Note: This is the first article in a two-part series.
Art occupies a very unique place in the pantheon of human expression. The history of Indian art is long and diverse. So, I have decided to extrapolate American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan’s division of historical epochs in North America to India, in order to compartmentalise the history of Indian art, as opposed to the conventional method of using politico-religious hegemony. This method divides history into three epochs, savagery, barbarism and civilisation. I shall deal with the first two in this part of the article.
Furthermore, I have attempted to analyse Indian art and its evolution by borrowing Russian litterateur Leo Tolstoy’s rather simplistic view, that “Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs”. Of course, the beauty of this notion is that it leaves the experiential undefined. Thus, it is up to the reader to determine the factors which inform and influence experience. My analysis shall be predicated upon economic relations between humans, and the evolution of art in keeping with metamorphoses of those relations in context of our understanding of history and by extension, our selves. In other words, I shall look at art through the eyes of Homo faber, Man the Maker, and not Homo sapiens, Man the Thinker.
Morgan identifies ‘savagery’ as the first proper epoch of human social history. It began with the emergence of the Australopithecus, the nascent form of what is Homo sapiens sapiens today, and ended with the popularisation of the bow and arrow, but before pottery was discovered.
Life was hard for these people. They subsisted mostly on game, and made the complementary discovery of fire. They used crude stone tools, and following rivers and coasts, spread throughout the world. In India, the most notable examples of their art can be found in the Bhimbetka rock shelter near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. These wall paintings are strikingly similar to aboriginal rock art found in Australia and the Lascaux cave paintings. They depict hunter-gatherers in action, usually going after bovine, deer and elephants.
The motivation behind such art can only be conjectured. The notion of private property was not firmly entrenched in these peoples, and consequently, the spirit of community was very important. Not only did community ensure food and shelter for everyone, it was a crucial means of survival for savages. This sense was captured through the paintings which depict communal dances and rituals. Since very few women can be seen participating in hunts, it is fair to assume that women were engaged in housework around the settlement, such as it was. However, this division of labour was predicated entirely upon biological differences. The art is also testament to the importance of the animal in savage life, and this can serve as a possible explanation for later developments which led to animals being deified and worshipped. The animal was the lifeblood for the savage, and his existence depended on the existence of the animal. This was the survival of the fittest, quite literally. Owing to ‘ceaseless exercise of the human faculty’, savages could evolve into Homo erectus and subsequently Homo sapiens.
One noticeable feature of savage rock art is the thematic absence of the individual. Not only did the absence of private property lead to the greater importance of community, it also meant that the idea of the individual as homemaker or breadwinner, was totally absent. In all probability, even the wall paintings were not done by a single person. At the same time, perhaps this was the only time in history when ‘the property created by the owner’s labour’ did exist, because all property was communal and hence lacked an individual owner. This is applicable to the rock art that they created too. These wall paintings we marvel at, are the collective legacy of humanity and not the property or legacy of those who painted them. This should be kept in mind, now more so than ever.
‘Barbarism’, according to Morgan, begins with the invention of pottery. Pastoral tribes separated themselves from the mass of barbarians to create the first organised societies, which later blossomed into permanent settlements. This epoch was characterised by the use of more sophisticated tools, agricultural activities, domestication of cattle and the barter system.
The barbaric age in India can be crystallised into the culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the subsequent Vedic age in India. The art of the Indus Valley Civilisation is very distinct. Seals and amulets were important mediums of artistic expression, and myriad inscriptions have been found on them. Many of these seals depicted a horned deity with a trident, similar to the Hindu deity Shiva. But the most important form of artistic expression were sculptures, which included various realistic depictions of human torsos. But the most important sculpture is, of course, the Dancing Girl. The Dancing Girl was the first instance of the recurring theme of eroticism in Indian art. It is a bronze sculpture of a dancing girl, who is naked but for a necklace and a series of bangles. She is standing with one hand on her hip, and one leg half-bent, in a sexually provocative posture. The Vedic period, by comparison, has little to offer in terms of art. Worship was largely based around elaborate sacrifices, and there is little evidence to suggest idolatry.
The art of the barbarians is a testament to myriad nascent human phenomena, some of which are now said to characterise modernity. The first among those is the idea of private property. With increasingly specialised division of labour, the art now belonged to the artist and not her community. The Dancing Girl was almost certainly crafted by an exceptionally skilled artist after having been sanctioned by the ruling elite. Through this new trend, we can also arrive at an explanation for the first depiction of the solitary individual. Apart from this departure, we can also identify the thematic transformations. Artistic depictions were not of the day-to-day activities that were necessary for survival, but of the aesthetically pleasant. The emergence of the erotic as a subject of artistic exploration is also very important. The yet-to-be-named sringar rasa captured the imagination of the Indian barbarians, and it is still etched into the Indian consciousness.