Sculpture is the language of shapes as music is the language of sounds. Since the dawn of civilisation, man has made things in clay–from earthen vessels for use, to idols for worship. To make gods and heroes, to commemorate great deeds, to embellish his architecture, to record his doings and feelings, man has cut and carved stone. He has modelled clay for the same purpose. The sculptor, whether Indian or Western, still uses these materials to express his thoughts. He models in clay or wax, which is called the plastic method. He carves in stone, wood and other material which is called the glyptic method. In the plastic approach the sculptor applies piece upon piece of clay or wax until he makes a designed shape. In the glyptic approach he starts with a mass of material and cuts it away piece by piece until he arrives at his design. These, the only two ways of making sculpture, are also known respectively as modelling and carving. Whatever new materials may in the future be discovered or invented, they could only be used by the sculptor to mould or carve, for these are the twin methods of communicating the language of form.


The foundation of all art among the ancients was more or less religious, and sculpture was employed in spiritual service. The Egyptians, forefathers of art, were sensible of the grandeur of mere mass and hugeness; and therefore made their effigies colossal. Their works are great by mere force of monotony and vastness. Indian sculpture strives to realise something of the universal, the Eternal and the Infinite. The Hindu artist believes that the highest type of beauty must be sought after, not in the imitation or selection of human or natural forms, but in the endeavour to suggest something finer and more subtle than ordinary physical beauty. Mere bodily strength and mundane perfection of form are rarely glorified in Indian sculpture. The sculptor models a representation of the Deity with an attenuated waist and abdomen and suppresses all the smaller anatomical details so as to obtain an extreme simplicity, eliminating individual traits. He is not ignorant of anatomy but wants to create a subtle type of beauty in accordance with his ethical and philosophical notions, which can only be reached by the surrender of worldly desires. Thus it is that Indian art is essentially idealistic, mystic, symbolic and transcendental.


The Hindu religion forbids indulgence in the choice of transitory subjects for artistic rendering. The highly philosophic temperament of the Hindu never considers anything mundane as a fit subject for the devotion of human energy in any form. “The Artist” says Sukracharya, “should attain to the images of gods by means of spiritual contemplation only. The spiritual vision is the best and truest standard for him. He should depend upon it, and not at all upon the visible objects perceived by external senses. It is always commendable to draw the images of gods. To make human figures is bad and even irreligious. It is far better to present the figure of a god, though it is not beautiful, than to reproduce a remarkably handsome human figure.” Thus spiritual contemplation is the keynote of Hindu sculpture.


Hindu philosophy clearly recognises the impossibility of human art realising the form of God. It is the spiritual and mystic facets of art that receive immense emphasis and religious sanction in India. Indian sculpture is therefore a representation in stone or metal of the spiritual and mystic vision of the artist. Gods and goddesses are the mystic creations of devotees and what the mystic poet sings in verse and the mystic painter draws with paint and brush, the mystic sculptor chisels in stone and casts in metal. They are idealised representations of what are universally accepted as divine attributes.


All sublime and great art is based on convention and suggestion. The disposition of hands in the images or worship signifying various ‘mudras’, conveys high ethical ideas, the import of which is based on the concepts of religion, philosophy and attributes of Divinity. Definite rules for the production of sculptural objects in consonance with Hindu religious beliefs were laid down in ancient times in the Neeti-satras and Silpa-sastras. Images should conform to the prescribed types when they are intended as objects of worship. The ancient civilisation of Mahenjadaro reveals the fact that the predecessors of the Aryans were excellent sculptors, architects and builders. The ancient sculpture, as revealed in the excavations, speaks of the marvellous skill of the sculptors who modelled effigies in clay and in terra-cota.


It is possible that sometime during the Pre-Buddhist period ‘Shadanga’ or ‘six limbs of painting’ were evolved, a series of canons laying down the first principles of art in the 3rd century B.C. These are ‘Rupabheda’ (knowledge of appearance) ‘Pramana’ (correct perception, measure and structure), ‘Bhava’ (action of feelings on forms), ‘Lavanya Yojanam’ (infusion of grace, artistic representation, ‘Sadrisyam’ (similitude), ‘Varnikabhanga’ (artistic manner of using the brush and colours). They are an interesting study and reveal a vast spiritual background besides a wealth of technical knowledge which the ancient sculptors and painters followed.


The Puranas, the Neeti-sastras and Silpa-sastras of ancient origin, inculcate rules for the making of images. They state that images worshipped may be in three forms (1) Satvika (2) Rajasika and (3) Tamasika. The worshipper chooses each of these forms to suit his own purpose of worship. (1) The images of Satvika type have their eyes fixed on the tip of the nose as in meditation; they should be posed straight and unbending, the hands so displayed as if offering blessings and courage to devotees. (2) The Rajasika type of images are seated on some ‘Vahana’ or conveyance, decked with ornaments, have two hands furnished with arms and weapons and the other two hands offering blessings and courage. (3) The Tamasika type are in action, killing demons with arms and weapons, having a ferocious and vehement look and appear eager for warfare. There are also rules with regard to seats, Vahanas or conveyances, colours, postures, symbolic weapons which vary according to the image that is conceived whether it be in a fighting or blessing attitude. However, one can safely assent that ancient and medieval sculptors, while constructing images, paid particular attention to proportion, measurements and other accessories that were laid down in the sastras.


Here we may compare Hellenic sculpture with Indian sculpture. The Greeks, the Romans and others who followed the Greek ideal in sculpture, often desisted from delineation of transitory sentiments or passions. The Greeks built up their immortal art on the eternal principles of physical beauty and perfection. Endowed with an instinctive sense of grace and harmony, they moulded their statuary upon the eternal and immutable laws of nature. Profound in their knowledge of the human figure, they saw that sculpture might be properly employed as a vehicle of instruction and example. Having raised statues to their gods, whose serene beauty appealed to the intelligence of men and struck awe into their hearts, they next immortalised their heroes of war and peace by their sculpture, and thus inspired their youth to noble deeds of valour and self-devotion and kindled in their hearts a love of wisdom, virtue and patriotism. But Indian sculpture has its centre and source in religion: the sculptor is concerned with the representation of eternal verities. The transient has little attraction for him. He is anxious to give symbolic representation of the universal and to the fundamental, without paying any attention to physical beauty. He dives deeper and seeks to establish communion between the invisible mystery of the divine and the visible reality of the human. He is, in a sense, a sculptural interpreter of the divine, a philosopher in stone.


Another important feature of Indian art is its ‘idealism’ which is based on ‘Sadrisyam’ or similitude. The artist has borrowed elements of beauty from other objects of nature and most dexterously applied them in his art. Thus in Indian art the different parts of the human body are compared to creepers or flowers, or any particular limb is compared to the beauty of curvature of a particular animal. The fingers of the human body are compared to champaka flower, the body to a tender creeper, the palm of the hand to a full-blown lotus, the face to a full moon or egg, eyes to a lotus petal, nose to a ‘til’ flower or the beak of a parrot, lips to the juicy red fruits of a pomegranate, neck to that of a swan, waist to that of a lion and legs and thighs to a plantain trunk and so on, thus emphasising the undercurrent of unity of life and divinity of nature. In the convention of Indian art, the tiniest part is skilfully compared to some other familiar object, based on similitude. This the ancients did to emphasise beauty, so that every part of the work might display the concentrated beauty of its own. No Western artist has ever dreamt of visualising and depicting every part of his composition so distinctly. Thus a maiden sculptured by an Indian sculptor is recognizable as a maiden, but she is not exactly what a maiden in flesh and blood looks like. It would be an ideally beautiful, a celestial maiden, the exact replica of whom could never be found in actual life.


Indian sculpture has also another important and distinct aspect. It deals with generalisations: individuality is suppressed and the emphasis is on the type. It shows in its development an over-emphasis of decorative detail, but it never becomes subservient to nature. Although, after Alexander’s conquest, Greek art made inroads to India, it brought about only a superficial imitation of natural appearances. But the Indian spirit reasserted itself and gradually threw off the foreign influence. Again Indian sculpture is often characterized by an extraordinary feeling for rhythm. Not only does the Indian sculptor love to reproduce in stone the actual surface and texture of the flesh, but also he is interested in making a design from the undulating and yielding movements of the body. He can twist the torso to any angle and relate the limbs to the trunk in any possible pose to express movement for rythmic effect and grace.


The plastic art of Orissa between the 7th and 14th centuries, under the patronage of the Ganga and Kesari dynasties–known as the golden age of Orissan art envisaged in the temples of Bhubaneswar, Puri and Konark–seems to possess the characteristic, symbolic and mystic facets that have been typified in the great schools of sculpture of Ellora, Borobodur, Amaravati, Barhut and Sanchi. Orissa standing for centuries on the border of North and South, seems to have freely imbibed the best characteristics of both, but belonging wholly to neither. In sculpture and in all form of art, Orissa shows a definite mixture of the North and South. The North always uses the human figure in her decorative motifs; while the South attempts to specialize in decorative design without figure work. The general characteristic of Orissan glyptic art is a mixture in which both figure and design are used in the decorative motifs. Numerous examples can be seen in the temples of Mukteswar (Bhubaneswar) Raja Rani (Bhubaneswar) and the Surya-deval at Konark.


Orissa in most of her icons, adopts, ‘Atibhanga’ the extreme form of ‘Tribhanga’. Indian images are generally posed, (1) straight (‘Samabhanga’), (2) a slight flexion (‘Abhanga’) or (3) ‘Tribhanga’ (three flexions) and (4) ‘Atibhanga’ (extreme flexion). In ‘Samabhanga’ the figure is poised firmly on both legs without inclining in any way either to the right or to the left. Images of Buddha, Surya (sun) and Vishnu are generally made to follow this scheme of rigid vertical symmetry. In ‘Abhanga’ the upper half of the figure is made to incline slightly towards its right side or to the left side. The figures of holy men are given this slight inclination. In ‘Tribhanga’ there are three flexions; the centre line passes through the left or right pupil, the middle of the chest, the left or right side of the navel, down to the heels. Figures like Vishnu or Surya with attending figures of Saktis are usually made of this type. ‘Atibhanga’ is an emphasised form of the ‘Tribhanga’, the sweep of the ‘Tribhanga’ curve being considerably enhanced. This type is usually seen in Siva’s dance and very often followed by the sculptors of Orissa. Several female effigies on the temples of Orissa, mostly in Bhubaneswar and in some parts of Mayurbhanj State, are posed in ‘Atibhanga’, giving the torso an attenuated accent because the torso is the most beautiful part in female form. Besides in all the Orissan type of icons, we find a particular type of wearing the hair; great accuracy of detail in ornamentation and the waist covered with pearl-like beads, is displayed with striking effect. In most of the female figures, the lower part of the body is thinly covered with cloth, arranged in decorative design, while the flowing ornaments of the neck are nicely poised between the breasts. These are some of the individual traits of Orissan art which conform to the methods and ideals of Indian sculpture and at the same time exhibit traits that are peculiar to itself.


The earliest mediaeval sculpture is characterised by naturalism, perfect equipoise combined with a very high standard of idealistic excellence. These qualities are portrayed in the sculpture of Buddha, in Bhumisparsamudra (the hand touching the earth) found in the caves of Lalitagiri and Udayagiri, which the Jains have carved out in about the 8th century B.C. and which were the monasteries of the Buddhist and Jain priests. The sculptures existing on Lingaraj temple, the Raja Rani, the Mukteswar at Bhubaneswar, all prove the high standard of plastic art reached by Orissan artists. In the expression of the face, the modelling of the torso and schematic arrangement of the locks of long hair over the shoulder, indicate the high stage of plastic art reached by Orissan artists. They seem to have followed their own standard of idealism in chiselling divine and semi-divine forms, and at the same time copied nature when it was required. In the Raja Rani temple (built in the Indo-Aryan style) at Bhubaneswar, human figures used in decoration are perhaps the finest. In chastity of design, poise of execution and sense of proportion these figures are unrivalled. The walls of those temples at Bhubaneswar worked in low relief or half relief, depict kings with their queens and nobles, war marches of the victorious royal army. There are hermits and sages doing penance and worship; the musicians use a variety of musical instruments, the dancing girls exhibit unique poses in consonance with Bharat Natya Sastra. The soldiers use the traditional war weapons such as bows and arrows, swords, daggers, javelins and spears. Chariots, elephants and horses are the main wartime conveyances. These Orissan sculptors seldom missed representation of birds, beasts and especially elephants and lions. The Sun temple at Konark called the ‘black pagoda’ on the banks of the Chandrabhaga, facing the sea, is the embodiment of marvellous supreme artistic skill of the sculptors. For artistic splendour dignified structure, jewellery like ornamentation and in the grouping of figures in artistic composition, the workmanship is unrivalled. This temple enriched with countless images and idols, is the veritable repository of Hindu epics and mythology, religious philosophy and erotic imagination. This temple contains figures with high polished ornaments, bas reliefs pilasters and pillars, human figures and a set of twelve, wheels on the ratha. There are dancing figures engraved on the spokes of the wheels with highly ornate design. These carvings consist of two classes: (1) standing figures in high relief, and (2) decorations carved out of the body of the structure, such as Naga pillars, female figures and geometrical patterns. In one of the entrances there is the effigy of Sun God riding on horse back. The spirited pose of the horse and the restless energy of the rider are well brought out.


Thus mediaeval and ancient sculpture in India is a blend of art and religion, of the transitory and the permanent, of the human and the divine, It is essentially mystic and symbolic; it is not only based on religion but is the very essence of it.