Pala Sculpture of Ancient Bengal, Part Two


Lord Vishnu
Black Stone, Pala, 10th c.

Dec 11, 2010 — CANADA (SUN) — A multi-part survey of Ancient Bengal art and sculpture, Part Two excerpted from a paper presented by Shamsul Alam.

Towards the close of the 10th century, the first renaissance of the Bengal School of Art took place when Mahipala I succeeded in establishing the second Pala empire. At this point the artists of Bengal broke away from the shared traditions with Magadha. The revival of political power led to renewed artistic activities and the tempo was maintained throughout the 11th century.

Although ancient Vikramapura near Dhaka and the other art centres of southeast Bengal were very active, the finest specimens of 11th century Pala sculptures were created by the artists of northern Bengal. The most interesting point to note in this connection is that the number of Brahmanical sculptures produced increased during this century. Among the Buddhist images, the majority are of females.

The art products of the renaissance in Bengal are marked by the complete assimilation of the different traits of the local plastic art [images that have been modeled or formed]. One of the early products of the renaissance is the stone image of Vishnu from Baghaura, mentioned in the previous segment. This dated sculpture served as the stylistic index for the next two or three generations.

There are two other dated stone sculptures - Surya from Kulkarni, Faridpur, and Vishnu from Paikpara, Dhaka. In the light of these dated sculptures, some undated specimens have been assigned to the 11th century AD. The first image of note is the stone image of Vishnu from north Bengal, which is now in the Indian Museum, Calcutta. Both iconographically and stylistically, this image is similar to the above-mentioned Vishnu image from Baghaura. In both images, the face is full of grace but the lower portion, particularly the legs, seem stiff and devoid of elasticity.

Lord Buddha
Black Stone, Pala, 10th c.

Some of the sculptures of the 11th century reveal a great advance in the elaboration of composition. The best example of such a sculpture is the stone image of Buddha from Sibbati, Bagerhat, now preserved in the Kamlapur Buddhist Monastery, Dhaka. In it one can see beside the figure of Buddha, shown seated on a full-blown lotus in the bhumisparsha mudra inside a shikhara temple, several other deities and incidents of Buddha's life, depicted in different registers. Only two other sculptures showing similar compositions are known. One was discovered from Bihar and is now in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, and the other was fished out from the Karnafuli River and is preserved in the Ratnakur Vihara at Betagi in Chittagong.

However, the most interesting sculpture of the 11th century is the black stone image of Buddhisattva Manjushri, now in the Rajshahi Museum. The image apparently looks like the representation of Vishnu. It is fact that there are several examples of parallels and opposites in Indian iconography and in the anthropomorphic representations of these images. So the sculpture may be regarded as an example of a conscious attempt to produce a sculptural representation of a Buddhist deity parallel to that of a Brahmanical one, either with a view to bring harmony among the devotees of the two religions or in an attempt to show the superiority of the Buddhist deity over the Brahmanical God.

Chaste and minute carvings are well-known characteristics of a number of 11th century sculptures depicting the gods and goddesses. In this connection, special mention may be made of the stone image of Vishnu recovered from Sialdi, now in an American museum, and the stone image of Saraswati from Chhatiangram in Bogra, now in the Rajshahi Museum. Another remarkable piece of art from the same century is the six-handed stone image of Ganesha from north Bengal, now in the Indian Museum, Calcutta. Large size bronze sculptures of the 11th century, such as the Gaja-Lakshmi and Vishnu from Belamla, Bogra, now in the Rajshahi Museum, and Vishnu Trivikrama from Rangpur, now in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, are also remarkable for minute execution and finish.

Some of the famous 11th century sculptures probably belong to the period of the second revival of the artistic activity under Ramapala, the last powerful ruler of the Pala dynasty. As such, some of them have great similarities with the sculptures of the following century. In fact, a clear cut division between the sculptures of these two centuries is difficult as the traditions of the 11th century continued well into the 12th century. Hence, except in the case of a few pieces, hundreds of uninscribed sculptures discovered in various sites of Bengal present a big problem for historians trying to date them accurately.

A number of Pala sculptures representing Buddhist gods and goddesses dated to the 12th century have been discovered from various regions of Bangladesh, but their number is insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming number of Brahmanical images, indicating that Buddhism as a religion was on the wane by this time.

It may by said that Pala sculpture began as a simple and genuine expression of religious experience. Although the figures in the early sculptures were heavy, they were easy moving and exhibit good modeling quality. In the 10th century, costumes and jewellery as well as the background decoration began to increase slowly. The figure became slightly elongated but due emphasis was paid on the plastic significance of the body form. The face was still full of expression and permeated with a clear repose of meditation.

In the 11th century, however, increasing importance was given to vegetal decoration of the back slab, profuse ornamentation of the main figure, and minute execution of details. The body form became overelongated, movement was affected, faces became pointed and were instilled with an expression of enjoyment, dress and jewellery became frivolous, and the pointed stele became overcrowded with a multitude of figures and elaborate decoration. Except for a few noble examples, however, the Pala sculptures of the late 11th and 12th century period are mostly stereotyped and may be regarded as products of a decadent phase.


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