Iconology of Indian Art and Sculpture: In Conversation with Devangana Desai

Iconology of Indian Art and Sculpture: In Conversation with Devangana Desai

in Video
Published on: 05 December 2019

Anila Verghese

A well-known art historian and author of several books, Dr Anila Verghese served as the principal of The Sophia College for Women, Bombay from 2001 to 2012.

Devangana Desai in conversation with Anila Verghese.

Dr Devangana Desai is a prominent Indian art historian, widely quoted and much respected for her erudition. She is best known for her interpretation of Indian sculptural art, which is considered groundbreaking in Indian art history.   

Born in 1937 in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in a Vaishnava family, the devout and disciplined atmosphere at home kindled young Desai’s interest in religion, art and the Indian classical texts. Having secured an MA in Sociology from the University of Bombay in 1978, she did her PhD on the thesis ‘Erotic Sculpture of India in its Socio-cultural Setting’ under the guidance of eminent sociologist Dr G.S. Ghurye. Desai never took up a job, but threw herself wholeheartedly into research and writing on Indian art. She has published extensively books, monographs, and more than a hundred papers on Khajuraho sculptures, and on various motifs and themes in Indian iconology.     

Thoroughness and clarity are the hallmarks of Dr Desai’s research. In the late 60s, Desai came across a book on Khajuraho in the library in the University of Bombay, and she was drawn to the study of the famous temples in the site for she felt that there was a deeper significance to the erotica there than was perceived. The topic, chosen for her PhD, aimed to understand the context of these figures in the religious art of India, not for interest in eroticism itself. 

The PhD degree, which she was awarded in 1970, was, for her, but the beginning of a life-long commitment. In 1975, her first book based on her PhD, Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio-cultural Study, was published. The year 1980 marked a turning point in Desai’s research. As part of preparation for the paper presentation for a symposium ‘Discourses on Shiva’ at Philadelphia in 1981, she revisited the Khajuraho temple complex in Madhya Pradesh.

A close study of the religious pantheon and the placement of images in the two important temples in the complex—the Lakshmana and Kandariya Mahadeva Temples—made Desai change approach to art from a socio-historical to an art historical perspective. She noticed puns and double meanings employed in the Khajuraho sculptures. This pioneering work resulted in Desai’s second book, The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho, published in 1996 by Franco-Indian Research. This volume is of seminal importance in the field of Indian iconology and was widely acclaimed and reviewed extensively.  

In her monograph on Khajuraho, published by Oxford University Press, Desai describes the major temples in the Khajuraho complex, including the Jain temples, their history, patronage, etc. Desai has also published on a range of topics like motifs of ancient Indian art such as erotic sculptures, apsaras, surasundaris, shalabhanjikas, ancient Indian terracotta art, Sopara Buddhist bronzes, narrative sculpture, particularly, the Ramayana episode of Bali-Vadha, dancing Ganesha images, Vatapatrashayi (Krishna on the banyan leaf) in mythology and art, the symbolism of Kurma or tortoise, etc. 

Dr Devagana Desai has participated in many national and international seminars and conferences, given many prestigious lectures at the British Museum, London; the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Oxford; and the Universities of Chicago, of Berkeley, of Vermont, Cleveland, USA, of Sussex at Brighton, UK, and of Heidelberg, Germany. The Indian Council for Cultural relations had arranged her lectures at the Indian Embassy at Bhutan, and the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, the Meru Foundation, Boston, and Mills College, California. She delivered the sectional Presidential address, entitled ‘Social Dimensions of art in early India’, at the Indian History Congress in 1989 and the Presidential address entitled ‘Art and literature- a dialogue’ at the Indian Art History Congress in 2013.    

Dr Desai has been affiliated to many prestigious institutions. She was the Vice-President of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai for many years and her editorship of its journal was very much applauded. She is a trustee at the CSMVS, Mumbai, and Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad.  She is an honorary professor at the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, affiliated to University of Mumbai. She is also the Series editor of the Monumental Legacy Series on the World Heritage Sites in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.    


Following is the edited transcript of the video interview with art historian Devangana Desai conducted by Anila Verghese.   

Anila Verghese (AV): I would like to first begin by asking you—you have embarked on the journey of research in Indian art and culture—what were some of the influences, early ones, that brought you to this field? Could you share that with us? Emotionally

Devangana Desai (DD): I am interested in art. Painting was my hobby even in my early days—when I was a child. Some of my paintings were also put up on the board in school. They appreciated it.

AV: Which school was this?

DD: New Era School. My painting teacher encouraged me. I am fond of painting as well as art in general.

AV: I am sure there were influences even before you went to school and started learning painting that got you interested in Indian culture—from your home and family, because you come from a very traditional and very religious family.  

DD: Yes, it was a very traditional and religious family. We used to have many Bhagavat Puran programmes arranged at our place—seven days’ Bhagavat. So, from my childhood, I have grown up in that atmosphere. Also, my father was a worshipper of Shiva. Every day he used to go to the Neelakandeswara Temple. It was near Worli. I used to accompany him every day in the morning and see him worship the Shiva—the  linga, you know, the puja that they do in the Shiva temples. That influenced me, though my interest was in feeding the parrots in the pujari’s (priest) house at the back of the temple.

AV: You, being the eldest child, I am sure, must have been influenced by both your parents, and your uncles and aunts, since you lived in a joint family. Am I correct?

DD: Yes. They used to recite vraja yatra, where they go to Mathura and [perform] Krishna Leela and all that. They used to recite every day. We went to Gokul, went to Vrindavan—all sorts of places which were connected with Krishna. So I used to go to sleep listening to it [the recital of Krishna Leela]. 

AV: So you absorbed it into your subconscious as a child. And am I correct when I say that your mother was also a staunch Vaishnavite—a Krishna bhakta (devotee)?

DD: She was a worshipper of Vishnu earlier. Then she came to this Vaishnavism of Srinathji, that is, Krishna Srinathji. And then my father, who was a Shaivite, also became a Vaishnav.

AV: That is very interesting. So you were exposed to both Shaivite and Vaishnavite, and Vrindavan traditions at home, and you absorbed it from your childhood. And all that was part of the tradition that you grew up in. You mentioned you had taken sociology for your Masters. Sociology and art history are not the same. How did you move to art history?

DD: Actually I was interested in art—so it was sociology of arts. I started my PhD on erotic sculptures. Dr Ghurye [G.S. Ghurye] was my guide, and I made it a sociocultural study of erotic sculptures, and that was because of my curiosity about erotic figures. And I studied those figures in five regions of India. I travelled there.

AV: This was before your marriage or after?

DD: After marriage. And my husband also accompanied me. He supported me. And our friend, Dileep Purohit, he used to do photography for me. He was an architect.

AV: As a person who has travelled for research work, I know it is not easy for women to travel to different sites in India—often remote sites. You undertook these travels, if I am correct, in the 1960s and 70s. How did you manage that? What support did you get from your family?

DD: It was my husband who supported me. So he accompanied me in my travels. Earlier we went to Khajuraho also. The first trip was with him and our friend Mr Purohit. And the other places we went, he (Purohit) accompanied me because he was helping me with photography. We travelled together. Once, my sister Kunjalata also came with us to Modhera and some Gujarat sites. And I had taken five regions…

AV: Which are those five?

DD: When I found a place—for example, Modhera, we wouldn’t just go to Modhera, we would go to places around it also. So like, Motak, Sunap and such temples. Similarly, regional patterns were noticed. I toured the region of Gujarat like that. Then Karnatak temples. And temples of Mysore region. Of course, the temples of Madhya Pradesh. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnatak, and Orissa with Bhubaneshwar, Konark and Puri. There were some other sites also. So we travelled together in five regions altogether.  

AV: For how many years did this research go on?

DD: Total seven years, including the writing part of the thesis also.

AV: Your work on erotic sculptures is of seminal importance, referred to by the people who are doing work in that area of art history. You are known today as an expert on Khajuraho and Khajuraho sculptures. How did you come to focus on Khajuraho?

DD: Khajuraho—because that is one of the most important sites. Mr M. Postel of Franco‒Indian Research, he said—Why don’t you write on Khajuraho? So, they sponsored my thesis on Khajuraho.

AV: When did this happen?

DD: This must be sometime in the 70s.

AV: So you were travelling in Khajuraho?

DD: Khajuraho—I was travelling alone at that time. I had started travelling alone. Actually the Archeological Survey of India helped me. I would write to the main persons there in Delhi, and they would allot me one of their attendants there. So I was not alone. I would stay in ITDC, Asoka Hotel there. So there was support from people around.

AV: Can you share some experiences of working in Khajuraho, as compared to what Khajuraho is today?

DD: There is a place called Raja Café opposite the temple; it is a small hotel. And the Maharaja of Chattarpur—who stayed in Khajuraho—had a small palace in Khajuraho—he used to come and sit there. Therefore, it was called Raja café. Two European ladies were running the place earlier. Now it has changed its character. But it was nice to go and sit there and talk to people. And I used to meet some village people also at that time. It was quite interesting to be there.

I liked staying at Asoka Hotel. I could see the temple from the windows. Even at night, I could see the little lights, and that would give me lot of pleasure. That is why I preferred to stay there.

AV: It must have been quite magical in those days, as there must have been very few tourists as compared to today.  

DD: Yes. There were not many people coming at that time.

AV: You were very fortunate indeed. Could you share the names of any art historians or academicians who influenced your early career as an art historian?

DD: Prof. Niharranjan Ray—he had influenced me. He had actually supervised my thesis, in the sense that he was the external supervisor—external guide—and later he became my guide. Then I used to ask him many things—about the difficulties and about understanding certain areas of art.

AV: Prof. Ghurye, your official guide, being a sociologist, you were fortunate to have a great scholar like Prof. Niharranjan Ray to guide you in the art aspect.

DD: Yes. When I was writing my thesis, Prof. Ghurye made me read Sanskrit literature for one full year, including all the important Sanskrit plays.

AV: In Sanskrit?

DD: In Sanskrit and in translation. That actually helped me. One year I spent on that. It helped me to understand the cultural aspect of Indian art better.

AV: Working on Khajuraho, what was your focus? It was not erotic sculptures—what did you really focus on in your work in Khajuraho?

DD: Actually, I got interested in the iconological side. In the sense that two temples interested me very much. One is the Vishnu temple which is known as the Lakshmana temple there, built in AD 954, and the other is the great Shiva temple, that is the Kandariya Mahadev temple. I got interested in the way the images were arranged in the temple around the main image, the central divinity. I wrote full chapters on the Lakshmana Temple and Kandariya Mahadev. So it is the iconological study which I found quite interesting. We have to disassociate Khajuraho from just erotic figures. Erotic figures are not even ten per cent. There are other images of the divinity which people don’t look at. I have concentrated on them in the book Religious Imagery of Khajuraho.

AV: I think that has been your specific contribution…to give the picture of Khajuraho that is far more than the erotic figures. To give importance to the beautiful images, and to give the meaning and significance of these images—as to how these images relate to each other in a particular temple complex.

DD: It is to disassociate Khajuraho from Kamasutra because people generally would associate it with Kamasutra. It is not just that.

AV: You have worked extensively on other aspects of Indian art. Could you share something about that—teracottas, or your work on Kurmas, for example?

DD: Earlier I was very much interested in the teracottas. After the work on erotic sculptures was done, Dr Romila Thapar suggested—Why don’t you work on teracottas? So I had taken up ancient Indian teracottas for my study—600 BC to AD 600. Several of my articles on teracottas and the mother goddesses in terracotta figures and all that are published. Then I was also interested in Kurma—the tortoise symbolism in Indian art. You will see so many tortoises even at my place. The symbolism of tortoise is quite important. I studied it. I studied some mother goddess figures—Hinglaj which is there at Khajuraho, connected with the northwest shrine also. So these are certain things which I worked on.

AV: Can you talk about some of your papers which you think were very significant in their contribution to Indian art?

DD: Actually, one of the important conferences, to which I was invited was by Prof. Michael Meister, at Philadelphia, in honour of Stella Kramrisch. There, he asked me to write about the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho. But I said: I don’t want to write on Khajuraho.

AV: This is for the paper presentation?

DD: Yeah, paper presentation. I said I wanted to write on ‘Ravan shaking Kailas’ images. But he said: I want [the paper] only on Khajuraho—the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho. That made me take a relook at Khajuraho, and I went for my second visit, you know—I went for my earlier visit to Khajuraho for my book on erotic sculptures, but when I visited Khajuraho for writing this paper, I could see certain things which I did not notice earlier—that is like puns and double meaning language in sculptures, through erotic figures. They have put these erotic figures on the kapili, that is the wall that joins the hall and the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum). On that particular part, they are saying something, which is actually non-erotic but through erotic figures. That is what I have written in the papers.

AV: That you presented at Philadelphia?

DD: That is what I presented, yes.

AV: You have obviously extensively travelled for conferences, for meetings. Have you visited various museums, where you have looked at objects of interest for you from the point of view of Indian art in these museums?

DD: Yes. The Boston Museum was quite good. In London, of course the British Museum was one of the best, which I visited several times. In India, National Museum and some in the south also which I have visited, Mysore and other regions. Calcutta of course.

AV: Great museum there.

DD: Yes, Indian Museum.

AV: Can you talk about some of your recent interests? While you have focused on Khajuraho for many years, now you have moved on to other areas.

DD: I am very much interested in the theme of Vatapatrashayi, that is Krishna on a banyan leaf. On that subject, I have collected material on sculptures depicting it, say in Tamil Nadu, and other southern Indian sites, and also in painting.

AV: How did you get interested in Vatapatrashayi?

DD: I have a painting of Sage Markhandeya, who is immortal. At the time of dissolution of the universe, he has this darshana, the vision of Krishna on a banyan leaf. That painting I have—my uncle Dharamdas Kothari got it commissioned at Nathdwara. After his death, my sister Malati took it. After Malati’s passing way, I brought it here and it is now with me. That painting inspired me to work on this, and I am collecting material on it. I am working on a book.

AV: May I ask you, how many research papers you have published?

DD: About a hundred or little more. I forgot to tell you, the other subject that interests me is Yamuna. The river Yamuna as goddess, that too in the Pushti Sambradaya. There, she is the beloved of Krishna. We used to have the worship Yamuna in our house, at my parental house.

AV: Does Yamuna prominently appear in Khajuraho sculptures?

DD: Yamuna as river goddess on the door is a different thing. There, Yamuna appears, of course, with Ganga. Here it is Pushti Sambradaya—Yamuna in Krishna’s dress, as a beloved of Krishna.

AV: Could you go into a little more depth, on some of your works as author, for example, your work on iconology. What did you discover by studying these two temples—the Vishnu and the Shiva temples, the great ones at Khajuraho?

DD: I studied the philosophy of these temples. You know, the Vaikunda Temple at Khajuraho—it is connected with Pancharatra Vaishnavism. So I studied that, and also the figures that are placed around the main image, that is Vaikunda—Vaikunda is four-faced Vishnu image—but here it is three-faced Vishnu image in the temple. And the main face is of Vishnu and then Varaha, the boar incarnation, and the other is of lion, the Narasimha incarnation. So, they are combined in the Vaikunda image. Those images are placed in the cardinal niches of the temple. On the southeast, the varaha, on the west is narasimha, and on the north side is hayagriha, the horse-faced Vishnu. That also is included at Khajuraho. Then there are the carved Krishna Leela scenes—there are twelve Krishna Leela scenes carved in the sanctum of the temple. So those also, I have gone into.

AV: What about the Shiva temple? The subsidiary murthis (icons) around the main one? 

DD:  Those are Ganesh, Parvati, and may be it was Kartikeya, or Ardhanarishwar…

AV: Are they a standardised version or are they in…?

DD: Ganesh is in the south in the temples. I don’t know about the south (South India), then Parvati is there, then Ardhanarishwar is there on the north side of the temple. Then there are these other images connected with Shiva around the temple.

AV: Can you share a little bit about the other works that you have done? For example, you mentioned Kurma as one of your interests. Can you tell us some discoveries that you made or research you have done on Kurma?

DD: You know, there are the two shatakas. A shataka is a hundred-verse poem. There are two hundred-verse poems which got Bhoja king (of Paramara Dynasty) of central India interested. He got them inscribed in stone. They are found at Dhara, his capital town. So they were not translated earlier. They are in Prakrit. I told Dr V.M. Kulkarni—who was an authority on Sanskrit and Prakrit, and I knew him from the Asiatic Society, we edited the journal together—I requested him whether he could translate these two Kurma shatakas. They have published these Kurma shatakas with translation. I have written the introduction along with two illustrations to show what the Kurma shataka is about and how Kurma supports the goddess earth.  

AV: Could you share some of the other images that you have worked on extensively?

DD: The shalabhanjika, the woman and tree motif, interested me.

AV: Very common in Khajuraho, I think.

DD: Khajuraho, yes. But before that Sanchi, from second century we have shalabhanjikas. And the Sanchi stupas are known to have carved on the entrances of the doors the shalabhanjikas and surasundaris—the apsaras. I wrote on them for the Indian Art History Congress.

AV: This was the presidential address…?

DD: Yes.

AV: And any other work you have done that you would like to share with us? There are so many things that you have worked on that it is difficult to recall.

DD:  I was interested in the bronzes of Sopara. Nala Sopara is near Bombay. Pandit Bhagavanlal Indrajit was closely associated with the Asiatic Society. He excavated the stupa at Nala Sopara and he found a casket with eight bronzes in it. Seven Buddhas. Shakyamuni Buddha, of course, the previous Buddhas also and the future Buddha Maitreya. Eight bronzes were found and he brought all that to the Asiatic Society, and gifted it to the Asiatic Society. They are there. I wrote on them—Buddhist bronzes from Sopara. That is another paper I enjoyed writing.

AV: And it is of great importance.

DD: Yes, it is quite. The Asiatic Society has those. Very important eighth-century bronzes.

AV: You have been associated with very important institutions. Can you name some of them?

DD: First, of course, the Asiatic Society. I was earlier part of their managerial committee, and then I was the Vice President until 2015. And, of course, I am very much connected with our museum, Chattrapati Maharaj Vastu Sangralay, which we now call CSMVS, former Prince of Wales Museum, of which I am a trustee, and I am also connected with the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad. Sarabhai Foundation. These two museums I am very much connected with. And the Archeological Survey—earlier they were inviting me for non-antiquity, as they call it. You know, when they got some images from travellers, they would have them exhibited—they would show us and we would have to tell them about the dating of those images and all.

AV: They used to call you for that.

DD: There were meetings for that. This way I was connected with the ASI.

AV: And when you were editing the Asiatic Society journal also, you certainly contributed many papers at that time. My memory of you as an editor—you were so particular and meticulous. This is something that I would like you to share. How you meticulously checked everything, the diacritical marks and everything should be correct, because personally I find this is something, you know, lacking in Indian books that come out on art history—the proof reading, the editing could be better. Anything that you have done is really very meticulous.

DD: I am glad to hear that. But that is my nature. I like to go into details and am particular about things.

AV: You were associated with certain institutions. You shared some of that. But another aspect that many people may not know is that you are also now a patron encouraging and promoting Indian art. That is an aspect which, I think, art historians do not or can do. But you have done something of that nature. Would you like to share something of that?

DD: Yeah, I wanted to do something. I wanted to encourage the young scholars—I started with some fellowships.

AV: But even before that you helped to renovate one of the very important galleries in the CSMVS Museum, that is an area which is very dear to your heart.

DD: Because I was very interested in sculpture…

AV: Could you say which gallery you worked on?

DD: The sculpture gallery. Because I love sculptures. I was trying to renovate it, you know.

AV: This was really a big contribution to the CSMVS—giving the sculpture gallery a new look, because it houses some wonderful masterpieces of sculpture, for example, those pieces from Ayyoli…

DD: Yes, they are beautiful.

AV: …and now it is laid out in such a nice way. And also, the whole endowment you have set up, at the CSMVS, I am sure, this would be interesting for others to know.

DD: Yeah, it could be of interest to the young scholars, because I have started giving fellowships too—one senior and one junior—one-year research fellowship. Also, lectures by an eminent scholar once a year. There are these art history classes also, which I have sponsored, yes.

AV: This is a permanent endowment that you have made and, I think, in Indian museums, there are few such endowments, and perhaps you are the only scholar of art who has made such an endowment to continue to support the study and research on art. Before we end, I would like you to give a message to young scholars and to future generations of scholars who want to take up research in Indian art history.

DD: I think they should take up intensive interest in the subject, and I would be happy if they take up Indian art. Western art is fine, but I would myself like to encourage them to take interest in Indian arts.