This excellent piece of wood-carving represents a maiden dancing enrapt with a mirror in hand under an arch – the traditional ‘prabhavali’, consisting of flower-fruits laden vines symbolic of the mythical forest, the resort of ethereal beings : young sportive males and females of celestial origin, the themes of many early literary classics and abundant sculptures. Constituting bracket figures or images used for adorning façades, statues like those of Vraksha-yakshi, Shala-bhanjika …, one leaning on a branch of tree, while other, holding it to break, have been the most popular components of early Indian architecture, such as the bracket-figures at the Sanchi stupa, a third century BC structure.
Aesthetics of medieval era developed the doctrine that ultimate beauty not only tempted others but also enthralled oneself. In pursuance there emerged in medieval sculptures a number of forms of self-contained beauty – enjoying fully absorbed one’s own beauty and youth. Hence, there emerged forms like those of the maidens watching her beauty in a mirror, tying fully absorbed an anklet on her feet, or braiding her hair among others. Immensely popular these statues representing nymphs brimming with youthful vigour and with such beauty as enthralls even themselves – themes widely represented in early medieval sculptures at sites like Khajuraho and Konark, presented a new perception of beauty and youthfulness. A transform of the theme this wood statue is a rare synthesis of the medieval cult of mirror-holding nymph and the ancient cult of mythical Yakshi. It takes from the former the perception of mesmeric beauty and self-absorption, and from the latter, the idea of its romantic milieu that the fire-arch symbolizes.
The statue, a masterpiece by some South Indian wood-carver, has been chiseled out of a single piece of Bangai wood, one of the finest kinds of timber from Karakorchi region in South. Moth resistant neither too hard nor too soft Bangai is ideal for carving and has been in use for temple carving for generations of South Indian wood carvers known for ingenuity, minuteness of details, rare finish, unbelievable precision and great sculptural beauty. The statue represents the nymph with divine beauty dancing enrapt perhaps for her own delight or to add to the ambience beauty and rhythm and thereby the life and vigour. Her mystic beauty and unearthly charm which a kind of divine serenity and celestial poise, enshrining upon her face, further sublimate, is the essence of this piece. A blend of two art forms, dance and sculpture, one, its theme, and other, its diction, the statue is unique in its modeling, plasticity, anatomical proportions and above all, in its ability to breathe rhythm and the desired ‘bhava’ – sentiment or emotion.
The figure of the celestial nymph has been chiseled dancing inside a beautifully conceived ‘prabhavali’ – fire-arch. The ‘prabhavali’ rises to its circular apex from a rectangular base, a moulding carved with conventionalized lotus design. Though supported on two vertical columns, one on either side, it has on the bottom on the left a tiny female figure engaged in dance while playing on her lyre, and on the right, a tiny deer lifting its face towards the nymph in appreciation of her beauty. The form of a stump on the right suggests that the vines or the tree that constitute ‘prabhavali’ grow on the right. Characteristic to the tradition, it consists of stylized curved leaves, fruits and flowers, and parrots, peacocks and monkeys scattered all over. The enshrining Yakshi is the model of the ultimate beauty. Her mirror holding right arm carrying in it a circular mirror, partially folded, inclines back to the shoulder; the left is a bit straightened, both corresponding to the moves of her dance. The figure inherits its iconography, especially the style of cladding and jewelry, from the sculptures in Helabidu temple.
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.