Mukhalinga main exhibition

The hand and the idea | The mukhalingas | Containing the impossible

The hand and the idea

Italian version  

The basic context of Indian art is religious. Which does not mean that, to appreciate an Indian work of art correctly, one has to possess a complex store of notions, narrations or theological and philosophical conceptions. It means primarily the need to bear in mind the everyday dimension of this art, which always belongs within a liturgy but relates to a lifestyle in which politics and theology, customand philosophy, matter and spirit are inextricably merged.

Indian art should be admired simultaneously with the eyes and the head. Only thus moreover is it possible to overcome the errors of perspective that inevitably obstruct appreciation of works like the mukhalinga, whose symbolic meaning is understandable only through a knowledge of their socio-religious context. A possible approach is by reference to contemporary art:

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), in her fascinating journey from surrealism to conceptual art, affirmed that the important thing in art is not the object - however fascinating, well crafted and captivating it may be - but the idea embodied in that object.

From this point of view, the effort of comprehension entailed for those wishing to approach Indian art is not different to the knowledge required to understand contemporary art: to interpret the work according to its inner connections not only in terms of style, but of meanings, with all the references to the philosophy of life that expressed it.

In Hinduism it is the ritual of a visualised deity - darshan - that is pivotal to the devout. Their lives are linked to a web of divine forces. Thus they visually contemplate the deity in their effort to perceive divine energy and obtain the god's benevolence. It is the cycle of reincarnation that determines their present life, which, to be faced, requires divine protection and assistance.

In India there is no town or village without its temple or altar consecrated to one of the chief Hindu deities. Visiting them is the worshipper's chief religious duty. In family homes too, there is always a small shrine, adorned with bronze images and usually situated in the kitchen, considered a liturgically clean room. For members of the family, the presence of a deity through images is thus considered so real as to be treated as the most honoured guest, to whom daily offerings and rituals are dedicated.

These practices correspond historically to a very ancient artisan production of sacred images, which spread throughout the subcontinent.

Concerning metal artefacts in particular, the origins of artistic casting techniques in the Indus Valley date from the second half of the third millennium BC. Archaeological excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa have brought to light representations of female dancers and of animals (mostly bulls).

In the space of a few centuries this technique spread to the Maharashta and southern India. Finds are rare however, due mainly to the obvious practice of reusing precious material. The survival of artefacts in cast metal was influenced by historical events and politico-religious conflicts, to which should be added cultural factors involving the Vedic liturgy of sacrificial fire, pertaining exclusively to priests and of scant relevance to material objects of worship.

It remains therefore hard to define just how many objects of worship in cast metal relating to these periods were actually produced. The production of cast metal ritual figures grew on the other hand with the confluence of Vedic naturalistic elements into Hindu liturgy. This was consolidated towards the fifth century AD with its system of deities (Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Devi, Ganesha…), the increasingly frequent construction of temples from the sixth to eighth centuries, and the circulation of individual religious practices mentioned earlier. Corresponding to this evolution of worship was an increased manufacture of ritual figures in stone and cast metal, for temples and royal residences.

From the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries can be dated, in particular, castings from northern regions of India: Kashmir, district of Chamba (Himachal Pradesh), Uttar Pradesh, north west Punjab, Bengal and north east Bihar; whilst in the south, articles of special quality date in particular from the tenth and eleventh centuries. Naturally, very few examples originate from zones where the spread of Muslim culture influenced the disappearance of idolatry and its associated representations.