| Renzo Freschi Main Gallery | Exhibitions


by Renzo Freschi


The birth of myth marks the transition from memory to History, and the mystery of its genesis is linked to the development of human consciousness.

The walls of many Hindu temples are covered in figures displaying a great variety of forms and poses: with one thousand arms and one thousand heads, with a fish or tortoise body, with a lion or elephant head, in mystical meditation or in the act of killing demons who can assume an equal multitude of forms. However, this spectacular iconographic diversity is not just a compelling hymn to the divine, nor a mere description of the exploits of the gods and of their unparalleled powers. The legends illustrated on the temple walls have very ancient roots and hark back to the origins of Indian civilisation—they give a visible form to the myths that shaped the Hindu religiousness and that keep it alive to this day.

Myth is always associated with ritual, which in the form of prayer, gesture or sacrifice perpetuates it and renews it in the “heart” of the faithful. Myth is connected with the divine origin of the World, ritual is man’s communion with the sacred.

The exhibition focuses on the mythological and ritual elements in Oriental sculpture through the analysis of a group of very ancient works. For instance, one can see the transition from the cult of the Mother Goddess to the formation of a more complex religion in some terracotta artefacts dating from the 2nd c. BC; and some Chinese wood and terracotta figures dating from the 4th-3rd c. BC can be interpreted as an archaic example of the cult of ancestors, one of the foundations of Chinese culture.


The name Gandhara designated in antiquity the region of the Kabul river’s lower reaches, now part of northern Pakistan. In an artistic sense, though, the term acquired a wider meaning, referring to the vast production characterising this area and the neighbouring ones in the north-west of the Indian subcontinent. These are very special places, open from time immemorial to invasions and influences of various origins: from Alexander the Great’s expedition to the rule of the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka, and on to the arrival of Iranian and Central Asian peoples… The result is well known: from about the 1st to the 6th-7th century AD this art elaborated Buddhist themes and ideals with figural forms inspired by Hellenism. Large numbers of religious buildings, monasteries and stupas were built and lavishly decorated with sculptures carved in the schist typical of this region, or in what is commonly called stucco (more properly speaking gesso) and lastly also in clay. It is not always easy to unravel the strand of each single artistic idiom within the single works: sometimes there is a marked western taste, in other cases India feels much closer. But in any case the aim is the same and culturally Indian: to evoke the majesty of the Buddhist message, to enact its episodes, to offer the faithful meditation objects and focal points for cults and rituals. The relief on pages 4-5 belongs to a well-attested type in Gandhara: regularly spaced persons hold and stand by a heavy garland, or perhaps better a festoon, within the frame of a suitably sized architectural element. The deeply carved relief creates a strong chiaroscuro, enhancing the visibility of the design which fills the available space. Even though here, unlike in similar instances, the Buddha is not represented, the festoon should be seen as a tribute to him and to his holiness, in a ritual of welcome and glorification. The regularity of its wavy line contrasts with the variety of the general treatment. In its strands we see flowers, ribbons, chains, threads of pearls; from each curve of the festoon hang groups of three flowers or fruits (including raisins and mango) symmetrical but different in each case. And each of the figures accompanying this profusion has a different posture and details. At first sight we might be tempted to label them as “putti”, for the role of these small creatures is the same as that of western putti or cupids, to which they appear to be ultimately related. But on closer inspection we see the signs of that intriguing mixture characteristic of Gandhara. Supporting the festoon among the others is a man dressed in Iranian fashion, wearing a heavy tunic, trousers and boots, and he is the only one to be shown almost frontally: his attire is in line with the iconographic canons brought to India by his culture. Not far from him, a turbaned musician plays a lute. Other instruments are played by at least some of the winged beings leaning out with their bust above the curves of the festoon. They are Gandharvas, celestial musicians according to the Indian myth. The ends of the festoon are held by a man bending forward on one side and by one bending backwards on the other, effectively rendering the great strain.

Male Figure

Male Head

The male head on page 7 probably belonged to the figure of a devotee. Beard and moustache, arranged in formal curls, suggest it might represent an old ascetic in the act of paying homage to the Enlightened One in what may possibly have been a fairly large composition. But to western eyes the stern face of this personage is reminiscent of a sage from the ancient Mediterranean, and above all of portrait techniques capable of conveying the characteristics of a real individual, which is something in stark contrast with Indian art in general. It would thus seem we are in the presence of a legacy or possibly a remote branch of the Graeco-Roman portrait tradition. This impression derives from the sensible modelling of the traits, and also from the fact that the physiognomy thus created is not at all typically Indian. The cheekbones are pronounced above the cavity of the cheeks, the nose is thin and slightly aquiline, the mouth half-closed in a shadowy crease. The large eyes with incised pupils that stand out wide open in their sockets are somehow discordant with these naturalistic elements, and they confer to the face an astonished, almost alarmed expression. But exactly the same happens in the contemporary west, during the decline of the Roman Empire, when the glaring eyes of sculptured faces seem to reflect and interpret the uneasiness of the times.


Just as large and staring are the eyes of the male figure on pages 8-9; but all the lineaments concur to create an expression on his face which mixes amazement with self-assurance and authority, and the general attitude of this figure reinforces the effect. Under the slightly furled forehead the thick and knit eyebrows cast a deep shadow on his gaze, and the treatment of the eyelids is consistent with the scowl. The full cheeks, crossed by the orderly lines of the moustache, form marked folds around the strong nose. The mouth opens to show the tip of the tongue, in a slightly enigmatic attitude—possibly to indicate that the man is speaking? The beautiful twist of the neck also seems to suggest a movement of the face towards an interlocutor. The three folds on the chest synthesise, as it were, the anatomy of the flesh and of the ribs in a balance between naturalism and convention, and they evoke a barely hinted forward lean. The soft and elaborate draping falls between the legs, and the knees and shins, very sensitively modelled, are bent in a stance that does not express true rest. Even though he sits in a seemingly calm and composed posture, all the lines and details of this figure seem infused with movement and action. In this case, even more than in the previous one, it is clear that this piece was part of a composition, probably comprising many figures: an event, a miracle, an epiphany of the Buddha causing surprise in those present, but also spurring them on to a new awareness.
(Cinzia Pieruccini)

Cinzia Pieruccini obtained a research doctorate in History of Indian and Eastern Asian Art. She wrote numerous essays on the literature, iconography and architecture of classical India. She currently teaches Indian culture at the University of Milan.


The archaeological site of Chandraketugarh, the name referring to a local king who led a legendary life, comprises a group of villages situated some 40 km from Kolkata (Calcutta), in the heart of the alluvial plain of Bengal. The site was already known early in the 20th century and became famous chiefly for the abundance of terracotta artefacts that were found there: plaques, figurines, toys, vases and so forth, manufactured with an extensive use of moulds and often of astounding quality, so much so that the term Chandraketugarh came into general use for this kind of terracottas found in south Bengal. However, while this art has now gained wide appreciation, its study can be considered in many respects to be at an initial stage. Partly due to the often fragmentary state of the objects, some of its aspects, mainly connected with the identification of the figures represented and with the function of the objects, remain rather unclear. On the whole, Chandraketugarh terracotta was produced through many centuries, approximately from the 4th BC to the 5th AD. Particularly rich is the variety of pieces going back to the Shunga era, a dynasty that reigned in north India from about 185 to 73 BC. The artistic idiom that developed in this period continued into the following century. It is in this chronological and stylistic setting that we can situate the two plaques and the pot illustrated here, particularly important owing to the complexity of the depictions and to the good state of preservation. They add precious information to our knowledge of this terracotta and also provide a beautiful example of the high degree of sophistication reached by this art, a very far cry from a popular expression in spite of the poor material, the one readily available in the region.


Comparable in its subject theme with other finds from Chandraketugarh and Kaushambi, the plaque on these pages most likely depicts the highlight of a celebrated event: Udayana’s flight with Vasavadatta from her father’s palace. The romantic and magical story of Udayana, king of Vatsa, who would beget a son who would be king of the celestial Vidyadharas, and of his lover and later spouse Vasavadatta, the daughter of the king of Ujjayini, is no doubt one of the most popular in the Indian narrative repertoire. Its protagonists lived through many centuries of literature—the Buddhist canon, classical theatre, the Medieval collections… The two runaways sit on a speedy and almost unbeatable female elephant from the royal stables. As in similar plaques, a servant sits behind them and hands out money from a bag in order to turn away the pursuers, while a woman holds a large parasol to protect the threesome. The elephant and her load are preceded by two horsemen, they too shaded by a parasol, and many other personages, both male and female, fill the scene. Two men sit and watch from the branches of a tall tree, and another tree with garish flowers and some delicate shrubs and grass at its base complete the sylvan setting. Considering its subject, it is not unreasonable to surmise that such a plaque was intended for private use. It probably graced the house of a well-to-do family, and it is possible that it was received as a wedding present. Besides being pleasantly evocative of a very popular event, this type of depiction no doubt had an auspicious significance: the two protagonists’ love would be transferred, as in a sort of protective rite, on to the married couple.

Monkey Trainer


To a ritual or at least celebrative context also belongs the pot on the right, as testified by its preciousness and by the theme of its decoration. For objects in this category too, the hypothesis of wedding presents applies; the persons depicted would thus be a bridal procession. The shape is still typical of present-day Indian water pots. We are thus again in an evocative context auguring joy and prosperity, of which the pot and water are important symbols. Water is also referred to in the bottom register, where two boats are shown on a background of wavy ripples conveying the movement of flowing water. These are sweet waters, as indicated by the swimming ducks, probably one of the river arms which make the usual landscape of the Ganges delta. The larger boat is vigorously pushed by rowers; on the other one a man holds a drum above him. Next to him, on firm ground, a man opens a basket from which a small bird comes out; and the relief continues with dancing figures among which a winged nymph lifts in flight. Dancing figures can also be seen in the top register: two men fight with swords near a Ficus indica with falling aerial roots, others wield long sticks, clearly the performances at a big feast. Some people hold sunshades or fly-whisks, men and women mix in joy and freedom.

More complex is the interpretation of the composition on the second plaque (right). A crouching man keeps a reluctant monkey tied by the neck, while another monkey behind him holds a sort of vessel, and this seems to be the centre of the scene. It is not evident whether or not at least some of the men and women grouped around them are actively taking part in the scene. As in the previous plaque, spectators sit on a big tree; on the left, against the background of a high palm-tree and of a village hut, a woman sits in a small building with a thatched roof. Again, the context seems almost certainly a narrative one; but a search in the Jatakas—the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, one of the most popular subjects of Shunga art—or in the repertoire of fantasy fiction to which also Udayana’s story belongs, did not provide any satisfactory result.

Compared to the other pieces, this plaque reveals a slightly different style: the relief is much more marked, the figures smoother. Throughout the depictions men and women wear the same clothes, except for the jewelled belt which is only worn by women. The styles of turbans, hairdos, jewellery and notably earrings seem to indicate in each piece at least partially different fashions, as if some time had elapsed between them, or due to a different provenance. The clay also shows different colours, red in the Udayana plaque, grey in the pot, with a hazelnut hue in the last plaque.

(See in particular Enamul Haque, Chandraketugarh: A Treasure House of Bengal Terracottas. Dhaka, The International Centre for Study of Bengal Art, 2001).



In the history of Indian art Mathura is one of the most extraordinary sites due to the importance and charm of its sculpture. Normally easily identifiable by the stone used—the typical mottled red sandstone from the nearby quarries of Sikri—the abundant local production spans several centuries and exerts a powerful influence that will be seminal in the formation and evolution of iconographies and figural forms. In this flowering, certainly the most decisive period is linked to the name of the Kushana emperors, a dynasty founded by invaders of Central-Asian origin. From the late 1st to the 3rd century AD, based on still uncertain chronologies, they ruled over a large area of the Indian subcontinent, from the mountain ranges in the north-west down to the Gangetic plain, a huge territory with a varied history in which widely different cultural stimuli converged. It is likely that Mathura was one of the Kushana capitals, and it is here—as well as simultaneously in the north-west, in Gandhara and the surrounding valleys—that the anthropomorphic image of the Buddha took shape and gradually replaced the symbols evoking the Enlightened One’s presence on the oldest monuments: a revolution that was bound to mark the art of all eastern Asia.

The head shown on the right belongs in fact to one of these early depictions of the Buddha inhuman form. Typical of this period in Mathura are the bulky volumes of the face, the line of the lips suggesting an improbable smile, the curve of the ears. The elongated earlobes are one of the iconographical characteristics of the Enlightened One, other canonical marks being the urna, the tuft of hair on the forehead just above the eyebrows—in this case outlined by a simple spiral—and the bump on top of the head (usnisa), of which a trace remains here. These are among the marks of a superior man (the main ones numbering 32 according to the texts) which the Buddha carries on his body, a sign of his predestination for superhuman achievements. Behind the head is a fragment of the halo which usually constituted the background, and at the base of the neck the hem of the monastic robe can be seen. The neck, marked by thin folds, blends into the plump chin with a dimple; the wide eyebrows and the relief contours of the eyelids break the smoothness of the modelling with their arches, and the hair is rendered by a simple incision and by a slight change of plane. The sure and neat lines and the well-drawn curves outline the physiognomy with a few traits and infuse a compelling sense of vigour into the full forms of this face. Here, in the Mathura of Kushana times, the Buddha is not an introspective and detached image yet. Sculptures like this one rather seem to signify and to place before the faithful’s devotion his immense energy, his spiritual force, his power of victory upon the pain and misery of the world.

Man and Women

God Indra

The scene represented on the slab on the right poses some questions. A man is supported by two female figures, one of which hands him a cup; a curtain is behind them, and above the curves formed by the draping the heads of two men stick out. We know a certain number of slabs from Mathura, of similar size and usually sculptured on both sides, where figures and situations clearly belonging to a similar repertoire are represented. At least for some, in which the central personage is supported by attendants like in this case and the cup is present, it has been suggested that they might refer to scenes of intoxication, possibly hinting at special religious practices somehow comparable to the Dyonisiac cults of the classical world. Our relief might thus represent a man whom two maid servants, or two companions in a feast or a ritual situation, are assisting in his intoxication. More recently, however, various slabs of this type have been rather convincingly interpreted as images of the salient moments of a famous theatrical plot immortalised in one of the most celebrated works of Indian classical literature, viz. the Little Clay Cart (Mrcchakatika) attributed to Shudraka. In the ten acts of this long pièce a series of intricate events full of pathos, stage effects and swoons, precedes the triumph of love between the noble Charudatta, generous and impoverished, and the honest and sensitive courtesan Vasantasena. It must be said that the date of the Little Clay Cart is uncertain, and variously assigned by scholars to a period between the 3rd and 5th century AD and beyond, which clashes with the sure dating of this slab to the Kushana period. However, Charudatta’s story is also told in another theatrical work, the Poor Charudatta (Daridracarudatta), of which a substantial fragment survives, and which at least part of the critics consider to be an earlier work (2nd c. AD). We could thus be dealing, as is often the case in the literature of ancient India, with a traditional plot, or in any case with a plot well known to the public, which was re-used more than once in different works.

Buddha Head

If we accept this line of thought, and we look for correspondences with the text of the Little Clay Cart, it is possible to surmise that the relief depicts a crucial moment of Act IV. According to the text, in reality, the persons we can identify here do not appear all together on the stage, nor is a refreshing drink mentioned; but all in all the depiction seems well suited to evoke this particular moment in the plot. The man at the centre of the composition would thus be Charudatta, who had fainted upon discovering the theft of the jewel casket entrusted to him by Vasantasena; the female figure on the left might be his charitable spouse, who according to the text immediately offered her own precious necklace to replace the stolen piece; and the one on the right, whose slightly smaller size, more modest hairdo, and gesture of holding the cup might indicate a lower rank, the faithful maid Radanika. This theatrical interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the fact that in Indian theatre a curtain (yavanika) was used to cover the wings. Speculations can be made on the two heads appearing behind—other actors or in any case men connected with the staging of the play? It thus appears that our slab can be read not only as a moment of the story staged, but as an image of the stage itself; not so much a depiction of the characters in the theatre performance, but of the actors interpreting it.

We are no doubt back to the sphere of cult with the relief illustrated on pages 24-25; the episode, representing a moment of glorification of the Buddha who is by now a master for all creatures, is widely represented both in Mathura and in Gandhara. It is the visit of Indra, the king of the ancient Vedic gods who, according to legend, descends from the sky to pay homage to the Enlightened One while the latter meditates in a cave near the city of Rajagriha. The key detail for the interpretation of this scene, visible on the far right, is the rocky cavity in which the fragmentary figure of the Buddha sits cross-legged and with the right hand raised in the fear-allaying gesture (abhayamudra). Indra, wearing a high headpiece and a wide scarf, has come before him and worships him with joined hands. The man and the two women in the cortege hold heavy garlands, and festoons hang in the background, stressing the solemn and joyful significance of the event. Apart from the profusion of jewels and the veil on the elaborate hairdo, the women are naked; for one of the two in particular the genital area evidenced by a plain trait is well visible under the high jewelled belt. Common in the earliest art of India, this way of representing the female sex is not in contrast with the spiritual nature of the work: on the contrary, the woman emerges as a personification of prosperity and happiness, auspicious for the community of the devotees. Concerning the original location of this piece, one would think it may have been a section of the lintel of a torana, the characteristic portal of Buddhist stupas. In these tumulus-shaped monuments, concealing complex cosmic meanings, these reliefs were aimed at instructing and spiritually elevating the visitors, while the events connected with the figure of the Enlightened One were transposed into a symbolic dimension.
(Cinzia Pieruccini)

(For the slab with the man supported by two women, see Donald M. Stadtner, “‘The Little Clay Cart’ in Early Mathura”, Orientations, Jan. 1996, pp. 39-46).

© Renzo Freschi