Artists: Notes on Art Making

He became corresponding in form to all form,

It is his form that appears as creation.

Brihadamyaka Upanishad 2.5.19

Art is an allegory of creation. It is always an example, as a mortal is a cosmic example. Paul Klee. For centuries Indian art has gathered within its fold a flood of artistic imagery drawing from the classical mainstream, tribal and indigenous traditions and far distant sources. Even the fury of invasions that sought to destroy the existent culture only served as a renewed impulse to artistic creation. By the end of the nineteenth century, Indian art had formulated a new synthesis in which several eclectic traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina, Islamic, British, tribal and village could exist concurrently without effacing one another. Despite the bewildering variety of expressions, Indian art has been primarily recognized by its wealth of anthropomorphic images. Icons with multiple heads and arms, monumental temples embellished with lilting sculptures, carefree figures of flying of gandharvas and slender apsaras, the pure and delicate modelling of Gandhara Buddha, wrapt in self-absorbed meditation and lissome human figures of Pahari and Rajput miniatures are but a few epoch-less representations that live in memory. These examples illustrate but one dimension of Indian artistic expression. Another thread of Hindu iconographic art 'unites sacred geometry with aesthetics. Alongside the profusion of iconic anthropomorphism there lay a tradition of aniconic representations. The repertory introduced a new range of visual symbols together with its syntax: biomorphic compositions, concentric cosmograms, linear computations that essay astrological and astronomical phenomena, nuclear motifs such as the dimensionless point embodying the seed-essence of the universe, interlocked triangles representing polarity pairs, energy circles and plain surface 'field' paintings that define sacred space.1 Cognate to it, is the ritual mandala, a closed polygon composed of a grid square employed in temple and domestic rituals. Although the tradition of these mandalas can be traced as far back as the fourth century AD2, the vast range of abstract icons was almost certainly inspired and motivated by the momentous development of Tantric religion. With the resurgence of Tantra (C 700-1400 AD), anthropomorphic representation of the deity is yielding to a new-formed visual vocabulary of the geometricized yantra: a concentric figure of primal shapes regarded as an all inclusive 'contained' image of the psycho-cosmos. Abstract images constitute a distant genre, in that they are composed of primal shapes, square, circle, triangles which constitute the basic visual vocabulary of the genesis of form. Or we may say, that abstract configurations are constructed by archetypic symbols that are conceived to be the essential structures of the envisioned cosmos; the four directions, the cycle of the seasons, the five elements, the zodiac signs and the like. These diagrams invariably mirror the notion of the ordered cosmos. The sacred geometry of these figures was based on the texts known as the Shulva Sutras that codified the rules of spatial order, measure, number and relationship of form. The iconic and the aniconic threads of Indian iconographic art, therefore, represent two different sensibilities, two 'keys' to make reality visible. The former strives to attain a similitude with nature, the latter appeals to a reductive aesthetics with a decided tendency to minimal expression. The most celebrated of these abstract images based on a square MI format is the Vastu-purusha Mandala. Later versions refer to it as the Vastu-devata Mandala dedicated to building sites. Vastu (from the Sanskrit root Vas, to dwell) connotes localities fit for habitation. °11 Hindu temple architecture, albeit, all building sites, such as sites for gardens, bridges, tanks, towers, forts, palaces and private houses are based on these mandalas. The Vastu-purusha Mandala is a square of squares, essentially linear. The square is a fundamental form of architecture and all other shapes are derived from it. In geometrical metaphysics the square is regarded as the original perfect form. The square is oriented to the four cardinal directions, East, West, North and South which makes space comprehensible and so it becomes an appropriate symbol of the extended world. The horizontal and vertical lines embody the pair of opposites. Balance and order lie in the perfection of the square. According to the Hindu manuals of architecture there are 32 different types of the Vastu-purusha Mandala. The simplest one is a square which is taken as the plan of an ascetic's retreat or for a small sacrificial enclosure. All the others are expanded versions of this primal square to form chessboard patterns of numerous squares. The Small squares are called padas and are presided over by individual deities. The formal element of these mandalas undergoes on alteration save in 4agnitude. They can be composed of 4,9,16,24,36,49, 64, 81 and so on up to 1024 squares. These are constructed by gnomonic progression. The method was known to the ancient Greeks who described it as follows: 'A gnomon is any figure which, when added to an original figure, leaves the resultant figure similar to the original'. The construction of the follows this morphological principle. The syntax of numbers with the squares results in an image in which cosmos appears digitized within the perimeter of the original square. The design theme of the Hindu temple is an excellent example of the manner in which this principle of construction is translated into architecture. Four bricks, each one foot square are placed together at the building site forming a square at 2, then expanding this plinth to the numbers of 3, 4 and so on. Both in plan and volume the temple reflects the gnomonic progression spoken of earlier. The size of the diagram is not important since it is never an exact blueprint, but an ‘ideogram’ which governs the rhythm, design and conceptual basis of the Hindu temples.

Since ancient times the metaphoric image of Purusha, the primeval being who is regarded as the universal soul has dominated the Indian imagination. In the creation hymn of the Rig Vedas (10.90. 1 ff) Purusha is celebrated: ‘Thousands-headed is Purusha, thousand-eyed, and thousand-footed. Enveloping the earth on every side he exceeded it by ten figure breadths. Purusha is indeed this All….’ Primal creation, results from the dismemberment and distribution of this cosmic being, who is reborn as the cosmos. The manifold world is the body of the Purusha:

Heavenly, formless is the Purusha

He is without and within, unborn

breathless, mindless, pure

Higher than the high, imperishable

from Him is produced breath

Mind, and all senses

space, wind, light, water,

And earth, and supporter of All.

- Munduka Upanishad 1, 2, 3

The Vedic notion of thePurushaisintegrated into the symbolic syntax of the Hindu temple. The temple is built as a reflection of the ‘body’ of Purusha. The Vastu-Purusha Mandala, the primal map of the temple is an analogue of the Purusha/universe - a prototype of the macrocosm. In several manuscript paintings, therefore, the figure of the Purusha is pressed into the form of the square.

All existence, the unmanifest essence which is unified whole and the manifest world of diversity, galactic time ordered by the cyclic movements of the sun, moon and constellations that measure historical time are reflected in the mandala. The sacred geometry of the squares and attempts to reconstruct this orderly movement from the infinite. Purusha, to the infinite, Purusha, to the interconnected array of elements recreating a passage from unity to diversity.

An important element in Hindu architecture is the orientation of building to sacred space, India measure sacred space by the units of its solar and lunar time, the path of the sun and laws of astrology and astronomy. Sacred space is visualized as extending horizontally and vertically into the four cardinal directions, the intermediary zones, the nadir and zenith, these spaces are presided over by gods. The seat of the Supreme Principle is in the centre, the rest are projected in concentric rings and form a hierarchy. The outermost periphery marks the zone of dark anti-divine forces and demonic powers.

In the square frame of the mandala the 9 or 16 squares in the centre is known as Brahma Sthana, the sacred seat of the Supreme Principle. The central square corresponds to the sanctum santorium of the temple. Encircling it are a number of attendant deities. Around it in the border of the mandala are 32 deities identified with lunar mansions and 4 that preside over solstical and equinoctial points. The eight directions of space in the mandala are presided over by the eight planets. In this way the mandala embodies the cycle of cosmic movements, measured by the day, month and year and wider cycles of the eclipses. With the aid of the position of celestial bodies, the priest-astrologer is able to compute the exact spot in the site-plan which will be favourable for the patron/builder.

Before the commencement of construction the gods of the site are honoured by the Vastu-purusha Mandala.

Offerings are made to the deities presiding over the small squares (padas). When appeased they guard the locality from natural calamities and restore the imbalance created by the mechanics of construction.

Another class of mandalas based on grid square were intended for use in pujas. These mandalas, chief special use is as altars where the deity can be installed (PIS 3 and 4). The earliest type is the example of this Sarvatobhadra 'Auspicious on All Sides' Mandala (P1.4), that can be used as an embodiment of the sacred cosmos for any ceremony. The Shaivite version of one such mandala has the sacred sign of Shiva, the linga embedded in the yoni-shaped pedestal. The ritual mandalas are a direct inheritence of the vedic fire altar. The altar was a place for the ritual fire sacrifice (yajna) designed to propitiate the powers permeating nature: the wind, sun, water, thunder and lightning. Although these nature-powers were visualized and invoked in a collection of invocations, the Brahmanical ritual of vedic times (C1500 BC) was non-idolatrous. There were no images or shrines. The altar alone was the centre for the sacred rites and was regarded as a prototype of the cosmos, three of its fire layers of bricks were arranged to represent the three stratums of the Vedic cosmos: earth, air and sky. It contained the ever burning ritual fire whose leaping flames united the earth and the heavens. The shapes of the altars were based on the object of worship. There are square, circle and triangle shaped altars. The ritual mandalas have retained the symbolic characteristics of these early monuments. Another unique feature of these ritual mandalas is that they bear striking pictorial affinity with several works of twentieth century abstract art. The split-second correspondence would shock, puzzle or mystify the viewer and have him believe that ancient diagrams are contemporary orks. Their timeless modernism ante-dates modern western abstraction by well over a millennium. One may well pose the question: what is so modem about these sacred diagrams) Conversely, what is ancient about contemporary abstract painting) While similarities in form suggest parallels it is presumptuous to seek corelations in context. function and meaning simply because the works are products of two diametrically opposed cultural ambiance. Religious works offer an interpretation of man-cosmos relationship rooted in a quest for the spiritual. They embody an all inclusive world view, an ethos and a philosophy to live by. The traditional artist is akin to a mystic who communes with nature to solve the mystery of creation. To achieve this end he works his way through the vast storehouse of inherited memory-imprints conventionalized through centuries. The modern artist, on the other hand constructs an 'icon' which summarizes his highly personalized often accentric world. While traditional art is rooted in transcendental concerns, the contemporary artist thrives for an austere quest of a purely aesthetic aim. He would be incomplete without creating boundaries within his personhood and in, pursuit of that aim, tortures himself into enuii, or at his worst, severs his contact with the larger cosmos. On the positive scale, great works of art are not circumscribed by formal religion. A work of genius does not relate to any given period of historical time for it transcends the limitations of time-bound creativity. It cannot be circumscribed by language, much less characterized by a certain 'style'. The 'style' of a particular work is determined by a given epoch. The problem of reading and interpretation of a great work is also a linguistic one. It involves a process of exegesis dependent on metaphoric parallels of language, which in turn are inextricably linked with the historical movements. Therefore a characterization of a great work in words merely gives it a point of reference and does not convey its several layers of meaning. There are images that transcend boundaries of space and time. Several of Paul Klee’s checker-board ‘cosmic field’ compositions of horizontal and vertical lines for example, resemble ritual mandalas. Klee is credited with evolving a sign language that transcend boundaries of space and time. Several of Paul Klee’s checker-board ‘cosmic-field’ compositions of horizontal and vertical lines for example, resemble ritual mandalas. Klee is credited with evolving a sign language that transcended the limit of aesthetics. While there is no question of a direct influence from eastern sources, Klee’s works share a common concern for the ‘cosmic’ and the spiritual. He states: ‘Every energy demandsacomplementaryone in order to achieve a state of stillness in itself, strung as it is between opposing forces. In the end what is created is cosmos of abstract formal elements in union with concrete beings…’ a cosmos so like the great creation itself. [3]

As this century comes to an end it is vital that the gulf that separates east from the west should be narrowed. What we need now is not cold blooded exegesis on ‘isms’ that heightens the differences between the east and west but a synthesis, a mutual flowering of two cultures. The osmosis should inspire clear understanding of creative forces, art-philosophies that have shaped art schools in different cultures, as also the threads that unite thought-streams of the great masters of the world. It is only in such a natural context that works of the twentieth century modern artists can be relished alongside traditional creations.


[1] For some examples of Indian abstract painting see: Mookerjee, Ajit, Yoga Art, London, 1975, p.35 ff; Khanna, Madhu, Yantra: Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, London 1979 –; Tantric Icons and Sacred Images, Thames and Hudson, London (forthcoming).

[2] Agni Purana (320), dated at 4th century, describes one such mandala.

[3 Quoted by Klee by Hans L. Jaffe, London, 1972, p.22
Published in Art Heritage 9, 1989-90
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