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Art of the Indian Subcontinent and the Himalayas Label

Freer and Sackler Galleries

Freer and Sackler Galleries

Arts of the Indian Subcontinent
An extraordinary range of cultures and art arose on the Indian subcontinent, which today includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. From the southern tip of India to the Tibetan plateau, diverse traditions that emerged over millennia were sustained and enlivened by cultural interactions. Most surviving ancient art relates to the three world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—that arose in India. Although each religious tradition understands ultimate reality to be formless, each also reveres gods, goddesses, and enlightened teachers who assume myriad accessible forms for their devotees. The art of depicting the divine body was thus of paramount importance. Artists created divine images that reveal fluid boundaries between human lives, the natural world, and the cosmos. To represent ideal, immortal beings, sculptors drew upon resemblances between human and natural forms. These archetypal metaphors were outlined in artistic treatises and extolled in devotional and secular literature. They include the lotus petal or fish for the beautiful eye and the powerful bull's head for the male torso. In multiple-figure narratives or shrines, a deity's larger size signals importance, as do multiple arms, which convey cosmic power. Specific deities can be recognized by characteristic poses and attributes, such as the Buddha's earth-touching gesture or Shiva's third eye. Islam arrived on the subcontinent in the eighth century. By the twelfth century, Hindu and Jain artists in the ateliers of Muslim courts created new styles that fused local and Islamic idioms. These continued to evolve and gradually spread throughout the subcontinent.

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  • Title: Art of the Indian Subcontinent and the Himalayas Label

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