"The Sculpture of India 3000 B.C.-1300 A.D.," now in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, is -- both to look at and to think about -- a dizzying affair. The mind, the western mind at least, can barely comprehend its shifting iconographies, and the viewer's grazing eye is satiated soon by its swelling curves, its roundnesses, its fleshy sinuosities. Its ancient mother goddesses are round of breast and round of hip. Just as round and ripe are the full-filled bellies of its four- and eight-armed gods.
Round and round its meanings go. Lord Siva, the great Hindu god, dances all creation, sustains it with his rhythm, then dances its destruction. In the sounds of the sitar and in the chanting of the Vedas, one hears the layered rhythms, the ceaseless circularities and intersecting harmonies that activate this show.
The stone Pharaohs of old Egypt, like the archaic statues of Greece, stand at stiff attention, their arms pressed to their sides. The stone bulls of the Assyrians are comparably motionless. Rome's stern public statues, most of them at least, strike politicians' poses and speak clearly to the mind. But Indian art intoxicates. Elephants with swinging trunks sway as if to music here, cobras tie themselves in knots, halos spin and maidens bend. The whole show seems to dance.
It inaugurates the "Festival of India," a year-long, nationwide celebration of its village life, science, the present and the past. Its beginings are auspicious. The finest of these sculptures are, by any measure, splendid works of art.
"A Woman Startled by a Scorpion," a 5th-century sandstone fragment from the Indian Museum in Calcutta, is only half a statue, yet she dances sensuality as she dances fright. The scorpion crawls upon the bricks just beneath her feet, and as she twirls away in fear, the folds of flesh above her hip, the S-curve of her leg and the curling curves cascading down the edge of her sheer garment accentuate her movement. So does her long chain necklace, which, responding to her gesture, swings against her thigh.
Much Christian art, in contrast, is static, stolid stuff. The saints on our cathedrals dance little, if at all, for western sages teach that dance is of the body, that the bodily is sinful, that man -- without his holy, immaterial soul -- is little more than dust. But no such strict divisions -- between man and lower animals, or between the fleshly and the sacred -- are seen in Indian art. Cows and rats and elephants, cobras and cadavers, so these statues tell us, partake of divinity, and dust itself is holy. Many are the forms of God, the swirl is indivisible, the dance goes on and on.
Wholeness is its theme, wholeness in diversity. The Indian gods, shape-shifters all, assume many incarnations. The meditating Buddha -- seen sometimes as a flying horse, or a god enthroned, or as a self-starved skeleton -- is one divinity yet three. Siva the great lover -- he once embraced his consort, the goddess Parvati, for 1,000 years -- is also Siva the ascetic. In a statue here from Bombay he is half-man and half-woman. Siva the preserver is Siva the destroyer. Once, in sacred rage, he decapitated Brahma the Creator, and then -- as we see here in a scary piece from Shahdol -- he spent an eon wandering the world with the skull of the slain god, that holiest of begging bowls, stuck to his right palm.
Satan, having turned on God, has yet to be excused. But Siva was forgiven. It is difficult for westerners to imagine a religion, or sculptures for that matter, in which opposites unite, in which He (or She) who gives us life, and He (or She) who deals death are one and the same.
Among the most terrifying carvings here is a 10th-century sandstone fragment from the Central Museum in Indore. It shows the goddess Camunda, who often is depicted as the source of life, but here is seen as death. She dances, too, as Siva does, and a necklace made of skulls and bones rattles round her body. "A serpent," notes the catalogue, "is loosely coiled around the hips . . . A much smaller viper encircles the wrist. A scorpion crawls on the emaciated belly between the exposed ribcage and the flat, withered breasts. Only one of the four hands survives, and it seems to hold a fish. The remaining portions of the arms and the neck are mere bundles of bones."
The first rulers of the British Raj were, perhaps not surprisingly, offended by such works of art. They found other holy images -- of Vishnu with a boar's head, say -- comparably debased. And they refused to take delight, as many Indians do today, in the stately, plump, amusing image of Ganes'a, the elephant-headed god, removed of obstacles, who rides upon a rat.
Nothing upset them more than those temple carvings that depicted in great detail the sexual embrace.
Only one such object, relatively chaste, is included in this show. It is an 11th-century example borrowed from the Cleveland Museum of Art. A bearded man bends down to kiss a young woman who pulls his face to hers. He rests one hand upon her breast, with the other he pulls down her silk skirt.
"The earliest representations of love-makers in Indian art," the catalogue observes, "are generally symbolic, a man and woman simply standing side by side. In the course of time, and in keeping with the evolution of art, the pair is shown in increasing physical intimacy. Finally, in the medieval period, they are represented fairly frequently on temple walls, engaged in sexual intercourse. Considered a perfectly normal human activity, the thought that this act should not be depicted on sacred architecture seems never to have occurred to the Indian sculptor."
The Indians of today, or so their movies indicate, are people of great modesty. One of the many differences between our world and theirs is that while in the West the act of love is romanticized, it is divinized in the art of India.
The West's stern disapproval of sacred Indian art has only begun to crack in our own age. The catalogue notes that the philosopher Hegel saw in Indian art "the irrational forms of a fermenting fantasy." John Ruskin, the English critic, regarded it as "the archetype of bad art of all the earth." "The sculpture of Hindustan," observed a British archaelogist in 1864, "offers no assistance in tracing the history of art, and its debased quality deprives it of all interest as a phase of fine art."
Time and time again the beauties of this show overwhelm such denigrations. A late 5th-century Buddha's head from the National Museum in New Delhi is as graceful and as peaceful as any subtle piece of classical Greek art. The flowing robes worn by a third-century Buddha, from the Archaeological Museum in Nagarjunkakonda, manage to suggest the epitome of purity. Time and time again, as if showing off their skills, the sculptors represented here manage to depict, with blocks of opaque stone, transparent veils of cloth.
Pramod Chandra, the George P. Bickford professor of Indian art at Harvard University, who organized the show -- and picked the objects in it for their rarity and beauty and historical significance -- writes with eloquence of their stylistic differences. But most viewers will instead be moved by his exhibit's continuities over 4,000 years.
One of its oldest objects is a tiny buffalo in bronze from the National Museum in New Delhi. Cast in the second half of the third millennium B.C., it was unearthed in the 1920s near the Indus river in Mohenjo-daro, in what today is Pakistan. Its tiny stocky legs -- the beast is but three inches high -- strain under its weight. Its symmetry is broken only by the swishing of its tail, with which it flicks a fly. That same sense of bulk, and of bovine laziness, activates one of the newer objects shown, a statue of a bull -- Nandi, Siva's vehicle -- carved in the 10th century A.D. The eye is caught at once by the way that Nandi's tail-tip rests against his leg.
Another ancient object here, an intricately carved seal from the third millennium B.C., depicts the spade-shaped leaves of the pipal, "a tree," writes Chandra, "sacred in India to the present day."
Among the most famous and impressive statues he has borrowed for the gallery's exhibit is a smoothly polished life-size sandstone figure of a fertility goddess holding a fly whisk from the third century B.C. It "came to light accidently in 1917," writes Chandra, "due to erosion caused by the Ganges River at the modern city of Patna, also identified as Pataliputra, the ancient capital of the imperial Maurya dynasty. Soon after its discovery, it was set up for worship. But because the image carries a fly whisk, commonly associated with attendants rather than a divinity, it was possible to persuade the people to relinquish the image to the Patna Museum.
"As a matter of fact," Chandra continues, "the fly whisk is a common iconographic attribute of this type of divinity, but this, fortunately, was unknown to the donors."
Fortunately, or not, the Indians of 1917 -- and those of 2,000 years before, and those of today -- adhere to one, or rather many, sacred traditions. That sense of continuity, of holiness enmeshed in life, is one of the chief glories of the present show.
The Hinduja Foundation, the Boeing Co., the Coca-Cola Foundation, the General Foods Fund, ITT, Lockheed, Roland International, Varian Associates and Wyeth Laboratories helped to pay its bills. The catalogue discusses a number of important objects that are not on display; the bronze Siva on its cover is, for instance, not yet here. But what is on view is imposing. "The Sculpture of India" will close Sept. 2.