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13 / The Body

Vamana Temple (exterior)
Vamana Temple (exterior)
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, India
Date 11th century
Material Sandstone
Medium: Sculpture
Location Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
Credit Photo courtesy of Tamara Sears

expert perspective

Vidya DehejiaProfessor of Indian and South Asian Art, Columbia University

Vamana Temple (exterior)

» Unknown artist, India

expert perspective

Vidya Dehejia Vidya Dehejia Professor of Indian and South Asian Art, Columbia University

The body in Indian art is an idealized body and this ideal seems to be established, we see it in images of the second century BCE. And it seems to be that same ideal form—with a few changes, of course—but that same idealized form that persists all the way into the eighteenth century. Canons of proportion existed and they did change according to region and time in India, but one of the most accepted canons of proportion was a unit called the tala, which is sort of like the palm of the hand, or it’s a span, you could say about nine inches, if you wished. And a god had to be ten of those in total. One for the face, you could have the crown included, but then you had a tall figure, ten. If it was a goddess it was nine. If it was a human being it came down to eight for a man and seven for a woman. So there were canons of proportion. There were also certain ideals laid down, like think of a bamboo shoot and model the arm of a woman on a bamboo shoot.

There is no unadorned body portrayed in art. And the literature makes it very explicit. We have a sixteenth-century poet who just says ‘the woman may be gorgeous, she may be lovely, but if she is unadorned she is not beautiful.’ It’s as simple as that. And the other point is that adornment was also supposed to be protective. Necklaces protect the body. Earrings shelter the ears; armlets, likewise, bring fortune. There is no such thing as a nude in the art of India. It is always the body adorned. And it is adorned with fabrics, always. Very often you look at some of the images and they seem as if they don’t have clothing, but if you look closely you will see the lines along the ankles, around the neck, around the wrists—bits of floating, translucent fabric. The sensuous appeal is that there is clothing, but it’s almost not there.” 

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