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Why there was no Michelangelo or Leonardo in India?

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Some time back I was visiting an art gallery. The manager of the gallery was very courteous to me. They had been displaying works of reputed artists for almost a quarter of a century now. The second generation runs the gallery now. I was shifting my gaze from one painting to the other in the pursuit of some true artwork. The manager struck a casual discourse with me.

As he was describing the kind of artworks they usually promoted, he mentioned something. It made me curious. I insisted on more clarity.

He obliged, ‘Look, we welcome all kinds of good art except a few types.’

‘And what are those you avoid?’ I asked.

‘Explicit image of any God or demigod that is identifiable by the regular visitors. For instance, Radha, Krishna, Ganesh, and so on. Buddha is okay because Buddha is a commodity now. Also, we avoid calligraphic art. Besides that, we do not display, any hint at nudity.’

I was tickled by the list. ‘Very interesting combo. Gods and nudity! Buddha is chocolate or soap. But that is true Buddha spirit anyway.’

He, being a man of no-nonsense, said with an air of bureaucratic indifference, ‘We avoid showing patronage or disdain for any religious sect. You know how sensitive the political spirit of the day is. As for nudity, we do not want to take any chance. We do not know who sees what. Some see art in nudity, and some see nudity in art. After all, we can not risk getting our gallery aflame or ransacked by an angry mob.’

I nodded. He, actually, made sense. How much can you sacrifice for the sake of art? Of course, I am not a big fan of the images of Radha or Krishna or Ganesh. But art can come in any form in my view. There can not be a list of dos and don’ts in the realm of creativity. All said and done, the gallery must exist to support the artists in the end. They are probably right in their criteria.

Now, coming to the point of this article, I wonder why in India, in the 15th – 16th Century, there was no Leonardo or Michelangelo?

The answer is hidden in my experience with the manager of the Art Gallery.

To explain my point, I need to go back by two thousand years. In the early days, Christianity did not approve of likeness in painting or sculpture. Just like Islam in its inception. The fear was the emergence of another idol parallel to the only God Christians advocated. In the heydays of the Greeks, often the sculpture of an elite attained godhood. Hence, permitting the making of sculptures of individuals could have created room for idolatry and competition. Hence, during the early triumph of Christianity, art stepped back by several hundred years.

But soon, there was a problem. Christianity’s followers were the working class. The literacy rate was very low. Hardly anybody could read. Hence, it became imperative that images be used for educating the public about the scriptures. Relaxations were made. Finally, it was the church that needed art for spreading its voice.

Hence, in the middle age, the primary sponsor for art was the Church in the west. The church enjoyed plenty of money and power. And the church wanted the images to narrate biblical stories.

It was simple and focused. There was no room for exception. The artists competed to win the favor of the church. There came Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael, and many others. They won the fancy of the Church rightfully and eventually we know them as legends.

But during that period as well as later, in the Indian context, there had been many Hindu deities. With invaders, entered Islam. With merchants, came Christianity too. Against this backdrop, no single head priest or a single temple could corner all the power and money to promote an artist. Devotees belonged to countless pockets of faith and belief. If one worshipped Shiva, the other did the same for Ganesh. It was a massive flamework of the collective belief system.

On the other hand, the king or the emperor could have been the believer of Gopal or Allah. But in the end, he had to govern over a population that consisted of followers of countless gods or demigods. It was unwise of the ruler to support any one of the sects. That would result in partiality and hence cause grievance.

That is why there was no central body or council that enjoyed the power to make or break the fate of an artist. Neither the artists could garner the focus of the entire nation. In fact, ironically, in India, the most celebrated architectural marvels of the past were built by artists or masons or sculptors of different faiths. Perhaps, an Islamic mason carved some part of the Khajuraho temple, or some Hindu master worked on building the Qutub Minar. The creations do not reflect the personal faith of the artist in the Indian context unlike that in the west where the frescos of the Sistine Chapel reflect the interpretation and visualization of mainly Michelangelo.

Of course, we can not deny that the countless invasions of foreign aggressors hampered the celebration of art in India. But we should also remember that a foreign invasion does not only enforce an alien culture but also enrich the domestic one with versatility.

Due to this reason, even to this day, Indian art is way more versatile than that of the west.

Now the rationale behind the restricted list of the Gallery must be evident. The situation remains the same even to this day. But today, an artist can stand tall among the rest despite the multiple religious faiths because art has since long left the holy shrine of religion. Artistic pursuit can navigate across a wider domain today.

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