In this article we will discuss about the remarkable progress in the field of art of sculpture during the Maurya and Gupta Age
The period under study witnessed remarkable progress in the art of sculpture.
The three important schools of Indian sculpture, i.e.,:
(1) The Gandhara school;
(2) The Mathura School; and
(3) The Amravati School grew and progressed during this period.
Each of these schools produced fine pieces of sculpture and the art developed to an extent which it could not at any other time prior to this age. Each of these schools has occupied a commanding place in the field of Indian sculpture and has contributed towards its growth and fulfillment.
The art of sculpture was practised by the Indians since ancient times. The most ancient specimens of Indian sculpture are in the seals found at the sites of the Indus valley civilization. After that we find no specimens of Indian sculpture till the age of the Mauryas. It does not mean that the art remained dead during this intervening period. It existed in some form even during this period but it seems that perishable materials were used in preparing art pieces of sculpture and therefore, these could not survive.
During the Mauryan age, the patronage provided by the emperors, the influx of foreign influence, and growing material prosperity led to the revival of the art of sculpture.
The animal-figures on Asoka’s stone columns have existed till now and have been regarded as beautiful works of art. The famous lions of Sarnath column and the beautiful bull of the column of Rampurva are the works of talented sculptors. A beautiful figure of a Yaksni has been found at Didarganj but it is that of the post-Mauryan period.
A number of figures of Yaksas have also been found at different places. They are strong, heavy, bull-necked and a few of them even larger than life-size. Though not perfect they have been regarded as fine specimens and when compared with the figures of Harappa’s seal-figures they exhibit the survival of an ancient tradition in sculpture.
However, the most beautiful pieces of sculpture art of the post- Mauryan period are the carvings on the railings and gateways of the stupas at Bharhut, Gaya and Sanchi. The remains at Bharhut seem to be that of nearly 150 B.C., that of Sanchi about the end of the first century B.C. and that of Gaya between period of these two.
The stupa of Bharhut is in Madhya Pradesh. It was constructed during the rule of the Sungas by the followers of Buddhism. Attempt was made to depict the life of Mahatma Buddha and forty Jataka-stories by means of icons constructed on the boundary-wall md entrance-gate of the stupa. Beautiful figures of Yaksas and Yaksnis and figures depicting scenes from Jataka tales have been carved on the railings of Bharhut stupa.
These figures seem to suggest that the artists were well-trained in working on some other matter than stone (probably, it was ivory) and now tried their skill on wood and stone. The figures on the railings of the sacred path of the Gaya stupa are deeper, more vital, more rounded and therefore, more beautiful than the figures at Bharhut which proves further improvement in the art.
The stupa of Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) was constructed during the Mauryan-age but its boundary-wall of stone was constructed during the rule of the Sungas and its entrance-gates were, probably, constructed during the rule of the Satavahana rulers of south India as on its gate towards the south is engraved the name of the Satavahana ruler, Satakarni.
The figures carved on the gateways of Sanchi stupa are still more beautiful which proves that the art which grew up at Bharhut marked its climax by the time the gateways of Sanchi were erected. Yaksas, Yaksnis, scenes depicting events from the life of the Buddha or from Jataka tales, horses in procession, elephants roaming in jungle, lions, snakes, peacocks, etc. have been beautifully carved out here.
The figures are beautiful not only from the point of view of their structures but also from the point of view of their expressions of moods and instincts. It seems that these were influenced by the Mesopotamian or Persian art but primarily they are the specimens of Indian art.
Another fine specimen of architecture as well as sculpture is the Garuda-pillar at Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh near Sanchi. It was constructed by Heledorus who was the ambassador of the Greeks at the court of the Sunga-ruler at Vidisa (Madhya Pradesh). This column (pillar) was decorated with beautiful half open lotus flowers. At the top of it was constructed the figure of Garuda which was beautiful.
Yet, the art of sculpture had not reached its perfection because by then no images were built by Indian artists. In India, the first images of the Buddha were built under the influence of Mahayanism. Prior to it, the presence of the Buddha was indicated by various symbols such as footprint, umbrella etc.
Mahayanism inspired artists to carve images of the Buddha and a beginning was made during the period of the Kushanas. This led to the growth of Gandhara and Mathura schools of art in sculpture which vie with each other for the honour of having produced the best images of the Buddha. While European scholars have maintained that this credit goes to the Gandhara school, the Indian scholars contend that it goes to the Mathura school.
1. The Gandhara School (50 B.C.-500 A.D.):
The Gandhara art has been called by several other names, i.e., Greco-Roman, Greco-Buddhist, Indo-Greek etc. because it clearly exhibits the influence of Roman, Greek or Hellenistic art. But this art did not grow during the domination of north-west India by the Greeks but much after it.
The patrons of this art were not the Greeks but the Sakas and the Kushanas who carried on and protected the traditions and culture of their Hellenistic predecessors in this region. The art flourished in the north-western frontier of India, the region called the Gandhara- Pradesh and therefore, it has been named as the Gandhara school of art. And, as the Hellenistic influence on this art is undeniable, it has been called the Gracco-Roman or Indo-Greek art.
Besides, as it was inspired by Buddhism, it has been called Greco-Buddhist art. Thus the inspiration of this art was primarily Buddhism and its creators were mostly Indians though it was influenced by foreign art. Kramrisch says, “Gandhara . . . occupies a position apart. For it is Indian and colonial from a Hellenistic point of view, it is Hellenistic and colonial when viewed from India.”
The art pieces of Gandhara school have been found at Bimaran, Hastnagar, Sakra Dheri, Shah-ji-ki-dheri, Hadda near Jalalabad and at various sites of Taxila. Most of them have been kept in the museums of Peshawar and Lahore. Amongst these art pieces the images of the Buddha are the best specimens.
Viewing them from a critical point of view it has been concluded that the Gandhara school progressed during 150 years of its beginning, it deteriorated in the second century A.D., but then again improved itself in the beginning of the third century A.D. In its later stages it was affected by the Mathura school and, when finally grown up, it affected the art of sculpture in China and Central Asia.
Its chief characteristics are the realistic representation of human figures, distinguished muscles of the body and transparent garments. The images of the Buddha were so beautifully made that they look like images of Apollo, the Greek god of beauty. Dr A.L. Basham writes, “The Gandhara sculptures had other models in the gods of the Greco-Roman world. Often their inspiration seems almost wholly western.”
These beautiful images of the Buddha were ranked among the best pieces of sculpture and therefore, the Gandhara school was considered the best school amongst the schools of Indian sculpture and, at one time, it was claimed that it was primarily responsible for the growth of all great schools of Indian sculpture.
The claim has been refuted. Now the majority of scholars believe that the Mathura school stands higher than the Gandhara school the art of sculpture of the Gupta age belongs to the Mathura school and, that it was free from the influence of the Gandhara art.
Yet the Gandhara school of art has been recognised as one of the best schools of Indian sculpture and the images of the Buddha which were built under its patronage are amongst the best possessions of Indian art. Dr A.L. Basham comments, “The Buddhas of Gandhara though perhaps lacking in the spirituality of those of the Gupta period are gentle, graceful and compassionate, while some of the plaques are vivid am energetic.”
2. The Mathura School (150 B.C.-300 A.D.):
Mathura is one of the district towns of western UP. The art of sculpture which developed here has been called the Mathura School. Its origin has been traced back to the middle of the second century B.C. but it was only in the first century A.D. that its genuine progress began. It flourished here for centuries and acquired the highest position in the field of sculpture.
It was so popular that at a later stage the images which were built here were exported to Taxila and even Central Asia in the West and to Sravasti and Sarnath in the East. It also provided the basis for further progress of the art of sculpture. The art of sculpture of the Gupta age has been accepted as a developed form of the Mathura school.
The Mathura school was somewhat influenced by the Gandhara school in the first half of second century A.D. The images of the Buddha of Gandhara art were copied here but in a more refined way. The Gandhara-composition is also evident in certain reliefs and decorative motifs. In turn, it also influenced the Gandhara school of art. The school was directly influenced by Roman art as well because of its direct links with the Roman empire by the sea-route. But whatever foreign influence it had, it was slowly given up and by the coming of the Gupta age it was perfectly free from it.
A standing female figure of Amohini relief, the standing statue of emperor Kanishka kept in the museum of Mathura, the statue of a slave girl kept in the museum of Benaras and a large number of figures and images in stone of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, Yaksas and Yaksnis, males and females, found at Mathura and its nearby region, have been regarded as the finest pieces of the art of sculpture.
In its early stages, the school was probably inspired by Jainism as we find that many figures of cross-legged naked Tirthankaras in meditation were carved by Mathura craftsmen. Afterwards, the images of the Buddha replaced them which clearly exhibits the influence of Buddhism on it. But more than that the art of the Mathura school proved to be the art for the sake of art.
Not only were statues of Kushana emperors prepared by sculptors but the great majority of their creation consisted of nude or semi-nude figures of female-Yaksnis or apsaras in erotic postures.
The royal statues of Kushana kings were found near Mathura. They belong to the last quarter of the first century A.D. and exhibit foreign influence. The most striking statue is that of emperor Kanishka though it lacks its head. It is draped in the dress of Central Asia—a long coat and quilted boots. It is grand and solid from physical point of view though technically it lacks a sense of depth.
The same way the early Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Mathura school are fleshy figures and possess no expression of spirituality. But, afterwards, religious feeling and spirituality were exhibited in them. Then the images exhibited not only a firm, masculine and energetic body but also one with grace and religious feeling. The attempt to display spiritual strength by a circle behind the faces of the images began with the Mathura school.
Yet the most remarkable pieces of the Mathura art are its beautiful female figures. Most of these figures are nude or semi-nude, have full round breasts, full heavy hips and slender waists. Besides, postures of their bodies, heads, hands and legs are definitely erotic. Thus, their aim is frankly sensual. Thus, the Mathura school succeeded in depicting the beauty of the body, both of male and female, and also their religious, spiritual and sensual moods, instincts and expressions.
The one distinguishing feature of the Mathura school was that the stone which the craftsmen used was mostly spotted red sandstone found at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra.
3. The Amravati School (150 B.C.-400 A.D.):
In the region between the lower valley of the rivers Krishna and Godavari in the South are the districts of Amravati and Guntur where another school of sculpture called the Amravati school flourished. The region had become an important centre of Buddhism as early as the second century B.C. and it provided the first incentive to this school. By the middle of the second century A.D., the school matured itself and beautiful sculptural pieces were created.
The school exerted great influence not only on the later South Indian sculpture but as its products were carried to Ceylon and South-East Asian countries, it also influenced sculptural arts of those countries. The Amravati school serves as a link between the earlier art of Bharhut, Gaya and Sanchi on the one hand and the later Gupta and Pallava art on the other.
Accepting freely the principle of art for the sake of art, the craftsmen of the Amravati school created beautiful human images. Of course, images of the Buddha were built and the great stupa of Amravati was adorned with lime-stone depicting scenes of the Buddha’s life and surrounded by free-standing figures of the Buddha but figures and statues of males and females exceed them in number and quality.
The same way, though this school successfully depicted love, compassion, devotion and sacrifice, yet the physical beauty and the sensual expressions commanded its art. The figures and statues carved under the influence of this school have been regarded as the best amongst the contemporaries not only from the point of view of their size, physical beauty and expressions of human emotions but also from the point of view of composition.
The figures and images are so composed that they seem to be interlinked with each other and present before an onlooker not distinct figures and images but a w ell-composed painting depicting a scene or an event. The art of Amravati is frankly naturalistic and sensuous. The female figures in different moods and poses, standing, sitting, bending, flying, dancing, hanging are its best creations.
The forms of the Yaksnis and the dancing girls have full busts, heavy hips and living flesh and they exhibit infinite love, grace and beauty. Even men, animals and vegetation have been treated elegantly. And images and figures of even more than 16 feet in height were built here. Here feminine beauty has been depicted more successfully than compared to Mathura.
Dr Nihar Ranjan Ray comments, “Never so far was the delicate and voluptuous beauty of the human frame so richly and luxuriously conceived, and never were technical skill and efficiency more adequate for realisation of the conception.”
The Amravati artists used white marble for the construction of their figures and images.
The school of Mathura and Amravati closed that chapter in the art sculpture which had started at Bharhut, Gaya and Sanchi. The school of Mathura accepted a human being as a distinct entity and emphasis was laid on the depiction of physical beauty through art. The Amravati school forged ahead of it. While the Mathura school failed to exhibit sensuous desires markedly, the Amravati school succeeded in that.
Thereby, for the first time, the Indian art of sculpture came closer to the physical and emotional needs of man. Hence, the primary aim of art no longer served religion but human beings. The change of attitude in art was a part of change in attitude of society in general because of increased trade and commerce and, thereby, economic prosperity. The factor for increased economic prosperity of the Indian people at that time did not remain agriculture.
It was replaced by foreign trade in which the South had marched ahead of the North. The growing foreign trade with western countries, particularly with the Roman empire by the sea-route, was primarily responsible for the change in the Indian economy and, thereby, a change in social attitude which brought about its effect on art as well, bringing it nearer to man than his religion.
This helped in the progress of art because art became free from certain inhibitions and the artists could pursue the principle of art for the sake of art. But, then, the art of Amravati reflected the attitude of a mercantile social economy and that of an urban bourgeois society which preferred transient pleasures and temporary values of life and therefore, failed to reach the best amongst the Indian art.
It was only in the fifth and sixth centuries during the Gupta age that the art was relieved of the weight of physical substance and became illuminated by an intellectualised spiritual experience and therefore, reached its climax.