Mixed success

Published : Aug 29, 1998 00:00 IST


Contemporary Indian Sculpture: An Algebra of Figuration by Josef James; Oxford University Press, 1998; pages 142, Rs. 995.

JOSEF JAMES has written about painting and sculpture for more than three decades now, with seriousness and conviction always. His new book has those qualities in good measure; and they are especially needed because James is trying here to do no less than join modernity to tradition. But argument is sacrificed to that ambition; and so, though the attempt was made in earnest, it does not succeed.

James' main claim is that Indian sculpture has always been pictorial, in a way that European sculpture is not (from Phidias to Rodin, say. Saying so commits one to the textbook accounts of how the Renaissance simply shrugs off its Gothic past, and restores to sculpture a Greek perfection; but that is not a serious problem here, I think.) James tries in various ways to bring out what this special pictorial character is; he does not quite manage to, and I shall try to bring out why. But granting that Indian sculpture throughout its long history has always been distinctively pictorial in some way, the contention is that contemporary Indian sculpture vitally connects itself to Indian tradition by becoming pictorial as well.

That tradition is a living one for James, continued by the stapathis who work around the great temples (restoring their facades and idols when the need arises, and producing sculpture for new temples). The practice of the stapathi is governed by visual norms derived from the shilpa shastras. These texts are technical manuals. But the stapathi does not sculpt just by following the rules he finds in them; rather, he would as an apprentice have learnt from his master a particular way of carving and composing in accordance with shastraic injunctions.

Most contemporary sculptors would have to work hard at connecting themselves to tradition. The reason for that is the education they are likely to have had; the Indian modernist practice that would have formed them was disabled, James suggests, by its dependence on 20th century European models which are not in any useful way pictorial. (One should note now that many of the sculptors James looks at were trained as painters.)

Carved relief is the obvious example of what one normally call pictorial. The incised line that brings the image out leads the eye along the figure in ways that the changing contour of sculpture in the round usually would not (while line in painting might). But the formal efficacy particular to line is only one kind of pictorial virtue for James; and using line anyhow will not make sculpture pictorial. David Smith (who appears to have made some impression on Indian sculptors) seems to sculpt by 'drawing in space' after all, but one would not call his work pictorial. The phrase 'drawing in space' was Julio Gonzalez's (who has also been an influence here). But Gonzalez and Smith, exemplary as they might have been for later modernist practice in Europe and America, rely on space too much for James to regard their work as really pictorial. (Leo Steinberg's beautiful essay on Gonzalez long ago showed that visual meaning in his sculpture depends on its reference to how the human body senses itself taking up space in its daily motion. Gonzalez's formal use of this sort of somatic awareness seems to require actual space; so it would be odd to call his work pictorial.)

The primacy of line, then, and a minimal use of space are two conditions of pictoriality for James; but just meeting these conditions will not make a work pictorial in the special way Indian sculpture seems to be. Traditional practice, we are told, is 'totally linear' in its 'mode of figuration' (page 30); and in it "linearity is served by a fairly rigorous support system which prescribes posture, size and multiplicities, marks and adornments, which finally make it pictorial" (page 39).

The support system is provided by the shilpa shastras, of course. But how do their rules make the use of line pictorial? More importantly, if the shastraic rules matter in this way, how does contemporary Indian sculpture, which does not have such rules to go by, manage to make its use of line pictorial?

THIS is where the notion of an algebra comes in. The shastraic rules (for 'conjugating' images, as James puts it) are said to make traditional practice somehow algebraic. This is a novel suggestion - the metaphor of conjugating would ordinarily have led to some talk of 'visual grammar' - and understood loosely it is useful, because it brings out how visual meaning in traditional sculpture depends more on the combining of discrete elements than on the modelling of a continuous medium. James' answer to the first question above now seems to be that it is the algebraic character of traditional sculpture which makes linearity pictorial there; and it must be some cognate algebraic character which does so for contemporary sculpture.

But this will not help unless James can tell us how any algebraic way of combining images and motifs can make the line or the contour - which only picks them out (in relief) or bounds them (in the round) - any more (or less) pictorial than it already is. Whatever James takes pictoriality to be, this question has to be tackled; but the way he goes on to exploit the notion of algebra does not address the problem.

Talking of early Buddhist reliefs, James asserts that in them "the Buddha was 'solved for' by a configuration of choice signs: the footprint, the wheel, and so on."

The Buddha is almost never shown as a human figure in early Buddhist art; and that may be because, as James suggests, his enlightened being is unknowable. This prompts James to regard the Buddha as an unknown in an algebraic equation - in the properly mathematical sense of these words now - and then it must have seemed only right to say that the 'algebra' of early Buddhist art 'solves for' the Buddha.

This is audacious; but it will not bear scrutiny. Some sort of analogy between individual sculptures and algebraic equations is implied by putting things this way, and that has awkward consequences. The operations of an algebra solve equations by identifying their unknowns with particular combinations of known quantities; so the Buddha himself cannot be 'solved for' in a sculpture. James' only option, it seems to me, is to take the signs for the Buddha in a particular work as 'solutions' yielded by algebraic operations; but that implies that these signs are produced by somehow combining those motifs and images which are not signs for the Buddha (in that work.)

There is no reason to think that early Buddhist sculpture was either made or received this way. And even if it was (or if it could now be looked at as if it were), we still would not know how the 'algebra' makes linearity pictorial: because it seems to operate on motifs and images, and not on line itself. (Would James have had better luck if he had thought of early Buddhist reliefs as akin to equations which cannot be solved in the algebra their coefficients come from? I don't think so.) We seem to have reached an impasse: it is time to pause and take stock.

James had characterised traditional Indian sculpture as totally linear. One thing he might point to, as strongly supporting that claim, is the sort of contour the figure sculpted in the round presents: it has the feel of a fluently drawn or a smoothly incised line. (The traditional figure presents only one contour because it is usually mounted on a wall or set in a niche; and even otherwise it is meant to be looked at from one position.)

The stapathi thinks with line, one is tempted to say, in something like the way a painter might. (He does not seem to 'draw in space'.) So the visible linearity of traditional sculpture could be taken as an index to a mode of imaging which is in some 'deep' way linear. This mode of imaging might be tied in some fundamental way to painting; the linearity of traditional sculpture may in some sense be pictorial; but saying how linearity is pictorial is going to be very difficult for James, because his notion of the pictorial is a very complicated one. We find, for instance, that "the urge for abstraction" is just "the tendency to reduce appearance to its pictorial aspect" (page 26). On the next page, however, while discussing Dhanraj Bhagat's work, he tells us that "the pictorial aspect of his sculpture was not abstraction, but broad descriptions of an unknown subject."

Just before this we had 'the pictorial aspect' identified with 'two-dimensionality' (page 25); but when James talks of Rodin we are assured that "the pictorial quality in this case does not disturb the three-dimensionality of the sculpture."

WRITING on art has to allow itself a certain licence; very little of use would get said otherwise. The adjectives "linear" and "pictorial" seem peculiarly apt for Indian sculpture, and "algebraic" has its uses. One could read James as trying to account for why these words are as useful as they are. But he does not manage to; and in the end one is not left with a clear sense of how the different sorts of formal character these words name condition Indian sculpture.

Nobody can be expected to argue when he has such slippery notions on his hands; but James tries to read contemporary sculpture with them and the lack of argument is telling then. We are told of S. Nandagopal's work, for instance, that after having 'become surface' and then 'notational' it now "keeps moving to a limit where it would have no body left but a mathematical or metaphysical one", and in the process "turns wholly pictorial and stops being propositional anymore", in which state "the algebra 'solves for' the undesignated subject" (page 43).

James hasn't told us how one thing might lead to the other here, and what he has said gives us little sense of what such claims entail for the eye; so we really have no way of assessing them.

JAMES' essay takes up roughly half the volume. Following it are conversations with seven well-known sculptors. I was hoping that what they said would help me get around some of the difficulties in James' text. The conversations do not, unfortunately, do that; but they are interesting in their own way, and they add to the book.

One surprise is the way some of the veteran sculptors here keep referring to Rodin and Moore. S. Dhanapal, for instance, says that he "started with Pallava sculpture, absorbed Rodin and came to Moore", but "felt no discontinuities" along the way. That should have given James some pause: Moore's work is definitely not pictorial. (Dhanapal goes on to assert that "sculpture is volume, rhythm and space.") But P.V. Janakiram saying that the ornaments of the idols (in the temples' sanctums) 'dazzled' him is instructive, and as James gets him to say how that might have shaped his sculpture there is a hint now and then of how linearity might be a 'deep' formal factor. S.G. Vidyashankar Stapathy was trained in the traditional way before he took to working in more modern ways. Interestingly, he says he was prompted to turn away from tradition because he did not want to 'surrender' to 'the great learning' of the stapathis who were his forefathers. James could have asked him if his work was still 'algebraic' even though he no longer follows the shastras.

C. Dakshinamoorthy trained as a painter before going on to sculpt, and he stresses the importance of drawing: which to him seems to be the only way to 'touch life'. He mentions Gaugin, Van Gogh and Dekoonig with admiration; it would have been interesting to hear how their drawing has shaped his way of carving. S. Paramasivan also started as a painter; and the sort of thing he describes doing (on page 113, for instance) may have shown James a different way of thinking about linearity. What P.S. Nandhan says about 'looking for line' while looking at the world (page 126) was very useful as well, because it indicated how line might shape sculpture that does not look very linear.

The conversation with Nandagopal concludes the book. James seems to think of sculpture in much the same way that Nandagopal does, so the conversation runs in by now familiar channels. What is said here about drawing is worth noting; Nandagopal suggests that the kind of drawing that developed in Cholamandal (in the work of K.C.S. Panicker and Ramanujam among others) was able to 'give rise to sculpture', and to do so not just because it had freed itself of the 'sculptural' quality that had long been prized in drawing (from the Renaissance on until European Modernism got going, say.) Some more or less close account of the formal character which enables drawing to 'give rise to sculpture' would have been useful here.

James has been associated with Cholamandal for a very long time, and he probably has known the younger artists here ever since they were students. The artists' colony at Cholamandal, not far from Chennai, formed around Panicker more than three decades ago; Dhanapal was a near contemporary of Panicker, and Janakiram and Vidyashankar Sta-pathy were among his first students; and the others must have learnt from him in many ways. Panicker's thinking on art was bold; and it proves to have been fertile. The great value of this book is that it indicates how two generations of students have extended his ideas. James' account of their sculpture gives one a sense of how these ideas might have worked their way through a line of artists (so to speak. Nandagopal, for instance, can claim a genealogy that goes back through Janakiram to Dhanraj Bhagat; and perhaps even to Eduardo Paolozzi.)

All told, however, An Algebra of Figuration does not accomplish what it sets out to; but it falls short honourably, and grandly even, one might say. Josef James has made an honest attempt, full of heart, to come to grips with the contemporary sculpture he knows, and to unite it with Indian tradition. But the words he has to rely on do not, unfortunately, carry the load of his thought.

E. Alkazi on the book

PROFESSOR Josef James presents a provocative and challenging thesis about trends in contemporary Indian sculpture, particularly that of the southern region of the subcontinent. He sees these in the context of a sculptural tradition that goes back over two thousand years and is still vital and widespread. Though mainly ritualistic, this tradition remains relevant to a much larger constituency than that enjoyed by exponents of the comparatively recent urban modernism that has been basically western in its inspiration and limited in its impact.

However, he finds in the works of the seven sculptors dealt with in this book what he refers to as a 'distinctively pictorial' and 'frontal' approach by means of which, he believes, a link has been established with the great tradition of indigenous sculpture.

In this succinct yet wide-ranging survey, Professor James discusses the seminal influence of the sculptor, Dhanraj Bhagat, whose pictorial approach was enlivened with 'intimations of a metaphysical subject matter'. He charts the course of Bhagat's sculptural concepts as they were affected by the explorations of the Spanish artist Julio Gonzalez, on the one hand, and the British sculptor, Henry Moore, on the other, whilst his own delicate drawings evoke the sumptuous austerity of the Pallava and Chola draughtsman of the South.

Professor James' theories emerge out of a careful scrutiny of the practice of some of the most significant practitioners of the craft in India and abroad in the last fifty years. The interviews with seven Indian sculptors are delicately probing and offer many startling insights into the often mysterious and instinctual processes of creativity. There is a sense of quiet self-assurance and clarity of purpose in the responses, based on the long and sound tradition of craftsmanship; but also one of self-questioning and unease in the face of global changes and the assault through the mass media.

This book is among the first of such scrupulous and carefully reasoned studies that the complex contemporary art scene in India demands. It is sober, analytical and perspective. Its lucidity arises out of a lightly carried erudition, and also out of a passionate love for an interest in art that is not stymied emotional excess, or by the convoluted jargon that had made current art even more inaccessible to the serious viewer and student of art.

This is an exemplary work. It provides fresh and exciting insights into contemporary creative practice and it clears the ground of many misconceptions. It makes the viewing and study of art objects an intellectually and spiritually life-enhancing experience. For this we owe Professor James a deep debt of gratitude.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment