Some instances of art copying life


Sometime in the 13th -- or perhaps 14th -- century this sculpture was cast in the kingdom of Thailand. It was incredibly successful: so successful in fact that it occasioned a whole world of copies. The vast body of lost-wax bronze statues which arose as a result of all this copying is today referred to by art historians by the name of Sukhothai -- the name also given to the particular epoch in Thai history (1238 - 1438 A.D.) What you are looking at is therefore a Sukhothai Buddha.

How odd he looks: a drooping, bulbous nose, extraordinarily long, apparently jointless fingers (in the gesture of Vitarka Mudrā, the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching) -- and limbs (which look more like slithering spineless snakes or worms than limbs), broad, deliciously round shoulders, oversized, round feet, and prominent, nippled breasts make for a strange, otherworldly figure. To me, this Buddha looked like nothing I have ever seen; certainly, he did not look Thai.

Used to the fact that Buddha representations in Asian art can be pretty unnaturalistic, ascribing to Lord Shakyamuni various anatomical features which ordinary mortals do not possess -- a bump on the top of the head symbolizing blazing intellect (the usnīsa), humongous, hanging ears (I have forgotten what they symbolize -- surely, the Chinese belief that men with long ears are good at making money is derived from the Buddha ears, not the other way around), etc. -- I have assumed that I was looking at an idealized image of the saint; an otherworldly image; a representation of what a heavenly creature might look like -- somewhat akin to western European winged seraphim, or the saints from Orthodox icons with bony narrow faces and bulging eyes.

I was curious to see what all these odd elements symbolized, but slow at finding any discussion of them. I was especially curious about the facial features. Here, look closely:

What an odd face, eh? And, in all honesty, difficult to characterize as beautiful. Why, oh, why, I wondered, did the Sukhothai Thais imagine lord Buddha to have looked like this?

I did not discover the answer until several years later when I boarded a Sri Lankan plane: everyone on it -- stewards and stewardesses, the pilot, even the luggage-handlers -- looked like this -- yes: bulbous nose, drooping eyelids, even -- yes -- wormlike fingers on pudgy hands.

The answer to the mystery of the Sukhothai Buddha's look is simply this: that he is a Singhalese.

This is not surprising. Sri Lanka is Theravada Buddhism's Rome. To Theravada nations -- Burmese, Thais, Laotians -- Colombo and Candy are what Jerusalem and Rome are to Poles. The Polish Jesus looks Italian; is it a surprise then that the Thai Buddha would look Sri Lankan?


(A Sherlock moment: Buddhism was introduced to Thailand from Sri Lanka on several occasions -- which are sometimes referred to as renaissances, or revivals; one took place at the beginning of the Sukhothai era; could it be that this Buddha was simply imagined by his creators to look like the missionaries arrived from Sri Lanka? And if so, does the Sukhothai Buddha represent a particular person? Or perhaps -- the Sukhothai Buddha is merely a Thai copy of a holy image brought by the missionaries from Colombo?)


Now skip about a thousand miles to the west, to Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh -- and about three hundred years back.

I am not sure why I was not amazed by all the sex on the walls of her temples -- by which everyone else seems to be so amazingly amazed. (Just look at page one of the Google image search, here, if you have any doubt: not one of the pictures on page one does not sport an erect penis).

Perhaps I am jaded enough to admit to myself what most men cannot -- or will not -- that not much of the sex we have is really worth having; most of it falling in the -- well -- blazé category, I suppose?

Or perhaps I was more taken with the rain-making ritual (as if to reinforce me in my obdurate atheism, it rained all around Khajuraho but never on it as long as the prayers lasted); or the Navratri festivities in the village; or the Bhil dodeci-annual dip in the Betwa (which, I bet you did not know, is the twelfth holiest river in the world); or with all the villagers of Khajuraho -- some 12 thousand of them -- whom I encountered doing their coeducational public morning squat on my first (and only) walk through the countryside.

Or perhaps with the cows wondering aimlessly among the monuments -- they seemed to be ruminating on something philosophical; or -- the goats climbing them?

But this is not to say that I was not impressed by the statuary. I was. I was completely and wholly taken by a particular girl -- a recurring girl -- recurring in several different places on the each of the 24 temples.

Now, the amount of statuary put on the temples probably meant that a central requisitioning office in charge of the construction sent out to the workshops orders saying "twelve free standing of statues of a girl removing a thorn from their foot (type A); twelve statues of a girl looking at herself in the mirror (type B); and another twelve of a girl gazing sideways (type C), by Friday afternoon" because certain stock images repeat again and again throughout the complex.

And this means that the girl I mean was a stock image -- she was a trick -- the trick of a one-trick-pony artist -- developed by a particular workshop who then sold her to the requisitioning department -- repeatedly -- and then did her in numerous copies, mechanically, reliably, fast: everyone just like the other. ("Karna, we have another order for the big nose", the boss would say. "Yeah, ok," said Karna, and setting aside his paan and lifting his tools set about chipping yet another standard sized block of stone).

But this did not matter. I saw her everywhere and everywhere she had the same impact on me; everywhere she seemed to be looking at me secretly, from beneath her drooping eyelids and down her magnificent nose: a girl from 1000 years ago spying on me from all sorts of places -- from around corners of buildings, from up top, from down below -- in the falling dusk.

Like the Sukhothai Buddha she looked like no one I have ever seen before: an impossible human being; she had huge eyes and a monstrous, gigantic, fantastic nose, which gave her an incredibly beautiful, bird-like -- peahen-like -- air:

plus -- narrow lips, pointed chin, short neck, broad, round shoulders, fantastically large breasts, impossibly, boyishly narrow hips and slim, long, long legs.

She looked like no other statue ever made in India and like no person I have ever seen there.

Or anywhere.

Like the Sukhothai Buddha she seemed an impossible person, an artist's fantasy, an invention, impossible, but wonderful; his idea of what life could be like if it could only break the bounds of possibility: one third bird, one third goddess, one third boy.

Impossible that is until -- until -- I met her here, in Lisbon.

I am sorry, but I must know, are you from? I asked her, amazed.

Kutch, she answered.

Kutch. In Gujarat. 600 kilometers to the east of Khajuraho. Not impossible, I guess.

I am sorry I don't have her picture to show you: all the photos I took of her back in Khajuraho I have left in Thailand. And her modern living copy here would not be photographed for any money at all. So the best I can do is show you this -- which is another stock image from Khajuraho, perhaps from the same workshop. It is the same girl -- or, except for the width of her hips -- nearly the same. Note the nose, the eyes, the shoulders, and the impossibly long legs.


Now, you know what this means, of course: that art historians discussing imagery of statues from behind their stationary desks -- those who have not traveled the world to see what actual people look like -- have no idea what they are talking about; and that art really copies life to a much more faithful degree than we could have ever supposed.

It also means something else: that the old racists of the 19th century were completely and absolutely wrong but also -- a little right. There are not 3 (or 4 or 5 or 6) races of men; but there are definite types of looks -- numerous, yes, but limited, and readily recognizable.

Perhaps one could say that there are a million human types on earth?

A million races of man?


chris miller said...

My favorite subject!
Though - not my favorite statue - something's not quite right about that tall fellow. Seems like he belongs in a gift shop, while your long-legged Indian girl is rapturous!

One of my history books just told me that Khajuraho was being put up by Hindu kings within a few hundred miles of where Moslem kings were busily tearing temples down - and it only escaped destruction because it was soon abandoned.

BTW - have you noticed that Cambodians have long beautiful torsos but short, stubby legs - just like Khmer sculpture?

Anonymous said...


Yes, I did notice that about cambodians; but the even more striking thing is the frequency with which you see square heads in cambodia -- every other boy appears to look like a copy of jayavarman vii.

If you think the sukhotai buddha looks wrong, you will think it about the first singhalese you meet. :) what i find especially beautiful about this fellow is the roundness of his (granted, rather odd) shoulders, and the snakelike, jointless grace of his arms and fingers. snakelike? no, what am saying, wormlike. (I surprise myself: do i really think worms beautiful? whoa, i guess i do?)

there is a lot of hogwash written about the khajuraho complex -- and what you quote is in line with the usual. people who wonder how come it was not damaged being only 600 km from raided and pillaged delhi have simply not tried to travel there: it's hell to get to today; it was surely even harder to get to then.

3 x cheers old man

ps. loved the fan-throwing story on your blog; plan to go out and buy a fan just so that i can throw it somewhere

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