Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Art & Culture > An exhibition of sculptures draws connections between ancient civilisations

An exhibition of sculptures draws connections between ancient civilisations

An ongoing show at the CSMVS, Mumbai, showcases overlaps in sculptural styles, representation of divinity and the use of symbolism in ancient India, Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome

'Yajna Varaha: Boar Incarnation of Vishnu', Sunaari village, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (900–1099 CE). Courtesy: CSMVS, Mumbai
'Yajna Varaha: Boar Incarnation of Vishnu', Sunaari village, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India (900–1099 CE). Courtesy: CSMVS, Mumbai

This Friday afternoon, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or the CSMVS, in Mumbai is busier than usual. Droves of tourists are following enthusiastic college students—CSMVS’ volunteer guides—who are helping them understand the museum’s most ambitious exhibitions to date, ‘Ancient Sculptures: India, Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome’.

The opening piece of the exhibition, the 2nd Century limestone medallion, a railing crossbar from the Great Stupa of Amravati, Andhra Pradesh, draws you in. Accentuated with lighting by Australia-based designer Dhruvajyoti Ghose, the piece stands out for its delicate, symmetric lotus petals and glistening stone. “Lotus, as a symbol of purity, has been significant in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and also in ancient Egypt and China,” says Joyoti Roy, curator of CSMVS’’ Ancient World Project.

She is among the five women curators at the CSMVS to have created a layered and engaging narrative that seamlessly spans world civilisations. The many stories of symbolism, sculptural styles, divinity, the relationship between the ruling class and art, feminism, portrayal of the human body and craftsmanship are packed into this ten-month-long exhibition. It equips you with a new way of looking at and thinking about sculptures.

Also read: Lounge Loves: Android 14 Easter egg, a ‘found footage’ mystery and more

For instance, the marble sculpture of the Greek God Dionysus from the British Museum, dating back to 100 to 199 CE, stands next to a banner depicting the  Bodhisattva from the Chandigarh Museum. Dionysus, the god of wine-making, rebirth and abundance, holds a bunch of grapes that are falling out of his palm. His hair is falling on his shoulders and his drape is slipping away as well. These symbols show a loss of control. Greeks believed that every human must know there are moments of control and moments when we lose that grip, and that’s what makes human life complete. They imagined their Gods and deities to be emulating these human characters.

Whereas, the Bodhisattva created in the 2nd Century AD in Gandhara style, has its drape tightly secured in its place. The statue was created at a time when cultural exchange between the north of India and Greece was at its peak, mainly because of Alexander’s travels to the subcontinent. It’s evident from a comparative study of these two sculptures that India was absorbing ideas from Greek statues and creating a language of its own. The iconography moved from symbolic to figurative. 

A sculpture from another moment in history—dating back to 900 to 1099 CE—stands out. It is an intricately-carved, red sandstone sculpture of Varaha (wild boar), regarded as one of the nine incarnations of Vishnu in Indian mythology. The sculpture depicts the boar, rescuing the Goddess of earth, Bhudevi, after she was abducted by Hiranya. “We know the scene is happening in water because the Sheshnaga is extending its tail from Varaha’s back to the front of his body. On its snout is Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge. “When you are preserving the earth, you can’t just preserve the physicality, you also preserve its knowledge. Also, Saraswati is portrayed here as Vachdevi, the Goddess of language,” explains Roy.

Also read: Qurratulain Hyder: A writer of a divided world

In contrast with ancient Greek iconography, Roy points out that an animal form in Indian mythology was occasionally used to depict divinity. Greek gods were mostly portrayed in the human form. But in a later period in Mesopotamia—in Assyria (current day Iraq and parts of Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey), regarded as the first civilisation of the world— animal figures were used to portray the divine. 

In the Eagle-headed Winged Figure and the Sacred Tree, a panel from the northwest palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (dated 883 to 859 BCE), you see a genie pollinating a palm tree. The palm was the most important natural resource in Arabia, bringing in trade and money. Kings in the region would have ensured protection of the tree. The palm is believed to have been pollinated by humans as bees or butterflies are usually not attracted to it. So, the genie in this panel can be seen picking up a palm kernel from a male tree and shaking it on a female tree. Interestingly, this kind of a winged genie goes on to become the Ahura Mazdas, the supreme god in Zoroastrianism.

Another interesting exhibit is a marble frieze from the Tomb of Mausolus, dating back to 350 BCE, which shows the Greeks fighting the Amazons. It’s intriguing to see that the female form is clothed while the male Greek soldiers are not. “Here is another example of the importance of the athletic male form in Greek civilization,” says Roy. 

It’s these stories that unravel the many layers of ancient civilisations—from religious to the social and cultural. 

The exhibition can be viewed at the CSMVS, Mumbai, till October 2024.

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based art, culture and travel writer. 

Next Story