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DIVINE CARVINGS

The book, vibrant rock: a catalogue of stone sculptures in the state archaeological museum, West Bengal (Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Rs 2,200), opens with an excerpt from the early medieval anthology of Sanskrit court poetry, Suhasitaratnakose: “In building of this temple to the gods he exhausted all the mountains splitting up their pillars of rock with rows of chisels.” The authors, Gautam Sengupta and Sharmila Saha, feel that these lines aptly convey the tempo of the Pala-Sena era — the tremendous upsurge of stone sculpting throughout Bengal. To most, this ‘tempo’ will seem unbelievable where Bengal rock sculpture is concerned. It is commonly believed that rock sculptures took place in isolated sporadic instances and the Pala-Sena tradition was limited to Bihar and Orissa. The book refutes this and some other misconceptions.

So what did the men with chisels carve? How did their work compare to the value of the mountains? Admittedly, some of the finest specimens of Pala- Sena sculptures are at the Indian Museum, Ashutosh Museum and in several major museums abroad but the State Archaeology collection is also remarkable and it proves that there was a sustained creativity across a broad geographical terrain. The map showing the spots where the sculptures were found and one of zonal distribution of rocks give a clearer picture than ever before.

Artists who never cared for individual credit had in this very land crafted whole ranges of divinities — some sensuously spiritual, some ferocious, some serene... They followed iconographic traditions, perhaps keeping in mind the tastes of donors, and as the rock study shows, tuned their style to the characteristics of the rock available. And yet they were able to give their images that inner life that continues to appeal across centuries even when the sculptures are mutilated. The Bengal sculptors did not limit themselves to the black, fine grained glassy basalt or kastipathar (another misconception): most of the sculptures in this collection are in schist, gneiss, sandstone, gabbronorite, serpentinite and basalt.

The book features texts and illustrations of Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain sculptures and architectural fragments. There are 172 Visnu images measuring 1.40m x 8 cm and Visnupatas used for personal rituals. Clad in boots, with full blown lotuses in his hands, Surya (picture, centre) rides chariots of seven horses with his retinue. The inscribed Mahisantosh Surya from Naogaon from the reign of King Mahendrapala featuring a Sani relief is historically precious. Of Saiva images which gained prominence from the Gupta period are Saumya Siva (extreme right), Linga with four Matrikas, Uma-Mahesvara, Aghora Siva etc. An image of Parvati in penance stands out among the numerous devis — Candi, Gauri, Lalita, Ganga, Yamuna, Mahisasuramardini and Manasa.