Comparing Indian Art: Siva with Attendants & Siva as a Music Teacher

All Siva’s are not created equal. By comparing two images of Siva, known as “the Creator” in the Hindu religion, from two different periods of Indian history, it is obvious that the stylistic variations can appear quite broad. While one image is very formal, static and idealized, another can be intensely naturalistic and full of movement and life. Two examples of the wide diversity of style in Indian religious art can be seen at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in “Siva with Attendants” ( 11th-12th c.) and “Siva as Music Teacher” (South India, 9-13th c.).

The overall impression given by “Siva with Attendants” is one of austere reverence for the god. The image of Siva dominates the composition, and its large size compared to the rest of the figures in the scene seems to convey its important role in the religion. The image is approximately four and a half feet tall and three feet wide, and its carved in high relief out of red sandstone. Figures are symmetrically stacked upon on another around the central image, and the top portion forms a triangular arrangement filled with other deities, including Brahma, Vishnu and other lesser gods. Once again, Siva dominates the composition as the most highly ornamented figure, while the other areas of this sculpture are much less defined or remain completely lacking in decoration.

Siva is the only figure in the greenish-brown cast bronze statue of “Siva as a Music Teacher.” This composition emphasizes movement, play of forms and natural depiction of the anthropomorphic figure. Siva stands on a twelve-inch diameter (approx.) hourglass shaped, lotiform base that is about three inches tall. The dancing figure of Siva is another twenty inches tall above the base and his four arms fill the space around it. The sculptor paid great attention to the proportion of base to figure and created an incredibly life-like pose simulating movement. Like the previous sculpture, Siva is highly ornamented with jewelry from head to toe, while the base is ornamented with a rather plain, low relief lotus design.

In the first sculpture, “Siva with Attendants,” hierarchy, symmetry, and the idealized form are the most dominant features. The base is rectilinear and devoid of ornamentation except for a bull (Nandi, Siva’s vehicle) on the central panel directly below Siva. On the next level, at Siva’s feet, there are six figures (three on each side), carved in high relief, with idealized facial features, physical traits and clothing carved in low relief. For the most part, their bodies are smooth and somewhat inarticulate. They are shown in a three-quarters view and are all facing the central figure of Siva. Play of light and shadow set them apart from the background, which, like the base is devoid of ornamentation. The base and these six figures fill the lower one-third portion of the composition. Above them, on each side of Siva, are one seated, four-armed figure (lesser deity?), an elephant, and a “mythical creature”[1] that appears to be similar to a Persian influenced lion. All of these forms are about shoulder level to the central figure. Positioned around the head of Siva, in the upper, triangular portion of the composition, are multiple seated, four armed figures. They are all carved in the same position (seated with the left leg crossing down in front of the right to create a repetitious pattern) with the same idealized bodies and facial features (wide, elliptical open eyes, a thin, narrow nose and full lips). Each figure is holding an item in two of their hands. One appears to be a mace or stick while the other is a curvilinear “S” shape, possibly depicting a snake. Two of these figures stand out. One figure in the upper left-hand corner is bearded, while the others are not, indicating that this is Brahma, “The Destroyer.” The other is carrying an item in his hand that is different than the others, but the details have been weathered away. However, its placement in the same position, but on the opposite side as the Brahma figure suggests that this is Vishnu, “the Preserver.” All of the above-discussed figures are presented very formally, in a frontal or three-quarter pose. They are all carved in relatively high relief, while the light ornamentation on their bodies (primarily consisting of facial features, little to no clothing, and hints of jewelry) are all carved in low relief. All of the figures are arranged symmetrically around the central figure and most are positioned facing Siva or in a way that directs the eye toward the Creator.

The central figure of Siva is located dead center in the composition. His huge figure dominates the piece and voids have been carved out of the stone to separate him visually from the rest of the scene. In fact, Siva’s body only comes in contact with the rest of the piece at his feet, head and shoulders. Siva’s face is highly stylized with ellipsoid eyes gazing straight out at the viewer. The other facial features are also idealized and bear only a basic resemblance to a naturalistic face. His headdress is highly ornamented and carved in high relief as are his earring that stretch the earlobes down-nearly to his shoulders. The idealized, broad shoulders and thin waist (lion shaped torso) is decorated with low relief carvings of pearl necklaces that flow symmetrically across the body and down into his exceedingly ornamented skirt. The arms are decorated with high relief armbands and low relief, plain, circular bracelets. In one hand Siva holds a string of pearls that wraps down around his legs, while in the other, he holds a pitcher or vase rich with patterned detail. His legs too are idealized and lack muscular definition-as does the rest of the piece. Behind Siva’s head, separating him from the rest of the deity figures is a lotus inscribed in a sun. Again there are voids carved out between the petals creating a visual boundary around the central figure. The entire piece, from his attendants to Siva himself, is austere, serene and static, somewhat reminiscent of the Buddhist sculpture from Mathura during the Kushan era of early first century CE.

In the second sculpture, “Siva as a Music Teacher,” many of the characteristics of the Siva image discussed above are transformed and altered into a much more naturalistic, organic style representative of much later Indian sculpture. Comparing the plain, circular bracelets and anklets to the pearl necklaces and more decorative, high relief carvings of Siva’s armbands, skirt and elaborate headdress, of both sculptures, there are few differences between them. However, the primary contrasting elements occur in the treatment of the anthropomorphic form of the figure as well as the asymmetrical composition. This sculpture seems almost alive with its arms and legs radiating out from the body in a dance-like pose. In one hand, Siva holds an ax, in another, he holds a leaping antelope or deer, and the third and fourth hands are positioned as though Siva is playing a vina (a lute-like instrument).[2] This figure is carved in the round with almost equal attention paid to the rear of the figure (including a large, detailed lotus on the back of the neck) as that of the front. Siva’s body is naturalistic and presented an a relaxed, informal way that contrasts greatly with the highly stylized, formal presentation of “Siva with Attendants.” The body type is not as muscular and natural as the Buddhist sculpture from Gandhara during the Kushan era, but its life-like form is beginning to take on some of these characteristics. The treatment of the face is especially indicative of this. It is closer to a depiction of an individual rather than an idealized portrait of perfection. This figure has full lips, a large nose and closed eyes. Its earlobes are long and the ear looks much more realistic than that of the first sculpture. Overall, there is an impression of playfulness and life in this image that is not present in the first, representing an advancement of Indian art in this later sculpture.

Both sculptures deal with the same subject, the Hindu God Siva. The first piece appears to have been removed from a wall or niche of a Hindu temple. Its purpose, with its widely opened eyes, was probably for a Hindu to worship in front of and to “see and be seen” thereby receiving the darsan of Siva from his image.[3] The backside is not carved and the weathering of the piece suggests that it has been exposed to the elements for an extended period of time-perhaps on the exterior of a temple. The second piece has survived much more intact, suggesting that it was kept safe from the erosive effects of nature. According to Professor Bogel, it was used primarily for festivals, where it would be bathed in milk, variously colored pigments, sandalwood, then covered in flowers (and perhaps clothes) then carried through the Hindu procession.[4] Perhaps the reason for this procession was also to receive the darsan from the image of Shiva. Whatever their religious purposes were, today they help bring to light the widely varying sculptural styles and iconography of Hindu art.

[1] This information was recorded on the label shown with the statue at the Seattle Asian Art Museum 1/18/2003.

[2] This information was recorded on the label shown with the statue at the Seattle Asian Art Museum 1/18/2003.

[3] Eck, Diana L. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in , Third Edition.New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

[4] Bogel, Cynthea J. University of Washington. Seattle Asian Art Museum. Seattle. 18 Jan. 2003.

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