Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

early-mid 12th cen­tury, Hoysala dy­nasty. Kar­nataka, In­dia. Col­lec­tion National Gallery of Aus­tralia. Pur­chased with the as­sis­tance of Pauline and John Gan­del, 2011. On dis­play, National Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra.

ONE of the most re­mark­able char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Hindu re­li­gion is the im­por­tance and pop­u­lar­ity of god­dess wor­ship. The Hin­dus be­lieve there are mil­lions of god­desses, each with her own ori­gin myth, iconog­ra­phy and style of wor­ship.

There are wild, de­struc­tive god­desses and there are re­gal, calm, beau­ti­ful god­desses. One of the most sig­nif­i­cant of the lat­ter is Saras­vati, the beloved god­dess of arts, wis­dom and learn­ing, whose be­gin­nings can be traced to the Vedic pe­riod.

Saras­vati is a serene and an­cient form of the great Mother God­dess or Devi. She is also the con­sort of Brahma, the pow­er­ful Hindu god of cre­ation. Saras­vati is more pop­u­lar than her hus­band, and there is even a story that ex­plains why he is out of favour thanks to his wife. Prov­ing that the gods in Hin­duism some­times have strangely hu­man qual­i­ties, a Hindu le­gend holds that Saras­vati was sup­posed to go to a spe­cial event with Brahma, but she was late and so he took some­one else. In re­sponse, she cursed him with un­pop­u­lar­ity.

Saras­vati’s name, which means ‘‘ the wa­tery’’ or the ‘‘ flow­ing one’’, refers to her ori­gins as a sa­cred river. The Saras­vati River no longer ex­ists but Hin­dus be­lieve it still flows un­der­ground. The god­dess is also revered in the Jain and Bud­dhist tra­di­tions of In­dia.

A sculp­ture of Saras­vati is one of the high­lights of the Asian col­lec­tion at Can­berra’s National Gallery of Aus­tralia. It was ac­quired in 2011 with the sup­port of Melbourne cou­ple Pauline and John Gan­del, who also gave the gallery a gift of $7.5 mil­lion in 2010.

Look­ing at the sculp­ture with the gallery’s cu­ra­tor of Asian art, Me­lanie East­burn, it is ev­i­dent that Saras­vati’s im­pos­ing beauty and mul­ti­ple arms rep­re­sent her di­vine na­ture. She is adorned with lav­ish jewellery and seated cross-legged on an elab­o­rate throne. She has four hands and each holds a sym­bolic fea­ture: an ele­phant goad to nudge hu­mankind to­wards vir­tu­ous liv­ing, a gar­land of beads for de­vo­tion, a noose show­ing that earthly de­sires are de­struc­tive and hold­ing us back, and a palm-leaf man­u­script sig­ni­fy­ing wis­dom and knowl­edge.

The sculp­ture was cre­ated in south In­dia for the Hoysala dy­nasty dur­ing the 12th cen­tury, a pe­riod renowned for its rich and in­tri­cate or­na­men­ta­tion. The Hoysala style was very dif­fer­ent from any other in In­dia, ex­plains East­burn, be­cause of the in­tri­cacy made pos­si­ble by the type of stone used.

The elab­o­rate carv­ing of Hoysala sculp­tures was achieved through the use of chlo­ritic schist, a fine-grained stone that is mod­er­ately pli­ant when freshly quar­ried. Thanks to the na­ture of the stone, more de­tail is achiev­able than with most other types of stone, and then, across time, the stone hard­ens and be­comes darker.

The Saras­vati sculp­ture would prob­a­bly have been placed in a niche on the out­side of a Hoysala tem­ple along with other fig­ures of god­desses and gods. The Hoysala tem­ples, more than 100 of which still stand, are, like their sculp­tures, ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­tailed and op­u­lent, fur­ther ev­i­dence of how the Hoysala were great sup­port­ers of the vis­ual arts.

East­burn says Hindu god­desses are re­ally in­ter­est­ing and sig­nif­i­cant, and that it is im­por­tant to re­alise that im­ages of god­desses in Hindu art are not a rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or a stone de­pic­tion; they are the real god­dess. So if you ask Saras­vati for as­sis­tance, you are ask­ing her di­rectly.

‘‘ This sculp­ture of Saras­vati is re­ally overtly beau­ti­ful and I re­ally fell in love with it; it is a great con­tri­bu­tion to our col­lec­tion,’’ East­burn says. ‘‘ The Hoysala style is so per­fect for a re­ally beau­ti­ful god­dess to have this fine, in­tri­cate gor­geous­ness around her.’’

Chlo­ritic schist stone, 91cm x 58cm x 27.3cm

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