In search of expression

Since 3900 BC,Indian art has been expressed with voluptuous feelings through celestial apsaras to Ajanta frescos

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published:October 6, 2013 12:20 am

Since 3900 BC,Indian art has been expressed with voluptuous feelings through celestial apsaras to Ajanta frescos

Through art I’ve imbibed a certain familiarity in smoothly reading human character. My alma mater,Kolkata’s Government College of Art,was established by the British in 1854 with “the purpose of teaching industrial art based on scientific methods to youth of all classes”. As a student there in the ’70s,I was sent next door to the Indian Museum to study ancient Indian sculptures. Since 3900 BC,Indian art has been expressed with voluptuous feelings through celestial apsaras to Ajanta frescos,Mughal miniatures to folk and tribal art.

But when we had to draw the nude figure in class,my craftsmanship automatically shifted to European art. That required perfection in anatomical drawing,accuracy of human figures,nature or still life. Somehow,my artistic hunger felt incomplete in this expression of realism. I was unsure of where I was headed until I suddenly discovered unrealistic disruption in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in the library. Simultaneously,unlike before the Renaissance era,the artist’s personality was being given an identity. Such artistic disruption appealed to me so much that I headed for France without finishing my course,with just $8 that my mother could muster up,in search of disruptive expression of Western art.

Since prehistoric times,art has been intertwined with religion. Europe’s oldest discovered cave art in northern Spain’s El Castillo cave is over 40,800 years old. Paintings of large animals drawn 17,300 years ago were found in France’s Lacaux caves. That’s why behavioural modernity goes back 50,000 years. They started practising art and music,growing and cooking food,playing games,burying the dead,making fine tools and becoming conscious of personal beauty and artistic decoration.

Every religion has used art to propagate its faith. Artistic embellishments portrayed belief in god’s power over humans. The Indus Valley civilisation from 3300 to 1300 BC has inference of religious art in swastikas and Shiva-Pashupati seals found in the sophisticated,advanced urban remains of the Harappan period. Sacred art of Sunni Muslims prohibits representation,so you will find highly evolved calligraphy and ornamentation. Buddhist art of 6th century BC has tantric symbols and Buddha images. Chinese art dates 10,000 BC,but was later influenced by Confucianism,Taoism and Buddhism. Ancient Egyptian Nile valley art from 5000 BC to 300 AD was highly stylised and symbolic,veering around pharaohs,who were regarded as gods. Even the Mayan civilisation from 1500 BC to 1500 AD had art which intimately served a religious purpose.

Christian art from 70 AD wanted to tangibly illustrate religious principles. Western art evolution has 13 broad movements starting from 7th century BC. Centered around the Mediterranean Sea,these art movements are Byzantine,Medieval,Gothic,Renaissance,Baroque,Rococo,Neo-classicism,early modern period,modern art,graphic art,street graffiti and digital art. The Renaissance period saw famous artworks in Italy such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel,Bernini’s huge column of St Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Then the 16th century religious Reformation movement divided Christianity into Roman Catholics in southern Europe and Protestants in northern Europe. This fragmented the art world too. Artists who followed Protestantism,which espoused that humans are perfect because god created man in his own image,started painting individual common people in moralistic day-to-day life and nature-scapes.

Western Europe’s spectacular masterstroke has been to bring the art movement beyond religious boundaries. Society today places high value on artistic skill,viewing art as the ultimate form of self-expression,creating controversies with it,using visual art ideations to conquer nature and inspire inventions. Art’s never-ending contribution in multiple domains of everyday living drives distinction in the contemporary world. It gives non-restrictive shape for people to imagine beyond what they see.

Design,as expressed from Latin designare,means to mark out. Through the window of art,we can find that all religions have a strong common design thread; their prayer structures have an elevated,high-rise form. You’ll see them in holy structures such as Hindu temples,Islamic mosques,Christian churches,American Indian prayer totems,Egyptian pyramids,Buddhists stupas,among others. It’s possible that religion has emerged either from venerating the means of survival such as animal or nature worship,or from worshipping what’s feared,not understood,or outside the realm of human control. So god being somewhere beyond the sky gets expressed through monumental religious architecture.

Different religions display distinctive architecture as artistic design. Take the world’s oldest known temple which was built 11,600 years ago. It’s Göbekli Tepe,the archaeological site in Turkey,atop a mountain. If you see its 200 colossal limestone pillars with carvings of creatures like snakes,gazelles,foxes,scorpions and angry wild boars,you’ll wonder how in those days when wheel carts did not exist,they had the fervour and commitment to build this temple. From ancient times,religious monuments have had fantastic,artistic architectural design that expresses distinctive religious ideas.

Western Europeans later transformed art in design to a usable form so that designs could benefit society. Religious monument design had the emotive factor of aesthetics and the rational stability factor for sustainability. That’s why these architectural structures survived several centuries.

Significantly,from the da Vinci era,Western design started to pay heed to the functional aspect of having usage advantage. So when the Church freed human expression in the arts,science and literature from the 17th century,the functionality of design was explored in an incredible way. Initially,the advantage of design was manual. Subsequently,mechanical motorisation came to provide functional benefits to avoid human effort,followed by electronic inventions and now modern-day digital innovations. These inventions are reducing our exertion and increasing our comfort,so we enjoy a life of ease today,more than the people in past centuries did.

Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (www.shiningconsulting.com)

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