Distinction in Indian Iconography [Part II, 5]

Published: 20.01.2012

The paper was published in Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (S.K. De Felicitation Volume), Poona 1960, pp. 164-248.


Distinction in Indian Iconography

Part II: The Theory


XII. Non-Epic Representation

§ 73. In the Introduction we have said that our essay is only concerned with “non-epic“ representations. The latter term requires some illustration.

A motif can be rendered from the very beginning in non-epic form, but it is also possible that the epic element disappears gradually (cf. § 11). Since the motif itself is normally epic it will suffice to speak of non-epic representation. The reduction of the epic element has various aspects.

  1. Individualizing elements, i.e. elements which specify a particular individuality, a particular occasion, and a particular locality are removed. Thus the representations of the Jinas contain few, if any, elements which identify the person and the occasion.
  2. General elements, i.e. elements without the qualifications mentioned in (a), are introduced. The Jina is surrounded by innumerable figures which neither identify a particular Jina nor even necessarily the Jina as such.
  3. Elements which specify different individuals, different occasions and different localities are combined. Śiva appears simultaneously in his Andhakāsuravadha-aspect and in his Gajāsuravadha-aspect (§ 25).
  4. Dynamic form is translated into static form. The cakra is not being hurled but simply held in the hand.
  5. The arrangement and scaling of the elements is unrealistic (fig. 16).

The reverse process is also possible - an epic element can be introduced into a non-epic composition. Śiva and Pārvatī are seen as “playing chess“ because the artist has shown a chess-board between them and has made them face each other. [1] Otherwise the representation is non-epic: Śiva carries as usual his trident, and so forth.

It is common practice in India as elsewhere to interpret non-epic compositions as epic. Moreover “inconsistencies“ in non-epic representations (see above paragraph c) may sometimes cause unnecessary embarrassment. This is particularly true for compositions which are midway between the purely epic and the purely non-epic type. I mention only the fact that the bodhi-tree is sometimes represented in scenes of the Buddha's life where it does not belong (Foucher has discussed one such case in great detail in L'art Greco - Bouddhique du Gandhāra I, p. 418).

There is no clear-cut line of demarcation between amalgamation and non-epic representation (see above under “c“ and § 37), and neither can therefore be studied separately. Besides, non-epic representation becomes an instrument of stereotyping. Since considerations of realistic rendering are suspended here, it is possible to adapt all motifs to one or two standard patterns (chapter II).



§ 74. If we study Indian iconography on scientific lines we cannot take for granted:

  • That there is general harmony between iconography texts and monuments (Introduction, § 61 and 62).
  • That the existence of an iconographic term implies the existence of a thing (person) (§ 59 and 60).
  • That artistic conceptions reflect directly religious ideas or religious trends (§ 58).
  • (Or on the contrary:) That artistic conceptions are guided merely by aesthetic considerations (§ 66).
  • That similarity (dissimilarity) of the iconographic type implies similarity (dissimilarity) of the motif (§ 46 and 70b).
  • That the existence of an iconographic type implies the existence of a motif (§ 44).
  • That the part is determined by the whole (i.e. that there is a necessary relation between the part and the whole) (§ 24).
  • That cihnas and inscriptions settle the problem of identification (§ 9 and 46).
  • That identical forms have the same symbolical value (chapter III).

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Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 20 (1960)

Compiled by PK


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