Iconography in India and the expression of faith

After a two-year pandemic-caused hiatus, the Indian Art History Congress took place at Chennai this week, hosted by the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. The theme was Indian Iconography with special emphasis on regional developments. I was surprised that many people asked me what iconography was. Hence, it is the subject of this article.

An icon is a symbol of someone or something that is revered, or a religious representation of a spiritual ideal. It may be a person, like Nelson Mandela, who is revered for his life. It may be water, revered for its life-giving property, or a pipal tree for its oxygen production. But it is generally translated into an anthropomorphic symbol—paintings of Jesus Christ, statues of Hindu deities and so on. Iconography then becomes a study of the icon, its origin, symbolism and so on. Each region develops it differently. Bengal’s Nateshwara is Tamil Nadu’s Nataraja.

Iconography is as much a source for the study of history and social evolution as it is a portrayal of religious belief. One must question the symbolism surrounding each icon and the reasons for the deity’s association with only a certain combination of attributes. Those aspects of social and economic life essential to a group of people were expressed in words as stories and in art as icons. The devotees venerated these aspects and surrounded them with an aura of supernaturalism, mystery and magic that developed into religion and ritual. Later generations regarded them as myths. Art reflects a social experience that becomes part of a cultural heritage, and iconography is a vital pulse. The Indian artist who employed the language of symbolism had to create a vision that could not only be understood by the poet’s sharpened faculties, but also be recognised and appreciated by the devotees whom the creations were intended to serve. Thus iconography had to supersede the literate and speak to the illiterate whose faith in oral traditions was stored in their heads.

To understand the complexities of Indian iconography, it is necessary to refer to the myths associated with each icon. Mythology has been described as “the science of primitive man, his manner of explain­ing the universe”. Natural phenomena inexplicable to him are explained by myths of gods and other supernatural beings. The mythical world is a direct reflection of the actual. The individual and his society are merged in a natural-divine cosmos, wherein myths are directly correlated to the maintenance of social and cosmic harmony. They represent a record of migrations, invasions, geographical and social changes; they are a page out of the history of humankind. They are directed towards the attainment and preservation of certain ends—rainfall, pros­perity, health, children—and thus have a definite economic implication. Whatever is described as the action of the gods in heaven reflects actions on earth—the Heavenly Kingdom of Indra replicates the courts of ancient Hindu kings, that of Yuti, “the Ancient one of the Jade, who ruled the Chinese Heavens”, was a replica of the Imperial Court at Peking. All their hopes, beliefs and aspirations reflected in myths are portrayed in the icons.

With the advance of civilisation, the primitive was coated with veneers of sophistication and often became unrecognisable, sometimes even deliberately so. One such example is found in the Roman Catholic cult of the Virgin Mother, a continuation of earlier Pagan traditions. While the later gloss may represent changing ideas and philosophical ideals, the earlier traditions correlate directly to the problems of life and survival.

Each deity in the Hindu pantheon is associated with a certain combination of emblems, attributes, flora and fauna, whose origin tells a tale. To cite an example, Vishnu holds the gada or club, a Neolithic weapon. Thus he must have been an ancient Neolithic deity. The shankha or conch of Krishna was acquired after defeating Panchajana, a demon who lived in the waters in the form of the conch. Apparently, the people who revered the god had knowledge of the sea, while the association of the Panchajanya with Krishna and, later, Vishnu, may represent an actual historical event wherein the conquerors assumed the emblem of the conquered, like a totem. When Durga kills Mahisha, the buffalo demon, it symbolises the food producers defeating the buffalo grazers. The stories of the association of the various animal vehicles or vahanas with the deities record the assimilation of one tribe by another. This is equally true of Buddhism and Jainism.

The Bible says that God made man in his image, but it is man who made God in his image. Gods are but superhuman reflections of their worshippers who conceived them in the best forms they could envisage. Ganesha in Mumbai is a good example. When India won the World Cup, Ganesha posed with a bat and ball. When India detonated the bomb, Ganesha sat beside a bomb. The works of art also indicate the interdependence of societies. The simhavahana or lion vehicle of Durga first appears as the mount of the goddess in ancient Sumer. That the movement of ideas was not restricted is corroborated by so many such examples.

The symbols that were evolved with a purely utilitarian intent develop, through the course of their evolution, a vitality and dynamism. The artist’s consciousness of reality, a developing one at that, qualifies the aesthetics of art, which determines the vitality of the work. The image, conceived for magical purposes, assumed a dynamism that the artist expresses. And this selective concentration on one or more aspects develops for the devotee an all-assuming significance. In the evolution of aesthetic comprehension and expression, we perceive the evolution of humankind’s perception and sensitivity.

The agamas and shastras, which became the sources of Indian iconography, were formulated and compiled long after the earliest icons had come into existence and their final form established. In fact, the shastras merely laid down as unchangeable what earlier artists had created.

Hence iconography becomes a study of the development of the expression of faith and spiritualism—of social, human and sensory evolution. Thus, it is a part of the story of people, their lives, environment and devotion. The sum total forms the history of humankind.

Nanditha Krishna

Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai

([email protected])

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