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An Approach to Indian Art

Author(s): Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Source: Parnassus, Vol. 7, No. 7 (Dec., 1935), pp. 17-20
Published by: College Art Association
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It has often been emphasizedthat "Asia is one." This
should be understoodboth geographicallyand historically.
To enunciate the principlesof Indian art is to enunciate
the essentialsof artistic expressionin Asia, as these have
been preservedin an unbrokencontinuityfrom the stone
age until very recent times. It is less often realized that
with only two exceptions,viz. that of the classical decadence and that of the modern (post-mediaeval) period,
one and the same view of the nature and significanceof
eart" has prevailed throughout the world. It is only
because we ourselves are of and inured to one of the irregular phases of civilization referredto above, that what
in a largerview may be describedas normal to humanity,
and is exemplifiedequally in mediaxvalChristian and in
Hindu art, appears to us eitherenigmatic or arbitrary.
In the normal view of art, definedas the embodiment
in tangible materialof a preconceivedform,the function
of art is always practical, the work of art being ordered
eitherto the communicationof a thesisor to some physically usefulend. No hard line can be drawn betweenthese
functions; the fresco invites us to consider its thesis,the
house to warmth and shelter,at the same time that the
fresco is a piece of furniture,and the house by its proportions and design appeals to the intellect as well as to the
shivering flesh. And in fact, a distinctionof fine (or
useless) from applied (useful or decorative) art, and of
the artistfrom the craftsman,has only been attemptedin
those aberrantages in which genius is confused with art
and the artist is regarded as a special kind of man distinguishedfrom all others by his sensibility.
To be objectivelybeautiful is not then the sole or final
end of the work; it is not merely to satisfy the greedy
eye and itching ear that humanity, even under conditions when the urgentproblemsof food and sheltermight
have seemedto leave no time for a considerationof "higher
things," made common objects beautiful, without suspecting that there could be an industrywithout art such
as we now observe in civilized communities. Art is traditionally of divine origin, and all the forms employed
in the making of anything whatever are those of intellectual prototypes,a point of view that survivesin India
even today.
The function of objective beauty in the work of art is
to attract us to the theme or use of the object before
us. The measure of this objective beauty is that of the
clarity with which the artefactmakes its communication.
Anything is beautiful in its own way to the extent that
it really and fully is what it purports to be; a work of
art is beautiful to the extent that it realizes it maker's
intention. But the appreciation of this beauty is often
difficultin an unfamiliar kind of art because we are
habituated to other kinds of beauty or are not interested
in the original purposesof the work, to which its beauty
conduces. In other words, a confusion of beauty with
taste (what we like or dislike) arises as soon as we consider the object not from the maker's but from our own
point of view. Yet there can be no judgment or enjoyment (apart from the comfortablesensationswhich may
be stimulatedby its physical shape, color, or sound, etc.)
of a work of art, without a knowledge of the maker's
intention; for example, we cannot say "This is a good
Buddha image" unless we know what such an image ought

to be like, that is, what Buddha-ideasubsistedin the mental world of those who made Buddha images for good
and sufficient
reasonsof theirown, and not for us to treat
as bric-a-brac.
Just as the unfamiliarbeauty may not attract us, so
the language in which the unfamiliar art expounds its
thesis may, and to some extent must be obscure to us.
Insofar as the work is known to us only by sensation,
which thoughtheymay be pleasantor unpleasantin themselves are not intelligiblesimply as sensations,it is not
understood;to understand,to receive the communication,
we must know how the shapes and colors which are the
sources of the sense impressionshave been selected and
arrangedin such a mannar as to be communicative. We
must, in other words, understandthe conventionsof the
art; for though the principle of language may be one,
the dialects are necessarilyvarious.
Every school of art has thus its own conventionsand
its own style,for althoughall men can thinklike thoughts
we can only expressthese ideas in our own peculiar manner; and although the fundamental needs of humanity
are the same, they are not in all respectsthe same, or may
not be recognized as such because they are served in a
differentway. To resume,if we assume that in connection with the exotic art a preliminarycuriosityis to be
replaced by pleasure and understanding,two things are
required: we must in the firstplace learn to react to an
unfamiliar beauty, must acquire new tastes, and in the
second must acquire a new vocabulary of form. Both
are necessary for enjoyment, the first of sensuous, the
second for intellectual satisfaction. To be content with
the firstis to rest in aestheticismand the ""loveof art";
the second, as explained above, is prerequisitefor judgment, which "is the perfection of art." In both respects a certaindegreeof facilitymust be attained,so that
we may enjoy without conscious effort,and understand
without parsing. So long as any sense of strangenessis
felt, we remain outsiders.
A certain discipline is thus demanded. This is not so
much a disciplineof scholarlyapplication as it is one of
the abandonment of prejudice. Most of our resistance
arisesin the latter connection. We do not like to enlarge
our sympathies,nor to consent to themeswhich we may
have been accustomed to regard,for example, as "pagan"
or "immoral." But these are the prices to be paid for
culture; to judge all things by an inheritedtaste is precisely to be "provincial."
We are afraid of losing ourselves, which is precisely
what is involved in eclecticism. But eclecticism,or subjection to alien influences,is almost the opposite of what
we mean by culture; to try to do ourselveswhat is naturally done by others, to indulge in a "chinoiserie,"implies a fundamentalmisunderstandingof the significance
of style,and can only resultin caricature. What is asked
is somethingharder than to be dilettantein this fashion:
viz. to be patient, to recognize that what at first impresses us as merely odd may have been inevitable and
altogetherright in its own environment,to respect the
idiosyncracyof othersno less than our own.
Most of our difficultiesarise from a considerationof
things apart from their context. It may readily be
granted, for example, that even the finest Hindu image
is incongruouslyrelated and in this sense unlovely on the
drawing-room mantelpiece. One who actually sees its

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beauty does not really see it there on the mantelpiece,

but in a mentally reconstructedoriginal environment.
What we requireis to restorethe context. If we cannot
literally visit foreign countries or actually consort with
long dead men, we can do so in the spirit; it is here that
the teacher of "art appreciation" or the "history of
art" can help us if he will; all our catalogues and guides
are for this, and not merelyto rationalize our sensitivity
valto texturesor our appreciationof interior-decorative
The bridges to be crossed are not so long as might at
firstappear. The general end of art is man, and human
nature itself,which "is in a manner all things," provides
the essential basis for an understandingof all its varied
manifestations. As to the objective beauty, there is a
basis of agreementon fundamentals,diversitybelonging
only to accident; once we have realized that our own idiosyncracyis not an absolute standardbut merelya specific
modality,the very fact of variationremindsus of a norm
in which all variationis implicit (just as many effectsinhere in a single cause) and in which all are one. Tastes
may differ,but that about which tastes differremains
unaltered in human nature. Similarly as regards the
communicatedideologies; all of these are variants or dialects of a common intellectualinheritance,and even the
symbolsemployedin communicationare identicalor interchangeable,as may be illustratedby a conspicuousexample,
that of the rose and lotus, employed alike in Christian
and Indian art and with the same significance,that is
with referenceto the ground of all being. And thus at
which at first precluded
last, those very differentiations
being attracted by the specific beauties of one another's
arts, the barriersof race and language are broken down.





It is desirableto supply a simplifiedhistoricaloutline,
within which individual pieces can be approximately
Everything anterior to the fourth century B.C. is
strictlyspeakingprehistoric. Culturally thereis supposed
to have been a non-Aryan foundation,overlaid, perhaps
about 1500 B.C. by immigrantAryan elements. For the
latter we have no positive archeologicalevidence. What
we actually possess is the remainsof the highly evolved
non-Aryan "Indus Valley Culture" of the third millennium B.C., made know by the excavation of the last fifteen years. The aestheticand religiousconnectionsof this
culture with that of the later Indian cycle of two millennia beginningabout 400 B.C. is evident enough,but cannot be demonstratedin detail.
The Indus Valley culture is that of a people living in
well planned cities, with brick buildings and elaborate
drainage systems. All the fundamentalsof civilization
are alreadypresent. Metal work, mainly in silver,copper,
and bronze is far advanced. Sculpture in the round is
representedby examples far more modernin aspect than
might have been expected. Even more notable as works
of art are the very numerousengraved seals and seal impressions; a few types of these have been found also in
datable Mesopotamiansites, and sufficeto prove at least
a trade relationshipbetween India and Western Asia as
early as the third millenniumB.C. The Indus Valley religion included a cult of the mother-goddess,that of a
prototypeof the later India Siva, and that of a deity
of vegetation; amongst the symbols employed are many
that recur in later Indian use, as well as in other cultures.
Relations with Western Asia were maintainedthrough-



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out the prehistoric period. Apart from material evidences, we may point out (1) that the patternsof Vedic
("Aryan") and Sumerianmetaphysicsare in many respects
the same, and (2) that Early Indian art (about 200 B.C.
to 50 A.D.) preservesformulae and methods that are
closely related to those of Assyrian art in the seventh
and eighth centuriesB.C. (these resemblancesbeing more
conspicuous than those of Early Indian and Achaemenid
art). To what extent the correspondencesof Indian
and westernAsiatic art at any given time may be ascribed
to borrowing,or how far to parallel inheritancecannot
yet be proved; that there existed an ancient cultural
foundationcommon to both is certain.
What has been said above will serve to suggest the rich
and varied backgroundand heritageagainst and on which
the expansion of art in India took place from the early
centuriesB.C. onwards. Neverthelessthe art of the later
cycle of two millenniamay be called complete and comprehensivein itself. Whereas Vedic doctrine had been
metaphysicalrather than religious,the new art coincides
with a partial transferenceof prestigefrom the spiritual
to the temporalpower and the correspondingrise of several closely connected types of devotional belief. Still
the continuity of tradition in both fields is preserved,
inasmuch as both religion and art are rather adaptations
of than contraryto Vedic formulation;Hinduism remaining altogetherorthodox,while Buddhism and Jainismare
only in part and rathernominallythan essentiallyheterodox. There is hardly anythingin the iconographyof any
Indian "sectarian" art that is not of Vedic origin, or
that can be understoodwithout a referenceeither to the
Vedic tradition or some other branch of the "universal
and unanimous tradition."
The dominatingnecessitiesof early Indian art are then
those embodyinga concept of the firstand highestprinciple in the likenessof a worshipfuldeity, and those of
the narration of ancient myths now more literally and
historicallyinterpretedin the interestsof edification. The
Buddha type is adapted from that of the Yaksha, once a
designation of the supreme deity and later of various
tutelarydivinities. This early type is monumentalin the
extreme,the figuresbeing often above life size and no less
impressivein their suggestionof the operationof a catalytic power than they are in actual scale. At the same
time the narrativeart with which the surfacesof Buddhist
buildings are covered is fascinating in its clarity. The
greater part of this early art is more or less "primitive"
in the laudatorysenseof the word; it is entirelycontrolled
by its themes,and at the same time sensuous. This combination of intellectual and sensuous elements is characteristicof Indian art throughoutits expansion.
In the earliercenturiesof the Christianera, and notably
at Amaravati, a more sophisticated elegance makes its
appearance, reminding us of the now more deliberate
artistryof the contemporaryliterature. The classic phase
is reachedin the Gupta period (4th to 7th century). The
sculptor and painterare now in full possessionof theirart
and able to deal with any problem. The transubstantiation of natural formis achievedin a type of unforgettable
serenityin which all conflictof contemplationand passion
is resolvedin a unity of inner and outer life. The sculptured or painted figure and its architecturalsetting are
no longerseparable,but presupposeone another.
In the meantimeon the North West frontier,Hellenistic influencehad resultedin the developmentof another
Buddha type, equally Indian in iconography,but Western
in feeling, that is to say illusionisticin intention,which
the purely Indian art had never been. Some traces of
this influencecan be recognized at Amaravati, but can

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CHAM, IX Century
Recently acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art.
hardly be traced in the Gupta and later schools; on the
other hand it leaves a more definiteimpressionin Central
Asia, where its earlier incongruitiesand flacciditiesare
reanimatedby a local vitality that results in a school of
stucco sculpture strangelyanticipatoryof Gothic (Mahayana Buddhist and Christian themes being intrinsically
similar,this is made conspicuousin the correspondingarts,
developed in each case from the same late classical prototypes).
Before and during the Gupta periodorthodoxHinduism
has already, like Buddhism, begun to employ permanent
materials for its architectureand sculpture. It may be
emphasized in this connection that the "sectarian" arts
in India are differentiated
only by the details of their
iconography,and not by theirstyle,which is a functionof
period rather than of cult. The classical Gupta style
originatesin Northernand Central India, and in its Buddhist phases becomes the main source of the Buddhist art
of Eastern and South Eastern Asia. At the same time in
its Hindu phases the Gupta types, followed by those of
the slightly later South Indian Pallava school (7th-9th
century), establishthose of the Hindu art of the Indianized kingdoms of South Eastern Asia and notably Cambodia. This graftedart very soon expands upon its own
roots, native ethnic concepts gradually remoulding the
Indian prototype,so that we must call these ratherindependentthan merelycolonial arts.
The mediaeval period in India is mainly one of the
crystallizationand preservationof existing types. Styles

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becomemorelocal,and thereis a concurrent

iconographic put paintings. In one important respect, however, the
and stylisticelaboration.The principalstylesare those Indian cycle differsradically from the European. In
of the Pala (Bengal and Orissa,8th-12thcentury)and Europe, the fundamentalprinciplesof the fifthto twelfth
Cola (SouthernIndia, 10th-12thcentury)schools.After centuriesare abandoned and an altogethernew direction
thistime,withthedeclineof Buddhism,
thereis no longer pursued; thereafterthe properlysymbolic language and
Buddhistart,exceptof course ideal referencesof Christian art are gradually obscured
to be founda specifically
in Ceylonand SouthEasternAsia, and in Nepal; in the by statementsof observed fact and the intrusionof the
latterareathevitalityand eleganceof theearlierBuddhist artist's personality. Nothing of this sort happened or
and Hindu art survivewell into the fifteenth
century. could have happened in Hindu India; by "decadence" in
schools: India one means,not an abandonmentof orthodoxtradition
by at leastthreeimportant
Paintingis represented
mainlyin JainaMss. ranging and of ascertainedmethods,but a relativelyinfirmconfromthe tenthto the seventeenth
century;the Bengali- templation that inevitably finds expressionin a lessened
mainlyin BuddhistMss.of likedate; energy of operation; there is a loss of animation. The
and theRajput,executedon wallsor paper,rangingfrom formal virtuesof Indian art survive at the presentday in
the sixteenthto the earlynineteenth
century,and con- folk art and to some extent in the hieratic and conservacernedentirelywith Hindu subjects,amongstwhichthe tive traditionof the south. It is only in Mughal painting
of the Krishnacycle and of the musical that any real kinshipwith the spiritof the European Renmodesplay the mostconspicuous
parts. This is the last aissance can be recognized,in that both are animated by
a curiosityabout appearancesand an interestin personality.
of the greatstyles.
India fromthe twelfthcenturyonwardsresulted Coomaraswamy,A. K., Rajput Painting,Oxford, 1917.
in thedevelopment
of otherformsof art,mainlyin sculpA. K., Historyof Indian and Indonesian
ture and painting,with a combinedforeignand native Art, New York, 1927.
basis. The Mughalschoolof painting(16th-18thcenCoomaraswamy,A. K., The Transformationof Nature
tury) is closelyrelatedto the Rajput, but secularand in Art, 2nd. ed., Cambridge, 1935.
in its interests,
and stylistically
eclectic,uniting Coomaraswamy,A. K., "Understandingthe Art of InPersian,Indian,and Europeanelements.
dia," Parnassus,April, 1934.
It may be said in summarythat the Indian cycle of
Kramrisch,S., Indian Sculpture, Oxford and Calcutta,
two millenniaembracesa stylisticsequencethat passes 1933.
Takics, Z., The Art of Greater Asia, Francis Hopp
througha classic to "baroque"
styles. As in othercyclesthe sequenceis one of decline Museum, Budapest, 1933.
ratherthanof progress,
althoughthequalityof primitive Zimmer, H., Kunstformund Yoga im indischenKultvitalityrecursat variousmoments,
notablyin earlyRaj- bild, Berlin, 1926.




Rare Specimens

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