O you don't you rib
body Thyself for once
state of 'being bodied' of which the tenth century poet Devara Dasimayya
sings yearningly in his vacana, with its suggestion of the poignancy
and the rewards of that conditions, is the subject of this exhibition.
The understanding, the depiction and the delimiting of that body which
the poet dares Siva to take upon himself has been the starting point,
and the correspondence or lack of it between the Divine and the human
- figured or not figured - is a frequently recurring theme. All the
works in this exhibition are from the British Museum and are displayed
to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Independence. They range from the
Late Ice Age in Europe (some 12,000 years ago), to the early twentieth
century (African sculptures). Throughout this long period the human
image, as a vehicle for the communication of ideas and information,
has remained pre-eminent-it has endured, hence the title of the exhibition.
III of the Citralaksana, the largest section of the text, provides the artist
with detailed information of the correct size of parts of the body, As well as
the ratios between the different parts of the body, as follows:
sections deal with the dimensions of one part of the body - here the eye, according
to a list of types:
I have mentioned this intriguing text at some length because it clearly demonstrates how, from an early period, an interest in delineating and defining the body was part of intellectual life in India. Further, although the Citralaksana of Nagnajit is probably the earliest, it is by no means the only such text- the encyclopaedic Visnudharmottara Purana was composed only a couple of centuries later and contains a whole chapter on the rules for painting. It is because of this fundamental concern with the human form in South Asian civilization that this exhibition has been structured in the way it has. Indeed one of the most fruitful starting points in its genesis was recollection of the memorable exhibition, In the Image of Man, held in London in 1982 as part of the first Festival of India. This important event, at which great works of Indian sculpture and painting were gathered together, primarily from India but also from the United Kingdom, brilliantly explored Indian art from the perspective of the human figure. It had a great influence on scholars and the general public alike, and reinforced the idea that Indian civilization was, par excellence, the civilization which deliberately makes its definitions through figuration, or at least through invoking the image of the human body. In the Vedas we find the first examples of the correspondence between the body and cosmic features, between the universal body and the different elements of creation. In the Image of Man demonstrated the continuing interest of Indian artists in the human form from those very early times and their skilful presentation of complex ideas through the format of the human body. This theme is taken in the current exhibition and used as a grid and, as it were, thrown across the traditions, not only of India, but of cultures throughout the world and throughout time. The selection of works for an exhibition such as this is a fascination undertaking especially as the choice comes from many different cultures. Leaving aside certain practical details such as the ability of fragile objects to travel, the criteria are linked to different understandings of the human body. Some of these are obvious: sculpture which presents royal power is evident in many civilizations and appears from the very beginning of the exhibition.
The head of Amenophis II impresses on the viewer the power of the ruler by virtue of its sheer size, let alone its original positioning at the entrance to the mortuary temple of the pharaoh, so that even after his death all would know of his greatness. However, a male subject and great size are not the only methods to demonstrate this sentiment, as Nicholas Hilliard's gold material, the legend on the reverse (' Not even danger affects it') and its use as a diplomatic gift all emphasize the power of the Queen. Again material - in this case brass - was associated with kingship and these plaques were made to adorn the wooden beams of the palace of the rulers of Benin. Power is also indicated by the quantity and fineness of clothing worn by the king forms of clothing indicated power and wealth in medieval Africa, just as it does today in fashion-conscious Europe.
Idealized images are another consultant in the exhibition, whether in the afterlife (to appear handsome and youthful, rather than ugly and decrepit in old age) or the imaging of divinities as perfectly realized human beings. In the western tradition the latter is specially linked with ancient Greece and its rediscovery in the Renaissance period, nut other traditions have their own favoured ways of depicting a beautiful, idealized human and the extent to which ideals vary indicates the eventual transience of all such subjective concepts of beauty. For instance, amongst the Maya of Central America a flattened forehead, artificially produced in childhood, was considered a mark of great beauty. In renaissance Italy the most prized feature for women was a pale skin, quite the opposite of today's western concept where a bronzed skin suggests the means for travel and leisure, and perhaps more in keeping with traditional views in India where pale skin implies a life not spent labouring in the heat of the sun.
of these criteria can be listed in mind summary fashion bearing in mind
the fuller examples given above: maternal imagery, the distortion of
human imagery through time and space, portraiture, the artificially
changed body sometimes dominates the exhibition, but there is also much
else. Although the most obvious way to show the human figure is through
sculpting or painting, it can also be suggested in a number of other,
subtle ways. For example, armour which confines or shields the body
gives us an idea of what that body might have looked like like even
though it is not actually seen; examples from as far apart as Bronze
Age Britain and late medieval Japan appear in the exhibition; headrest
have the same suggestive properties. Probably the clearest way of marketing
the outline of the body however, is through the use of jewellery, and
the global variety in the exhibition is large. Jewellery functions at
a number of different levels-as a means of beautification but also as
a method of banking and transference of wealth and a method of communicating
status through the use of extravagant quantities of rare or traded materials.
In jewellery production gold is often a medium of high value, a fact
demonstrated repeatedly by items as varied as the headdress from the
Royal Tombs at Ur and the speclacular suite of Iron Age gold lores from
Snettisham in Norfolk. Jewellery has been used throughout the world
to enhance and to change the appearance of the body; decorated with
jewellery the body can be transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Tattoos and searification can have the same function. Connected with
jewellery and also often used to adorn the person are amulets. These
may be miniature versions of the part of the body which requires protection,
or they may be non-representational and worn close to the part of the
body which is damaged or needs security. By wearing amulets the body
can magically be safeguarded or indeed changed-from malfunctioning to
perfect health. In ancient Egypt amulets were frequently placed in the
mummy wrapping to ensure the safety of the body in the afterlife,the
body of the gods, the body in the afterlife, the body and its organs,
part-human bodies and the body differentiated by gender. The topics
of gender and sexuality have been written about at great lenght in recent
years, particularly with reference to the work of contemporary artists.
However they are also subjects which throw light on this exhibition.