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Anthropological studies bring to light signs of some early personalized deity forms and ritual practices prevalent among ethnic populations. In subsequent historical phase too, the ‘divine image’ was a much sought of thing for devotional practices since initial times; however, in the known past, at least after the priestly-courtly art began, scriptures preceded image. They not only preceded image on time-scale but were also the image’s primary source. As such, the deity-image was by and large illustrative – illustrating the deity in a narrative – a myth or legend, involving some divine role or act. Even when isolated, detached or personalized, this image evolved out of scriptures – mythology, religious beliefs or dogma, and was mostly operative, and often with a prescribed anatomy and iconography. Obviously, in any case the deity manifested in act, and the ‘act’ manifested in the figure that could operate – a figure complete in all respects. A figure operating against a host of demons could have more arms than normal two but not less. Even the Buddha’s images, the earliest among the personalized, were conceived with one operative aspect or the other : engaged in penance, defeating Maras, delivering his first sermon …
Hence, except rarely when conceived to represent the deity in a particular mental disposition or aspect, as Shiva in the Tri-murti sculpture at Elephanta, the colossal of Jain Tirthankara Parshvanatha at Gopachala, Gwalior, or some wall-sculptures contained in alcove-like spaces, the Indian sculptor did not resort to represent his deity in bust or head form. A divine image, or a personal sculpture, a bust or head statue is a late cult emerging on Indian scene more emphatically after European art trends began infiltrating into India’s indigenous art forms. Though still with reservations, and not in the same quantum as did the European sculptor, the Indian artist began conceiving his image, male or female, as bust, or even as a mere head, when he sought to represent or reveal a mind, its spiritual quality, divinity, or even intellectualism, that is, when more than the figure’s beauty, poise or even a particular act its spiritual quality or intrinsic being was the artist’s greater concern he went for a sculpture in bust or head form.
The artist has so powerfully conceived his image of the great Master that while looking at the face, the deep quiescence, unfathomable serenity and great divinity enshrining it, one hardly notices that the statue is a mere bust. He perceives in it the ‘Samagra’ Buddha, the Sakyamuni engaged in penance, the Buddha invoking the mother earth, enlightening the world with the divine knowledge … By reducing the aspects that particularized the image the artist has given it multi-dimensionality. Now it represents the Buddha, his totality, or any of his forms he is perceived in. Cast in Tibetan style the image amalgamates best of the traditions of Buddhist sculptures : the fifth-sixth century Gupta sculptures in its modeling, plasticity and power to sublimate, Pala bronzes, in its finish and perfection, and Tibetan own, in spiritual fervor and quality of mind. Unsurpassed in excellence the spiritual quality the image transforms its exterior into the mirror of the interior. A blend of strange divine aura and great aesthetic beauty the image consists of the face, head and the part of the chest with shoulders. Otherwise a plain expanse, except the triangular subdued zones defining armpits, the chest-part seeks its form and rare beauty in the gold-like lustrous ‘sanghati’. Its border embossed with brown creeper design-patterns rendered over a green background, carried over the left shoulder and its end brought back rounding from under the arm most beautifully balances the entire image. The round face with slightly projecting chin, three-fourth shut eyes as immersed in deep meditation imparting to the face its essential bearing, gently couched eyelids, a bird’s wings-like arching eyebrows, broad forehead with the ‘mani’, the symbol of transcendental purity and attainment of ultimate knowledge, a well-defined straight sharp nose, small lips a little wider than the breadth of the nose, elongated ears with further elongated earlobes, ‘Maulashri’ flowers-like knotted hair and a tuft of it with the ‘mani’ atop, defining ‘Ushnisha’, and a neck with three folds, all the characteristic attributes of the classical Buddhist art, define the image of the great Master.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.