The first chapter of the letterpress deals with the legendary origins of South Indian art. It is interesting and valuable, but there are some startlingly confident statements against which our critical sense protests. For instance, “it is beyond doubt that the two divisions of the country indicated by the Vindhya ranges were occupied by people essentially different in blood and temperament.” Surely the important theories which hold the whole Indian race to be Dravidian in blood or, without assigning either an “Aryan” or “non-Aryan” origin, believe it to be homogeneous—omitting some islander types on the southern coast and the Mongoloid races of the Himalaya,—cannot be so lightly dismissed. The question is full of doubt and obscurity. The one thing that seems fairly established is that there were at least two types of culture in ancient India, the “Aryan” occupying the Punjab and Northern and Central India, Afghanistan and perhaps Persia and distinguished in its cult by the symbols of the Sun, the Fire and the Soma sacrifice, and the un-Aryan occupying the East, South and West, the nature of which it is quite impossible to restore from the scattered hints which are all we possess.
Again we are astonished to observe that Mr. Gangoly seems to accept the traditional attribution of the so-called Agastya Shastras to the Vedic Rishi of that name. The quotations from these books are in classical Sanskrit of a fairly modern type, certainly later than the pre-Christian era though Mr. Gangoly on quite insufficient grounds puts them before Buddha. It is impossible to believe that they are the work of the Rishi, husband of Lopamudra, who composed the great body of hymns in an archaic tongue that close the first Mandala of the Rig Veda. Nor can we accept the astonishing identification of the Puranic Prajapati, Kashyapa, progenitor of creatures, with the father of the Kanada who founded the Vaisheshika philosophy. It distresses us to see Indian inquirers with their great opportunities simply following in the path of certain European scholars, accepting and adding to their unstable fantasies, their huge superstructures founded on weak and scattered evidence and their imaginative “history” of our prehistoric ages. There is better and sounder work to be done and Indians can do it admirably as Mr. Gangoly himself has shown in this book; for the rest of the work, where he has not to indulge in these obiter dicta, is admirable and flawless. There is a sobriety and reserve, a solidity of statement and a sort of sparing exhaustiveness which make it quite the best work of the kind we have yet come across. The chapters on the Shilpashastra and the review of the distribution of Shaivite and other work in Southern India are extremely interesting and well-written and the last brief chapter of criticism is perfect both in what it says and what it refrains from saying.
Mr. Gangoly’s collection of plates, 94 in number, illustrates Southern work in bronze in all its range. It opens with a fine Kalasamhara and a number of Dancing Shivas, the characteristic image of the Shaivite art, and contains a great variety of figures; there are among them some beautiful images of famous Shaivite bhaktas. A few examples of Vaishnava art are also given. In a collection so ample and so representative it is obvious that there must be a good deal of work which falls considerably below the best, but the general impression is that of a mass of powerful, striking and inspired creations. And throughout there is that dominant note which distinguishes Indian art from any other whether of the Occident or of the Orient. All characteristic Oriental art indeed seeks to go beyond the emotions and the senses; a Japanese landscape of snow and hill is as much an image of the soul as a Buddha or a flame-haired spirit of the thunderbolt. Nature will not see herself there as in a mirror, but rather herself transformed into something wonderfully not herself which is yet her own deeper reality. But still there is a difference, and it seems to lie in this that other Oriental art, even though it goes beyond the external, usually remains in the cosmic, in the limits of Prakriti, but here there is a perpetual reaching beyond into something absolute, infinite, supernatural, the very ecstasy of the Divine. Even in work not of the best finish or most living inspiration there is this touch which gives it a greatness beyond its actual achievement; rarely indeed does the statuary fall into mere technique or descend entirely into the physical and external.
It is this tendency, as the author well explains, which causes and in a sense justifies the recoil and incomprehension of the average Occidental mind; for it comes to Art with a demand for the satisfaction of the senses, the human emotions, the imagination moving among familiar things. It does not ask for a god or for a symbol of the beyond, but for a figure admirably done with scrupulous fidelity to Nature and the suggestion of some vision, imagination, feeling or idea well within the normal range of human experience. (This was the traditional standpoint, the view of Art dominant at the time of writing but, though it still survives, it is no longer dominant. Art and aesthetics in Europe have swung round to an opposite extreme.) The Indian artist deliberately ignores all these demands. His technique is perfect enough; he uses sculptural line with a consummate mastery, often with an incomparable charm, grace and tenderness. The rhythm and movement of his figures have a life and power and perfection which conveys a deeper reality than the more intellectualised and less purely intuitive symmetries and groupings of the European styles. But these bodies are not, when we look close at them, bronze representations of human flesh and human life, but forms of divine life, embodiments of the gods. The human type is exceeded, and if sometimes one more subtly and psychically beautiful replaces it, at other times all mere physical beauty is contemptuously disregarded.
What these artists strive always to express is the soul and those pure and absolute states of the mind and heart in which the soul manifests its essential being void of all that is petty, transient, disturbed and restless. In their human figures it is almost always devotion that is manifested; for this in the Shaiva and Vaishnava religions is the pure state of the soul turned towards God. The power of the artist is extraordinary. Not only the face, the eyes, the pose but the whole body and every curve and every detail aid in the effect and seem to be concentrated into the essence of absolute adoration, submission, ecstasy, love, tenderness which is the Indian idea of bhakti. These are not figures of devotees, but of the very personality of devotion. Yet while the Indian mind is seized and penetrated to the very roots of its being by this living and embodied ecstasy, it is quite possible that the Occidental, not trained in the same spiritual culture, would miss almost entirely the meaning of the image and might only see a man praying.
The reason becomes evident when we study the images of the gods. These deities are far removed indeed from the Greek and the Christian conceptions; they do not live in the world at all, but in themselves, in the infinite. The form is, as it were, a wave in which the whole ocean of being expresses itself. The significance varies; sometimes it is unfathomable thought, sometimes the self restraint of infinite power, sometimes the self-contained oceanic surge of divine life and energy, sometimes the absolute immortal ecstasy. But always one has to look not at the form, but through and into it to see that which has seized and informed it. The appeal of this art is in fact to the human soul for communion with the divine Soul and not merely to the understanding, the imagination and the sensuous eye. It is a sacred and hieratic art, expressive of the profound thought of Indian philosophy and the deep passion of Indian worship. It seeks to render to the soul that can feel and the eye that can see the extreme values of the suprasensuous.
Sri Aurobindo (Early Cultural Writings)