Priya Maholay-Jaradi (National University of Singapore) on The Flautist
For the first in our Expert Opinions series, we speak to Priya Maholay-Jaradi about a 10th century sandstone sculpture in the collection of the NUS Museum named Flautist.
Priya is course convenor for the Art History Minor, and a lecturer at the Department of History of the National University of Singapore. She has authored multiple books, including Parsi Portraits from the Studio of Raja Ravi Varma (2011), Baroda: A Cosmopolitan Provenance in Transition (2015) and Fashioning a National Art: Baroda's Royal Collection and Art Institutions (1875-1924) (2017).
Context & Significance
Priya Maholay-Jaradi (PMJ): This is a fine-grained sandstone sculpture, a flautist, as it has been titled. It is a 10th century piece, from Madhya Pradesh in Central India. There's an interesting personal connection there for me, because my father's side of the family hails from Madhya Pradesh. I have travelled around this belt and seen some of the most marvellous sacred and royal architectural monuments at: Khajuraho, Orchha, Gwalior, Maheshwar and Omkareshwar.
To give a little context to the provenance and time period of this sculpture — one finds prolific temple-building activity between the 8th to 13th centuries AD across the western, central and southern parts of India. I suppose that, like anywhere else in the world, if one considers the West-East arc of the global development of art, architecture has always been used as an expression of political might, the depth of one's treasury, or even simply, to mark territorial conquest. This increased temple-building was part of a period in Medieval Indian history where multiple dynasties come into play and assert their power and status.
Coming back to the central part of India, and particularly Madhya Pradesh, you might have heard of the Chandela dynasty. The Chandelas are associated with the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh, which sits in the popular imagination for their profusion of erotic sculptures. Different interpretations have been offered by scholars such as Devangana Desai and Shobita Punja about why erotic sculptures exist on a temple building, but that's a separate topic altogether. This particular sculpture of the flautist comes from the central Indian school of sculpting and temple-building, called the Nagara tradition.
Temples within the Khajuraho complex were built over a span of 60 – 100 years. This was due to the patronage of different rulers throughout the Chandela Dynasty. These temples have Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain affiliations and hence feature different presiding deities. For instance, within the Hindu temple complex, some temples have Shaivite affiliations whereas others display Vaishnavite links. What remains common to all of them is the female form, also identified as the apsara in Sanskrit.
The explanations for the presence of these apsaras on the temple walls can vary depending on the location of the temple, period, patrons and their respective court cultures.
One of the more common explanations provided by art historians is that the female form is seen as auspicious in South Asia. It is also a symbol of fertility. The female form has been around since pre and proto-historic times. If one looks at indigenous practices of worship before the grand Hindu or Buddhist traditions, one finds a strong presence of the Mother Goddess, as seen in the archaeological finds of the Indus Valley Civilization. So the female form is viewed and interpreted as a symbol of fertility, abundance and good luck in the South Asian context.
The second explanation which is advanced to explain the presence of the female form in sacred architecture— if one goes back to the Khajuraho temples and, in particular, the Laksmana Temple, one observes a great number of dancers and musicians adorning its walls. For example, there's one sculpture from this temple that features a dancer in conversation with her teacher or her guru. There's also a frieze of musicians who are in absolute ecstasy as they play instruments and sing. Sculptures such as these are seen as a celebration of the performing arts, of music and dance. The latter have been integral to the institution of temples and continue to be a part of the daily rituals and offerings to the Gods. We see regular dance and music routines in temples in Singapore too. Thus, sculptures such as the flautist could, quite literally, be a celebration of the performing arts and their devotional fervour.
Moreover, in Sanskritic tradition, classical texts or mythology, these semi-divine celestial beings called apsaras are the epitome of beauty and grace while also being proficient in the arts. This provides another possible explanation as to why the flautist would have been an appropriate motif to include in a temple structure.
PMJ: The placement of these sculptures also requires due consideration and attention. Many of these sculptures were part of a larger frieze which would have been placed at a higher level. Thus the apsaras appear to be floating in air; the idea of flight and gravity-defying movements are not uncommon.
The flautist has been depicted from the back. Prior to the 10th century, there weren't many examples of such sculptural compositions. The figure here strikes a very sensual pose as she plays the flute. In terms of her body type, both her overall form and individual features are poetic and idealised. Her eyes are elongated in a shape that looks similar to a fish or an almond. Her eyebrows are a perfect high arch. She has slender limbs. This idea of the idealised or poetic bodily form links back to the large tradition of Sanskrit literature, poetry and drama wherein the female form was made analogous to a variety of floral and faunal elements. Kalidasa remains the most popular poet of this grand tradition; the imagery created in his writings was vivid and beautiful. He wrote nearly four to five centuries prior to the period we are examining now.
For a long time, art and architectural historians have debated the links between textual traditions and the visual and plastic arts. It seems likely that other than the master architects, not every sculptor could access the texts which were written in classical Sanskrit, an elite, court language, and one that was accessible to the scribes and priests in the upper segments of the caste system vis a vis sculptors. However, what I like most about these sculptural forms is the shared aesthetic tradition which underpins their conception. It is evident that the court poet, dancer and sculptor were all aware of the ideal standards of beauty.
The flautist also flaunts a keen sense of fashion. Her hairstyle recalls, for me, the Ajanta Buddhist tradition of western India. The murals within the historic caves of Ajanta remain unmatched for their elegant style: elaborate hairdos, ornaments and headgear characterise the sacred and royal figures. Likewise, in the medieval Indian sculptural tradition, the feminine form comes adorned with a wide variety of ornaments, earrings, girdles, even the manner in which textiles are draped over the body varies.
I will return to the links between texts, sculptures and the feminine form briefly. In the context of the Chandela Dynasty, the kings supported men of letters and arts, much like the later Mughals. Many of these poets and writers thus had formal appointments at court and may have interacted with the master architects and designers. It is suggested that these architects were possibly translating some episodes from literary works into stone. I cannot speak for this particular sculpture of the flautist but will like to cite another example from Khajuraho here: a female figure is seen rinsing her hair and at the corner, a little goose stretches its neck out to drink up the droplets that fall from her locks. Art historians have identified this illustration in stone as a scene from the eminent court playwright Rajashekhara’s work, Karpuramanjari.
Inadvertently, these medieval Indian sculptures become great teaching tools for survey courses in art history. The flautist, its idealized body type and exaggerated flexions are a perfect contrast to the anatomically precise and natural Greek male forms. It evidences how naturalism per se is not the de facto benchmark across all cultures. There are different cultural and aesthetic standards when it comes to artistic output. A philosopher and ideologue, Ananda Coomaraswamy, was amongst the first to counter the idea of (European) naturalism as a universal yardstick to assess art. Coomaraswamy was writing when India was colonised. He explained Indian sculptures as examples of transcendence and spiritual beauty. He used classical texts, mythology and religion to illustrate the “different” context of Indian sculptural production and consumption.
I particularly enjoy walking my students through the intimate spaces of the Resource Gallery at the NUS Museum, because these sculptures provide a completely different mode of bodily representation and type.
PMJ: These sculptures from South Asia were part of a donation that was made in 1959 to, what was then, the University Museum. They were sent from Delhi, so our sense is that [Jawaharlal] Nehru, his ministers and bureaucrats had a crucial role to play in sending this donation over. It is also part of the post- Cold War, non-aligned position adopted by Nehru.
This donation marks the beginning of India-Singapore diplomatic ties within the context of museums; these cultural exchanges have continued until today in the form of several loans and donations of artefacts between India and Singapore. In 2015, the two countries celebrated the 50th year of formal diplomatic relations. The very same year, an exhibition opened at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. It displayed a large number of sculptures from the Kolkata Museum.