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ART REVIEW : Continuity of Life in India's Art

November 08, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

In "The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art From India," a beautiful new exhibition that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a group of more than 20 compelling sculptures are unlike any I've seen before. In fact, they may have no counterparts anywhere in world art.

Most often carved in the soft sandstone so common to Indian sculpture, but found in metal and other, harder kinds of stone as well, they depict figures, always unclothed and always male, standing upright in a quietly unusual, frontal pose.

The legs are stiff, feet slightly apart. Arms hang loosely from broad shoulders but away from the tapering torso, so that the arms never touch the body. The head faces forward, with the trace of a smile across its full and sensuous lips and eyes typically downcast.

The smooth limbs of these standing figures are usually columnar and elongated, the arms ending in oversized hands that hang like weights meant to stabilize the torso. Elongated earlobes dangle too.

Imagine a body in which every muscle, nerve-ending and square inch of exposed flesh seems utterly relaxed yet briskly attentive, as if meant to be receptive to the slightest sign of life outside itself, and you'll have some idea of how remarkable the pose is. It's as if the entire body functions as a kind of human dowsing rod, mystically attuned to the hidden rhythms of the universe.

The pose is called kayotsarga , which roughly translates into "body-abandonment" posture. It is believed to represent a perfect pose of nonviolence, in which a human being can inflict the least harm on any living thing.

Even if you're unaware of that precept, which is specific to the Jain religion, there's no mistaking the eloquent vulnerability of the pose. A visible sense of renunciation, to which the human spirit surrenders itself, is broadcast loud and clear.

The Jain religion is far less well-known than the Buddhism and Hinduism so familiar in India, but it shares many central tenets with both. A spiritual quest seeks liberation from the otherwise eternal karmic cycle of life, in which death is followed by reincarnation. In a manner unique to Jainism these sculptures demonstrate, in part, how to slip those mortal bonds.

They also make up a significant chunk of the largest segment of the LACMA show, a segment composed of 36 sculptural images of spiritual deities known as Jinas, from which the religion derives its name (Jain is pronounced jine ). The others show deities seated in the cross-legged lotus pose of meditation, and they include an austerely elegant, red-sandstone Jina encircled by a delicately carved halo, as well as an elaborately carved stele whose graceful central figure is surrounded by more than a score of attendants, lions and elephants.

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Jainism is a religion of radical asceticism, but it shares a lot with Buddhism and Hinduism. (The nudity of the sculptural Jinas, a practice followed by Jain monks, is symbolic of a complete renunciation of worldly things, including clothes.) If subjects differ, stylistically not much seems to separate Jain art from its Buddhist and Hindu kin.

Instead, repetition of sensuous forms and intricacy of luxurious patterns proliferate. Together, these stylistic traits evoke a continuity of life and a resplendent sense of connectedness among all things.

Elaborate patterning also declares a central role for decoration in Jain art. Not only are the figures ornamented, they are themselves ornaments: Many of the carvings were originally part of vast decorative programs on temples and shrines. Decorative adornment assumes a kind of sanctity.

The exhibition, which was deftly organized by LACMA senior curator Pratapaditya Pal and also features an essential catalogue with several readable essays, is the first to focus on Jain art. Its 127 sculptures, paintings and architectural fragments, which range in date from the First Century to the early 20th Century, include rare loans from India and Britain, many never before seen in the United States.

It also includes a likely surprise for any but the Jain specialist. In addition to the three dozen sculptures of Jinas, there are galleries for often remarkable ritual objects and for images of subsidiary deities. Yet, the show concludes with an unexpected room dominated by monumental paintings.

For those (like me) who think first of exquisite miniatures when Indian painting is considered, the existence of monumental works comes as something of a shock.

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One gallery in the exhibition contains elaborate folios and decorated book covers from a variety of Jain manuscripts, and several eye-popping cosmographical charts are also on view. But monumental Indian paintings?

Those in the show's last room are apparently unique to the Jain faithful. Typically made with opaque watercolors on cotton cloth, they are of two kinds: images of cosmic man (woman, as in most Indian art, has a tougher time in the transcendence racket) and pilgrimage pictures depicting holy sites.

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