Why did Medieval Europeans perceive Indian art as monstrous? Was this reaction universal and how has western view of Hindu art changed over the years? Prof Partha Mitter explains..
This essay examines the central theme of European reactions to Indian art from Antiquity to 1900's. The playful title, was chosen to remind readers that the core of western reaction to Indian art rests on a very specific case the existence of multiple armed and headed Hindu deities. Based on a lecture by Dr. Partha Mitter on his book Much Maligned Monsters.
The many-armed Hindu gods were seen as monstrous precisely because they challenged the western concept of rationality.
The many-armed Hindu gods were seen as monstrous precisely because they challenged the western concept of rationality. To quote two great 19th century thinkers, Friedrich Hegel and John Ruskin on this
"The most obvious way in which Hindoo art endeavours to mitigate this disunion between extreme abstractions in Indian thought and its gross manifestations isby the measureless extension of its images. Particular shapes are drawn out into colossal and grotesque proportions in order that they may, as forms of sense, attain to universality. This is the cause of all that extravagant exaggeration of size, not merely in the case of spatial dimension, but also of measurelessness of time dimensions, or the reduplication of particular determinations, as in figures with many heads, arms, and so on, by means of which this art strains to compass the breadth and universality of the significance it assumes."
The English critic Ruskin on the other hand explains monstrosity as the absence of interest in nature
"in Indian art It is quite true that the art of India is delicate and refined. But it has one curious character distinguishing it from all other art of equal merit in design it never represent a natural fact. It either forms its compositions out of meaningless fragments of colour and flowings of line or if it represents any living creature, it represents that creature under some distorted and monstrous form. To all facts and forms of nature it wilfully and resolutely opposes itself it will not draw a man, but an eight-armed monster it will not draw a flower, but only a spiral or a zigzag. "
One may interject that both Hegel and Ruskin reflected the western idea that an image with more than two arms or one head was contra naturam or unnatural and therefore contrary to what is rational. True of course. But the question is not as simple as that. The fascinating point is, such ideas did not originate in the 19th century but went right back to the Middle Ages in the West. Therefore, to understand western reactions to Indian art, we need to go back to the beginning of European explorations of the non-western world.
Lets take the very first real European encounter with with Devadasis or Temple Dancers India. Marco Polo, who lived many years in China, recorded Indian religious customs during his brief visit to the subcontinent, which was a refreshing change from earlier garbled stories that circulated in the Middle Ages. He also helped arouse European curiosity about the manners and customs of the peoples of Asia. However, one passage in Polo deserves our close attention. It describes the idolatrous practice on the Coromandel Coast of South India
"They have certain abbeys in which there are gods and goddesses to whom young girls are consecratedAnd when the nuns of a convent desire to make a feast to their god they send for the consecrated maidens who dance and sing before the idol with great festivity."
We do not know if Polo actually saw the Indian devadasis or temple dancers, or he simply repeated what he had gained from hearsay. This passage however provided a great medieval illuminator, the Matre de Boucicaut, with inspiration for an exotic painting on the subject. The painting, Danse des servantes ou esclaves des dieux occurs in the famous 14th-century manuscript Le Livre des merveilles, a prize possession of the Bibliothque Nationale in Paris.
Now had the caption not given us the information, surely it would have been impossible to recognize it as a painting of Indian temple dancers dancing before a Hindu deity. There is hardly any resemblance between these blond nuns and the devadasis, and the statue placed on classical columns bears little relation to a Hindu goddess. In the Middle Ages, all pagan gods were placed on classical columns as a shorthand for pagan or nonChristian, in other words, Greco-Roman gods. This is the adapted stereotype, which made sense to the medieval reader when captions such as Damascus and Mantua were added This medieval tendency of using a pre-existing schema is an extreme expression of a universal principle.
This is the adapted stereotype, which made sense to the medieval reader when captions such as Damascus and Mantua were added. This medieval tendency of using a pre-existing schema is an extreme expression of a universal principle.
Whenever we attempt to understand something unfamiliar we go from the known to the unknown. The human mind can only process external information by classifying it under a known category, such as here, the Christian nuns representing Indian devadasis. In the field of art, a pre-existing schema serves as a starting point, which may be adapted in the light of the actual subject. However, when that starting-point is too far removed from the motif itself, as in the case of the dancing nuns of Coromandel, the stereotyped image bears little relation to reality. It is unconvincing for us today simply because we have better access to facts. Boucicaut followed Marco Polos text faithfully but could not translate the literary description into a visual image convincingly, as he had no first-hand knowledge of India. Thus the incongruity of the Indian nuns dancing before an Indian idol hits us today with some force.
Far more widespread were the stereotypes of monsters that fill the pages of travels accounts and masquerade as Indian gods.
Far more widespread were the stereotypes of monsters that fill the pages of travels accounts and masquerade as Indian gods. In fact, the roots of such ideas are to be found in the medieval period, and in the Greco-Roman tradition it had inherited from antiquity. In the Middle Ages, India had been reduced to a fabulous name, where earthly paradise was located and where lived monsters described lovingly by the Greeks and faithfully compiled by the Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder. Stories of monopods, cynocaephali, martikhora and many-armed creatures formed the collective fantasy of the educated. Rudolf Wittkowers path-breaking essay, The Marvels of the East A Study in the History of Monsters, establishes that many of these monsters were of Indian origin. He comments that Greeks rationalized their instinctive fears in another, non-religious form by the invention of monstrous races and animals which they imagined to live at a great distance in the East.
The classical monsters and the Christian demons converged at some stage in medieval history. Classical monsters and gods, Biblical demons and Hindu gods were all indiscriminately lumped together
The situation changed around circa 1000 CE when fearsome images of monsters and demons were conjured up during the terrifying days of the first Millennium, which collapsed conceptions of hell, demonology and Antichrist of the Apocalypse. By the late Middle Ages an elaborate and in many ways frightening imagery of demons and of hell had grown up, that brought together elements from diverse sources. The classical monsters and the Christian demons converged at some stage in medieval history. Classical monsters and gods, Biblical demons and Hindu gods were all indiscriminately lumped together with congenital malformations under the all-embracing class of monstersIn this twilight region it is difficult to say with certainty where the line was drawn between the world of facts and that of the imagination.
The representation of Hindu gods as monsters had an amazing persistence. When the first travellers arrived in India in the 14th and 15th centuries, they preferred to trust what they had read in Pliny rather than the actual deities they encountered. This clash of classical and Indian taste is important of course. But perhaps even more important is the religious dimension to early western responses to Indian art.
The reaction to Hindu gods demonstrate the clash of two major faiths, Christianity and Hinduism one a religion of the book that believed in unity, uniformity and suppression of dissent the other a form of pluralism that embraced a bewildering variety of views and beliefs
First, the Indian art that the travellers encountered was naturally profoundly religious, namely, Hindu temple sculpture and architecture. Secondly, early European interest in Hindu sacred art is not surprising at all, given the fact that this was the age of faith in the West. Scepticism and scientific rationality that we have come to take for granted is only as old as the 20th century. The reaction to Hindu gods demonstrate the clash of two major faiths, Christianity and Hinduism one a religion of the book that believed in unity, uniformity and suppression of dissent the other a form of pluralism that embraced a bewildering variety of views and beliefs accumulated over millennia.
From the moment early explorers set foot on the Indian soil, after a long and hazardous land or sea journey, they were faced with the problem of making sense of that vast theatre of idolatry that was India. For, if, as the early Church Fathers had admonished, and the Bible confirmed, that monotheism was Gods precious gift to Adam, how was it that he had left such a teeming population of pagans in the dire abyss of idolatry Idolatry fascinated as well as perplexed the first visitors. Early reports, which contributed to the growing image of the Hindus, their religion and their religious art, were at once, fragmented, discrete and disparate, and yet so sensational that they were extensively published in a number of European languages, widely read and endlessly discussed by the erudite. The full extent of idolatry, perpetrated by pagans the world over, only slowly dawned among the literati in the West.
Initially, travellers felt confident with some justification that Indians had been converted to Christianity by St Thomas, and would prove to be valuable allies against the Moors, who were threatening western Christendom. There is the classic story of cultural misunderstanding connected with the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gamas arrival in Calicut in South India in 1498. Quoting -
"In Calicut, they took us to a large church built of hewn stone. Inside the chapel was a small image which they said represented our lady. Major da Gama and we said prayers, the priests sprinkled water and white earth. Many saints were painted on the walls."
For the early travellers, the subcontinent was a virtual terra incognita. Hence one can appreciate the enormous problems they faced. From the outset, there was a persistent attempt to fit the new material on Indian idolatry into the familiar mould of Biblical and Patristic literature - the accommodation of the unfamiliar into a familiar mindset. Western perceptions of alien religions, more than any other aspect of culture, take us to the very heart of the problem of translating concepts and values of one system into another very different one.
the very heart of the problem of translating concepts and values of one system into another very different one.
One of the best-known visitors to India was the Italian gentleman traveller, Ludovico di Varthema, in the 16th century. He concluded from his visit that even though the Hindus had received the revelation, they nonetheless persisted in worshipping many false gods.Varthema devoted most of his attention to the demon worship of Calicut, based, as he claimed, on observation. Here is the famous passage:
“In the midst of the chapel of the king of Calicut sits a devil made of
metal on a seat in the flame of fire; he has four horns, four teeth and
wears a triple crown like that worn by the Pope, and most terrible
eyes. The said devil holds a soul in his mouth with the right hand,
and with the other seizes a soul by the waist.”
This was no Hindu god, but a conflation of different images of Anti-Christ in
the Middle Ages. At this time knowledge about Hindu religion and iconography was rudimentary. Varthema set the tradition of demon worship in India, a tradition that was to haunt western imagination until the 17th century. The 17th century marks a turning point that paved the way towards a more objective study of Hinduism and the discipline of comparative religion.
This was no Hindu god, but a conflation of different images of Anti-Christ in the Middle Ages.
Rogerius, Baldaeus, and Kircher mark the conclusion of this lengthy period spanning from the end of the Middle Ages to the 18th century, when the monster stereotype was finally abandoned and Hindu gods began to regain their original appearances. The incidental details also became more convincing, but it would be another eighty years before the British Empire's archaeological studies would disseminate accurate depictions of Hindu gods and studies of Indian antiquities.
However, this did not necessarily result in a deeper appreciation of Hindu sculpture and architecture, which has continued to pose difficulties for western art historians. One could argue that, despite increased knowledge, Indian monster deity stereotypes remained largely unchanged.