There is no doubt that sculpture has always existed as one of the oldest art forms today. In a historically rich subcontinent such as India, sculpture has played an integral role in shaping the essence behind the traditional visuals of India. For every historical movement that occurred in the subcontinent, sculpture has been the most obvious means of expressing the socio-cultural nuances that kept altering with time. It is interesting to note that sculptures of India act as forerunners when it comes to understanding the social construct of the society at large.
The Advent of Sculpture within the Subcontinent
Sculpture as an art form has always reflected profoundly on the rich culture and heritage that India celebrates. With the diversity of multiple religions that exist in the subcontinent, it is no surprise that the sculptural diversity is also visually evident across the country. With expert traditional craftsmanship and durability that has lasted for years, there are a few sculptures that stand out the most for their distinct qualities.
One of the first sculptures that can be discussed are the infamous Ashoka Pillars. A series of columns that are strewn across India, they are arguably one of the most repetitive examples of traditional sculptures of India. Initiated during the reign of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, these monolithic columns are the earliest known sculptural remains in India. The pillars were a symbol of the Buddhist faith, and the respective location of each pillar represents the ‘axis mundi’ (the axis on which the earth spins). In other words, the pillars were iconic monumental structures that spoke of the regime’s desire to spread their religion across their capsized lands.
The most celebrated of Ashokan pillars is the one erected at Sarnath. The site is not only symbolic as the first place where Buddha is supposedly said to have delivered his very first sermon but, the iconic symbol of the 4 Lions is now the national emblem of India. It is also depicted on the national currency, which reinstates the fact that sculptural art has a more profound visual impact on the masses for various reasons apart from just aesthetic pleasure.
The Sanchi Stupa
The Sanchi Stupa is another fascinating sculptural icon of India that stands out due to its magnified scale and overall aesthetics. Again, used primarily as a religious symbol, this stupa stands out because of its sculptural feel. Acclaimed as a traditional Indian visual, the dome covering the stupa alongside the pillars that are embellished with symbolic creatures leading into the space creates an ethereal feel, the same impact perhaps which Ashoka wanted to invoke in his followers through a religious sculptural symbol.
The Ajanta Caves
Since sculpture has the quality of being able to exceed the two-dimensional limitation of art, in history it can be seen to have been used more for its ephemeral value by the Kings and Rulers of the past. This can again be observed in the form of the Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. While the main purpose was to glorify Buddha’s life, it can be argued that they served to be an integral archaeological sensation that preserved several frescos that solely preserve India’s rich heritage. The caves harbor ceiling paintings which have inspired future artists in the subcontinent as well.
Considered to be a heritage site that served as a learning platform in the past, these caves hold the same value as symbols of traditional visuals of India as perhaps was served by the frescoes of Pompeii. Today its sculptural beauty has amassed it to be a UNESCO recognized heritage site and a hotspot for tourists from across the world.
Traditional Indian Visuals- a step forward
Sculptures can reflect their place, society, and time. As a traditional visual of India, it is an important art form that not only acts as a vehicle for social change but leaves a lasting impact that can affect society at large. Coming towards sculptural forms in India that were not used as public displays of power and authority but the ruling classes, after the 18th century sculpture in India denoted itself as a more self-expressive art form.
Although it may be argued that Indian artists by far and large have always been fascinated and inspired by religion and characters from Hindu mythology, the artists who began to emerge as contemporary sculptors were able to experiment with the symbolism and impression behind traditional sculptural forms and present them to the masses in a more abstract manner.
Ramkinkar Baji is the ‘Father of Modern Indian Sculpture’. His spontaneous work highlighted his efforts to give more diverse imagery to the otherwise canonized ideology of traditional Indian sculptures. Using cement sculptures instead of the previously made sculptures of plaster, he was able to create many types of abstract sculptures which experimented with minimalism and geometric abstraction (Dhoomimal Gallery). One of his notable works is the colossal sculpture titled ‘Yaksha Yakshi’ at The Reserve Bank of India Headquarters in Delhi.
It can be argued that art can influence social nuances and opinions of the masses, but sculpture on the other hand has the unique quality to network ideas and articulate subjectivities into communities, a powerful tool that has been utilized over time within the subcontinent throughout several dynasties that have formulated the face of traditional Indian visuals today.
Ramkinkar Baij. Yakhsha Yakshi. Wikiwand, 2021. [Photograph]
Indian Child. Lion Capital, Ashokan Pillar at Sarnath.2021. [Photograph]