall ever be grateful to him for bestowing on my book the honour of his comments and for assigning it a place within the more recent studies on Indian art.

I am much obliged to the Department of Archaeology of the Government of India for supplying me the photographs needed for this book and for permission to reproduce them. I am grateful to Mr. K. K. Gupta and to Miss Yv. Boner, Dipl. Arch. for assisting me with the final drawings of the diagrams, to Miss V. Sydney and to Miss Mary Elliot for looking through my English writing, and to Dr. Priyamvada Sah, Lecturer in Mathematics of the Banaras Hindu University for advising me in matters of mathematical terminology. To Pandit Ambika Datta Upadhyaya M.A., S.Y.S., K.T. and all those others who have kindly helped me with corrections and with advise, I wish to express my thanks.


Principles of composition are the immanent logic that governs any style of art, the basic law that determines its visible formulation. They are a necessity in any traditional type of art, in which systematically defined cosmic conceptions and a transcendent metaphysical vision demand an adequate and valid expression in the language of form. They are the abstract, but primary and fundamental objectivations of the spiritual image of the universe, and therefore are essential in moulding the specific and inimitable character of any traditional art.

It is in the nature of things that principles of composition can be studied only after the material features and the historical and cultural foundations of an art have been sufficiently explored, so as to allow a clear survey of its evolution, from the beginnings to the highest development and to the final decline. This means, it is a study that can be under-taken only after all other factual investigations have reached a certain maturity.

It is not surprising therefore, that in the studies on Hindu art, which have begun at a relatively recent date, the 'logic of the composition' mentioned by Coomaraswamy should not have as yet received the attention it deserves. Archaeology and History of Art have an enormous field to cover in order to do justice to the inexhaustible wealth of art produced through the millennia of India's history, and since they are primarily fact-finding disciplines, they are not directly concerned with the science and theory of art.

Modern research, on the other hand, has focussed its attention more on the symbolic aspect of Hindu art than on the problem of its form. In the light of the ancient religious Scriptures it has revealed the truly metaphysical character of its mythological imagery. E. B. Havell was the first Art-historian to disengage the study of Hindu art from merely historical or aesthetic considerations and to stress the deep symbolism and the spiritual essence of its mythological background. Heinrich Zimmer, who belonged to a later generation, proceeded further on the same path and considerably amplified in range and depth the penetration of the esoteric significance underlying Hindu mythology and its visual representation in art. Stella Kramrisch, in her monumental work "The Hindu temple" has explored with great ingenuity the metaphysical symbolism underlying the abstract forms of India's sacred architecture.

All modern efforts at unravelling the ultimate significance of Hindu imagery and form-language found their greatest inspiration and support in the pioneering work of A. K. Coomaraswamy, who went back to the oldest sources, and by a fresh analysis and interpretation of texts of the Vedas and the Upanisads, substantiated the esoteric character of Hindu art with absolute finality. On the foundations laid by him all future studies will have to take their stand.

Although it centres around the Buddhist monuments of Indonesia, one cannot in this context pass under silence the outstanding work of Prof. P. Mus. His studies are in a class by themselves, since they have succeeded in the momentous task of coordinating the exploration of the ontological and historical background with the formal analysis and the symbolism of these monuments. In India these various aspects have mostly been treated separately by different authors, and the approach to ancient art has been in the main either from one or the other specialized point of view, without any decisive attempt at a conclusive, final coordination. Notwithstanding all the profound studies of the eminent scholars mentioned above and of many others in their particular branches, India's greatest monuments still await an all-comprehensive and exhaustive interpretation, by which the causal connection between their ideological, esoteric,, raison d'etre" and their formal expression could be brought to light.

The present book would not have been possible without the inspiration and guidance received from the work of these great scholars, for which they have put the writer under a deep and permanent bond of gratitude. What, however, is attempted here, is no incursion into any of the scholarly disciplines followed by them. It is an approach from a different angle, an endeavour in a new direction that has not hitherto received much attention. The distinctive character of the Indian form-language, which most authors have taken for granted as the basis, the substratum, the very point of departure for their analytical studies, is here made the main object of investigation. Attention is focussed on the form-problems themselves, as they arose in the contemplating mind of a working artist, who, moved by the grandeur of certain sculptures in the rock-cut temples of India, tried to probe into the secret of their extraordinary fascination. When in the course of her meditations and studies on the sculptures she suddenly became aware of something that looked like a coherent system of composition, it was a discovery she had neither sought nor suspected. Since she had no other equipment at her disposition besides a trained eye and a certain familiarity with the language of form, and since she was ignorant of the existence of any theory of composition in Hindu art, she felt diffident at first, when visual evidence forced the recognition of compositional patterns upon her. She considered it indispensable to prove and substantiate such evidence through the authority of ancient texts, and therefore consulted various Puranas and Silpa Sastras that deal with Iconography and Iconometry. But nowhere could she find any theory dealing with the laws of composition in plastic or pictorial art. The Silpa Sastras do not impart instruction on the formal aspect of figural compositions. They do not explain how all elements of an image can be brought into an organic whole, into a harmonious, rhythmic structure that would give adequate expression to their inner meaning. The elaborate canons of proportion with detailed measurements for every part of the bodies of divine figures, which they contain, are beside the point in question. These as well as the description of poses and gestures, of features and expressions, of attributes, weapons and ornaments only represent the requisites that make sacred images fit for worship. They are theological prescriptions and do not touch the subject of composition. These Sastras also do not mention how sculptures are consistently integrated into the architectural context. The only instructions they give in this respect concern the places which the various images should occupy on the inner or outer walls of the temple. And these are determined by the space-directions, by their subject-matter and by their relationship to the main image of the shrine, following ritual, doctrinal and theological requirements.

But composition in a work of art is another matter altogether. It is that which, like the skeleton in a living organism, determines the entire structure and the relationship of all forms. It is the basic configuration of any work of art, which has to be determined at its very inception. And this of course would not be the work of theologians, but would be of the competence of the artists themselves. But since there are no records of written instructions, we are left wondering, whether this most essential act was entrusted to the imagination of the individual craftsmen, or whether they had some oral traditions and conventions to guide them. Since the Silpa Sastras do record laws and rules governing all elements in the construction of temples and other edifices, it appears somewhat improbable that sculpture, which was such an essential part of architecture, should have been left entirely to the discretion of every individual sculptor. Moreover, it is only in relation to the fundamental lay-out of a composition that measurements and proportions of sacred figures, on which the texts on Iconometry dwell in such detail, can have any meaning. In themselves they would be irrelevant.

Another argument is that in the absence of any guiding principle of composition it would be difficult to account for the perfect logic and harmony of design that prevails in the whole range of Indian sculpture. It would be still more difficult to account for the fact, that in different, even distant parts of the country and at different times the same subjects were moulded on very similar patterns, had not some principles of composition been valid in those times throughout the greater part of India. Why these are not mentioned in the Silpa Sastras is a mystery that still remains unsolved. It is possible and even probable that the veil of secrecy, by which traditional artists the world over protect the ultimate and most treasured principles of their art from profanation, forbade records in writing, and thus left the later compilers of Silpa Sastras, who were no craftsmen or artists, unaware of their existence.


Foreword to the Indian Edition by Kapila Vatsyayanv
Preface by Paul Musix
Author's Prefacexv
INarasimha A vatara, Elura, Cave XV53
IIMahalaksrni, Eliira, Cave XIV60
IIIMahalaksmi, ElUra, Kailasanatha Temple67
IVMahalaksmi, Mahabalipurarn75
VVisnu Trivikrama, Elura, Cave XV82
VIVisnu Trivikrama, Badami, Cave II 89
VIIVisnu Trivikrama, Mahabalipuram96
VIIIVaraha Avatara, Elura, Cave XIV107
IXVaraha Avatara, Badami, Cave III 115
XVaraha Avatara, Badami, Cave II 120
XIVaraha Avatars, Elura, Cave XV125
XIIVaraha Avatara, Mahabalipuram 132
XIIIVaraha on Adisesa, Elura, Cave XV140
XIVVisnu on Adisesa, Mahabalipuram 145
XVSiva Nataraja, Elura, Cave XIV157
XVI Siva Nataraja, Badami174
XVIIThe Dance of Siva, Elura, Cave XV185
XVIIIJnana Daksinamurti, Elura, Kailasanatha Temple195
XIVGajasamharamurti, Elura, Kailasanatha Temple 209
XXAndhakasura Vadham, Eliira, Cave XV220
XXIMahisasuramardinl, Mahabalipuram 230
Concluding Remarks241
Appendix: Important Reviews261
General Index267

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