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'Oriental' Art

Annapurna Garimella

By A.L. Dallapiccola
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2007, pp. 144, Rs. 750.00


The British Museum has initiated a new series of books which, in detail, discuss the preponderant motifs or themes that characterize the art of a particular region or religion. These are for the interested and intelligent reader, not academics, though the books have such beautiful illustrations that they may even attract the scholars. Perusing through the book, it becomes clear that the British Museum has some extraordinary objects including a thirteenth century Garuda from Orissa, a rare mid-tenth century bronze Bhairava from Karnataka, and some truly fascinating company paintings like the one of a seller of clay images from Patna, dated circa 1870. The book is especially good because it has a wide variety of material from different regions, representing art forms from across India, especially rarely reproduced paintings from colonial southern India.   The book under review is written by a scholar whose task is to write a story about Indian art using objects housed in the British Museum. Given that the museum’s classification system must impact the way the collection is represented in the series, a reader of the book must hope that the author will provide the critical insights and art historical narrative which allow the objects to transcend taxonomical imperatives. But this is not the case in the book.   There is little historical information about the objects or details of their making or their makers. There is very little discussion about how the objects were initially received or how they came to occupy the status of art as opposed to icon or image. Since every object is accompanied with information about the region it was made in, it is important to at least consider how ‘regionality’ is intrinsic to the work, something which does not happen regularly enough. This issue is of particular import since the same divine or human figures were made in different regions, materials and times. Dallapiccola’s viewing of objects is at times faulty—saying a figure starts from the knee when it is clearly the ankle (p. 31)—to more problematic interpretations, such as the placement of a crocodile in a 19th century pata painting from Murshidabad in the ‘Gods’ section (p. 43).   There are other lacunae that would leave the non-scholar uninformed and the scholar irked. Take for example Dallapiccola’s statement that ‘Indian art has developed within the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu religious traditions’ (p. 8) suggests that she has not moved beyond ...

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