A Fortnightly Review.
By TOM LOWENSTEIN.
THIS IS, IN itself, a beautifully written book, but it is also a moral one. It is not only interesting to learn about the nature of Indian deities such as Lakshmi, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and the Islamic dynasties, but as the author, Richard Blurton, writes his introduction:
‘…in our globalized world…it is clear that without understanding cultures other than one’s own, we are reduced. With South Asians…making up a fifth of the world’s population, it is essential to undertake this task. This book is a modest attempt to do that.’
The author is indeed, throughout, modest – and one is aware of his presence in the ease with which he presents many thousands of years of fact and its detail. The undertaking is too immense properly, as a non-specialist, to comprehend. And qua factualities there is too much detail for the non-specialist reader to take in. But this tendency is generously counterbalanced. If one wants to understand Jainism or Buddhism, their doctrines and histories are clearly outlined in each of the separate spreads.
But how can a single person know so much and genially communicate it? This is impossible to say. The book is at once an academic resource, a text book and the communication of a specialist who is clearly close to, familiar with, every stone, every site, every doctrine he describes.
The word India also comprises places no longer within contemporary Indian statehood. Tibet, Central Asia, part of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka are all present places once informed by Indian religious and associated artistic cultures. Much of what they have thought and produced derived from the subcontinent we know today as ‘India’. What, for example, could be more ‘Indian’ than a Tibetan tapestry which is, in origin, ‘Indian’ Buddhist, because Buddhism originated in northern India. The endogenous nature of the Tibetan style is both itself and also Indian in origin. It is part of Indian history but so infused with its own identity that it is also separate. This paradox infuses much of the south Asian artistic phenomenon.
These, and many other pieces discussed in the book, are part of Indian history as this extended beyond today’s geographical borders. Indian history is, in other words, a spread: A syncretically colonial process largely effected not by government agents but largely by non-political monks, traders and artists.
This indeed is a history of India. A work both of reference and beauty that both reflects and contains the vastness of its focus. But it includes Burma, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh as well as the continent that we know as today’s India. And while the author demonstrates that wide distribution of the Indian phenomenon into territories that became culturally and politically separate, these are both are part of Indian history and endogenously separate. This phenomenon is taken for granted. And to view everything Jain, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, one is almost always seeing two things at once.
THE BOOK IS divided into six parts. And though almost every image reflects something in the possession of the British Museum, Blurton kicks off with a survey of South Asian geology and concludes with about ten spreads on nineteenth- to twenty-first-century painters, writers, musicians, needle workers and film makers. In terms of this totality, the extent of engagement is magisterial. And one of the impressive things about this is that the needlework of Mumbai women, for example, is presented as seriously as the fabulous and better known deep-cut sculpture of thirteenth-century Orissa. Enormous stones are celebrated and tiny, insignificant-looking keepsakes carried by pilgrims are given equal, serious weight.
The six sections are as follows: 1. Prehistory; 2. Early empires; 3. Dynasties and the rise of devotion; 4. Deccan Sultans, Mughal emperors and Rajput kings; 5. Europeans and the British; 6. Colonial India, independence and modernity. Each of these is subdivided into a spread per sub-division and this sets out both the material of historical focus which it discusses both for its inherent importance and its relationship with what went before and what is to come. Thus if one wants to know, for example, about Buddhism, its origin in northern India and its development in Tibet, Burma, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, it is not difficult to find one’s way.
All that said, this is not a book to be read through sequentially. The wealth of the cultures of present day India, Bangladesh, Tibet, Central Asia and Sri Lanka are all subsumed, and one way of engaging both knowledge and imagination is to cross-reference. This is made possible thanks to a good index. One is otherwise tempted to flag. But to knit the whole thing together, one must relax into a busy, but quasi-passive series of treasure hunts. And this works against the anxiety that one might forget a detail. More regional maps would help, and the captions (each of which, often wittily and always informatively, might be expanded to book-length) may require of some readers a magnifying glass. This all adds to the book’s variety. But this multifariousness is controlled well by Blurton’s authority and the significance of the detail he presents, suggesting that the author knows a lot more. There is, however, no room for more in what is already a carefully edited and designed book. This is not what the reader expects from an old-style spectacular Thames and Hudson art book but it is also equal to what is expected of the British Museum. The present volume has a finality of seriousness that one anticipates from a scholar and his colleagues. The pictorial content is beautiful, but this is always connected to the urgency of the text and requires study in addition to admiration.
There is a vast abundance of images (about 500), each of which demands informed meditative attention. Take for example, the image of the fish, representing Vishnu, which retrieves from danger otherwise lost texts. It is important to comprehend both the mythological symbolism of the fish and to know the potential danger of losing vital MSS. And the role of the fish and of other animals, often vehicles of the gods, in Hindu metaphysics has its interior logic, some of it deriving from pre-existing folklore which is supplied.
What is compressed, so elegantly concentrated, is expressed in a sometimes bewildering vastness of imagery. So one is faced with both the compression of meaning and the ecstatic efflorescence of its expression. This, for the reader, is both fascinating and without boundaries. One may become a knowledgeable scholar or a devotee, for whom efflorescence is interesting but unimportant. The museum curator exists in a sort of calm both-ness. He or she may meditate on an object while also knowing or investigating its socio-cultural history, its provenance, its material construction and its place in the infinite multitude of its real and potential connections and meaning. This Blurton accomplishes by enumerating necessary attributes in a respectful and informative way. Our comprehension of say, the beautiful Tara figure illustrated on p. 111, enables us to coincide with his appreciation of this and its context in the devotion of countless millions of people in a long history. This is moving. And the book is filled with similar gestures of knowledge which is both historically informed and aesthetically sympathetic.
The author writes with ease about an astonishing variety of cultures and epochs. And he imparts this knowledge with unpretentious felicity. The combined impact of this is at once overwhelming and enlightening. It is far too much to take in and must therefore represent a perpetual resource, a stand-by for specialist and non-specialist alike. Nonetheless, what remains equally important is the fact that these traditions both existed and continue, in transformation, to exist and this continuum is laid out by a guide who is both an authority and, as it were, a devotee of the object and its meaning. No sect or tradition is given preference and its place in the historical continuum is thus dignified with an egalitarian importance, its place in the continuity and evolution of a development that can only be comprehended by someone familiar with an on-going tradition and its aesthetic manifestations.
Focus on beauty is also at the heart of such a book and the exquisite nature of spiritual representation is thereby made securely communicative. The ‘fact’ that a particular image is constructed of sandstone or bent metal is historically and materially incontravertible. But this fact is part of a narrative of continuous and continuing production which is aesthetically fabulous.
In this regard, there is a [necessarily?] abbreviated account of nineteenth- to twenty-first-century Indian painting, drawing, writing, film and needlework which might only perhaps exist in the context of a long and formative past. This reference to later practitioners is both frustrating and compelling. It makes the reader want to know more and understand how far an Indian-led tradition might impact on the multi-cultural world in which it takes place without abandoning its origin. Herein lies the wholesome paradox of such production: it is both Indian and of today’s multi-cultural and sometimes culturally formless embrace.
This, in sum, is a book that could not have been written or presented differently. It is bewildering in both its wealth and diversity, and no single ‘native’ devotee could know about or understand so many other traditions. This, no doubt, is an expression of museum culture. Everything has interest, so everything is an object of study. Who but a museum curator could either know or sympathise with such collective diversity? Given long history, erosion, war, imperialism and nationhood, how could this be otherwise? The danger of such an approach lies in dry didacticism — the sense that one is being lectured by someone in the know. If this book is didactic, this is only the case in that we learn in the companionship of an author who very clearly admires what he describes. He partakes of its exuberance while informing us precisely the nature of each image.
It helps to either know a little already or to be open to both particularity and vastness. The original terminology which the author provides helps lend the presentation its authenticity. Still, the imagery, presented by Thames and Hudson and the British Museum, dominates. This is seductive and beautiful, if a little cramped (the picture captions and fine detail in the photos for many readers’ eyes may only be absorbed through a magnifying glass). A much larger book would reach a smaller audience. For this is a book to be read, not sequentially but cumulatively, and as the title says this is a history. The objects represent this history and the two cannot be separated. One might say ‘illustrated’. But the objects themselves are history and it is the successful endeavor of the text to focus on this.
TOM LOWENSTEIN was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009). The Structure of Days Out is serialized in The Fortnightly Review, as After the Snowbird Comes the Whale, beginning here. An archive of his Fortnightly work is here.