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April 2009, Newsletter
  Editorial Note
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 Ancient Understanding of Body in Art

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April 2009, Newsletter
Did You Know? - Ancient Understanding of Body in Art

What does an ancient treatise say about origin of painting, relevance of body in a work of art and how should art be appreciated?

We are in the age interdisciplinary activity, where scholars and artists are trying to soften the lines between different disciplines like cinema, fine arts, photography and so on or working with mediums and techniques to bring out new visual vocabulary. It is however interesting to recall from the records of the ancient past, how the illusionary space of the painting originated, how important is the body in the process of painting and how was an inclined audience developed to fully appreciate the essence of art.

Padmapani Boddhisattva, Wall Painting, Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra

The Ancient Indian Aesthetics seems to have determined precise technique guidelines for the artists in the form of Shastras, Lakshana Grantha that stated the principles and values of Beauty. And, unlike the West, even the most secular information in the pre-Modern Indian treatises are not based on “logic” (of the West) but have a mythical origin and religious jacket. Also, since painting took such wide part in secular and religious life.

The history of Painting also has a very interesting tale of its origin and states how a viewer must appreciate art. As stated in the Visnudharmottara, a treatise on theory and practice of painting, dated c. Fifth Century A.D., the story of origin of painting is narrated as once Narayana (the preserver of the Universe) in order to put end to the vain of Apsaras (damsels) created an outline of a beautiful nymph on his thigh with mango pulp. He later so admired her beauty and grace that the form was brought to life and named the most beautiful damsel- Urvashi.

Jataka Painting from the Caves of Ajanta

There are other tales as well that states the variety of magical stories of the origin of painting but in either legend, the outlining of human form is adjudged to be the most suitable criteria of distinguishing something as art. The importance of form can be seen in the vast repertoire of Indian Visual Imagery.

Visnudharamottara continues to narrate the theory on painting with a conversation between Sage Markandeya and King Vajra, which we can approximately construct here. Once the latter pleaded the former to teach him the art of sculpture, the sage insisted that he should first learn the technique of painting to understand volume and depth of the sculpture. The king then pleaded the sage to teach him painting so that he can learn the art of sculpture. To which the sage replied that without the knowledge of the science of dancing, the rules of painting can scarcely be understood. Now the king wanted to learn dancing, the sage insisted on knowledge of music to understand dance. Finally when the King agreed to learn music, the sage asked him to first understand form and movement visible in the sculpture.

Standing Buddha, Gupta Dynasty, Mathura, India.

The idea of the sage was not to confuse the King but to make him realize the vastness and unity of various disciplines of expression. He insisted then that though the method and technique are unique to each discipline but its artistic value and aesthetic understanding are interrelated. Each form of art is strongly based on understanding of form, a body to which it is addressing.

The understanding of form in the work of art is also treated as a bench mark in differentiating a good viewer from an ordinary. As it is said: “The masters praise the rekha’s… (delineation and articulation of form), the connoisseurs praise the display of light and shade…women like the display of ornaments, to the rest of the public richness of colour and appeals.”

Buddhist Jataka story depicted in a medallion, Andhra region

The Vishnudharmottara Part III: A Treatise On Indian Painting And Image-Making. Kramrisch, Stella, Second Revised and Enlarged Edition (Calcutta University Press: 1928)

Sources of Images