In this series, we will explore the paintings and engravings created by westerners who visited India during the 16th through 18th centuries. Many of these images have blended into the larger corpus of transcendental art over the years. Because so many of these pieces are strikingly beautiful, the unique qualities and embellishments are often not recognized by casual viewers as being un-traditional, in Vedic terms.
An important exhibition and academic study of these works was conducted in the early 1990's by the University of Chicago. The reference material gathered by their curators is an invaluable collection that explains what was going on in the minds and lives of western artists who were compelled to document images of the Hindu deities, religious ceremonies, landscapes, animals and people of India.
In the Exhibition book, the curator wrote: "From the time of the Renaissance onward, Western consciousness has been shaped by a multitude of diverse and rapidly changing images of Asia and its peoples. Explorers, traders, missionaries, and scholars returned from the East with stories of strange plants, animals, and cultures beyond the limits of European experience. Incorporated within the developing fields of knowledge from astronomy to botany, these reports formed the basis of new and constantly altered visions of what lay beyond the Eastern horizon."
While these artists rendered images from all over southern, southeastern and mainland Asia, the images from India are among the most fascinating. This in due, in part, to the fact that the devotional potency of the Hindu deities and environments represented far exceeded the degree of spiritual potency found in religious icons from other indigenous tribes. We can understand this as being in direct correlation to the degree of truth represented in each culture's sastra and practices.
Our "India Through the Eyes of Europe" series will begin with images of the Dasavatara, which provide a fascinating example of how the western mind represented Deities, their pastimes, paraphernalia and associates.
Today's avatara, Lord Varaha, is a fitting example. Many elements of this beautiful copper plate engraving are typical of the universal representations of Lord Varaha, seen holding up Bhumi safely upon His tusks. The demon Hiranyaksa, who has attempted to destroy the Vedas, is pinned beneath the Lord's feet.
While this pastime occurred in the cosmic ocean, the scene is very often depicted as happening in a body of water that looks like a river, with a bank of trees, flowers, cows, and sometimes observers nearby. What is unique about this piece is the floating lotuses on the water's surface, which give the scene a more pastoral mood.
Sri Bhumi, the earth planet, is also an interesting study. While the circular forests are typical of India, the artist has inserted buildings that look more like German or Swiss chalets, one with a steeple like a European church.
Lord Varaha holds his usual paraphernalia: a conch, sword, chakra, and the Veda. The European artists had a particular way of representing the conch, which is seen in many examples of their work throughout this period. The conch is often depicted with the open side hidden. The pronounced ridges give it a somewhat strange look, as though a living entity might emerge from the pod. This motif is often seen embodied in representations of the demons.
While the head of Hiranyaksha appears somewhat westernized, it is actually a very traditional design for the demons, typically those found in images of the churning of the Milk Ocean and scenes from the Ramayana.
Considering how unfamiliar Lord Varaha must have appeared to westerners from the early 18th century, when this piece was engraved, the artist has rendered the Lord in quite a regal manner. Varaha Avatar's head is held high; his expression is transcendent, and his clothing and jewelry beautiful. While there are certainly oddities in the various motifs, the divinity of Lord Varaha is entirely present.