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This statue, carved out of fine Bangai wood in the wood’s natural raisin colour with interplaying light and dark zones attributing to it rhythmic variations, represents goddess Saraswati, the presiding deity of learning, music, art and all creative faculties of mind. Saraswati and Lakshmi are two most celebrated goddesses of Indian pantheon worshipped also in the Buddhist and Jain sects, in Buddhism in five forms, and in Jainism, as many as sixteen. The earliest text on Indian soil as also the earliest to allude to her the Rig-Veda lauds Saraswati as Vak, and Lakshmi as Shri. The great scripture has devoted to them a number of independent Suktas lauding them variously. However, the great text is completely silent in regard to the form – ‘swarupa’, of the either. In context to denoting her ability to feed and nourish the Atharva-Veda is the earliest text to talk of her large-breasted form full of abundant milk – the food to sustain. The Atharva-Veda too does not talk of her of form any further.
This four-armed form of the goddess with various attributes carried in them is her vision in the later Puranic literature. Besides Vak, her name in the Vedic literature, the Puranas lauded her with various epithets like Vagdevi, Bharati, Sharada, Vagishvari, Veenapani among others. They vividly described her form, primarily her timeless vigorous youth and luminous beauty as 'parama jyotiswarupa' – one born of the Supreme Light, or ‘kotisomasyaprabha – lustre of millions of moons, a face that a mild smile defined : ‘mandasmitataramukhi’, her anatomy with large breasts filled with abundant milk, her seat, attributes and adornment. Though this perception of her ‘swarupa’ – appearance, has been ever the same as in early scriptures her seat and attributes kept on changing. In initial Puranas she was perceived as ‘kamalasana’ – lotus-seated, and carrying lotuses in two of her four hands; later, after lotus was shifted to Lakshmi’s iconography, or rather was monopolized by her, lotus, at least as seat and attribute carried in hands, ceased to be the part of her images. Now she rode variously a goose, peacock etc. She continued to carry in two of her hands rosary and book, the attributes that she shared with Brahma, her consort, in other two, there emerged ‘vina’ – stringed instrument, perhaps for denoting her wider role as the patron deity also of music and poetry.
In sculpting this form of the goddess Saraswati the artist has wondrously manipulated both, the earlier and the later Puranic traditions. Except that her image has been conceived with moderately sized breasts, not large as the Atharva-Veda prescribed, the image has the same four arms, a highly balanced figure, elegant adornment and is seated in ‘lalitasana’ – a sitting posture revealing beauty and ease. Despite the wood its medium, not giving room for any kind of lustre, her face seems to laminate with divine lustre and youthful vigour. In two of her hands she carries the same attributes as prescribed the early and late traditions but in other two she carries a ‘vina’ replacing the lotuses of the earlier tradition. As suggests the gesture of the fingers of both hands, she is playing on it, that is, not a symbolic attribute carried for defining her iconography but a real instrument in her use. The shift from the ‘lotus’ to ‘vina’, one, just an attribute, the other being operative, defined a shift from mere presence to her operative role. The benignity defining her face and a gentle glow with which it radiates are features common to both traditions.
The most brilliant synthesis is seen in regard to her seat. She has been carved as seated on a lotus moulding laid over a bird that from the face looks like the mythical goose, and from the tail side, a peacock. The artist has thus obeyed the dictates of all three classes of Puranas, those prescribing for lotus seat, those, prescribing goose, and those, prescribing peacock. The highly styled form of the bird almost mythicizes the bird giving it the look of a mythical bird. An excellent image, it observes both the basic parameters of a votive image as well as aestheticism, suiting the altar as well the drawing hall. Her figure has been conceived with a rounded face terminating in a pointed chin, meditative half shut lotus eyes, arched and prominently conceived eye-brows, sensuous lips, short neck, temptingly designed ‘stana-pata’ – breast-band, enhancing their magic, long arms, fine long fingers, subdued belly, a broadened waist, besides her ornaments and ‘antariya’ – the garment worn below the waist. In anatomical proportions, facial features and over-all modeling the statue is simply unique. The image appears to emit a melody, but not produced by her fingers playing on 'vina'; rather, it is born of the intense emotionality and life-vigour with which the image of the goddess seems to vibrate.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.