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Parting the Curtain: Asian Art Revealed

Ideals of Beauty in India, Tibet, and Nepal

Unknown artist, Tibet: Dakini, Skywalker, 19th century; gilt bronze; long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Nepal: Tara, 17th or 18th century; gilt copper; long-term loan from a private collection.

Unknown artist, India, Madhya or Uttar Pradesh: Dancing Devi, 12th century; buff sandstone; long-term loan from a private collection.

Ideals of feminine beauty are repeatedly the subject of paintings and sculpture from India and the area to the north in what is now Pakistan, as well as in Nepal and Tibet, as the exhibition now on view in Gallery 4 reveals. Beauty and fecundity are expressed in the voluptuous images of river goddesses that would flank the entry to a temple sanctum, blessing and purifying the visitor. The ideal of large breasts, ample hips, and a thin waist is described in poetry and revealed by the sculptor’s hand. In texts of artistic theory, each aspect of the ideal sculpture is described through references to shapes and forms the artist could refer to in the natural world: breasts are described as an elephant’s cranial lobes, thighs as plantain stems, the face as an autumnal moon. An analogy for a woman’s eyes includes a lotus bud or a fawn’s eye, and for her nose, a sesame flower.

A lovely example of this classical image of woman is seen in the depiction of Tyche, a rare third-century stone sculpture from Gandhara that epitomizes the graceful qualities associated with feminine beauty. With origins in Greek mythology, Tyche is the goddess of chance and good luck as well as being the patron of cities and their fortune. In the Buddhist context, the goddess becomes the guardian of the Buddhist realm.

Images of Tara from Nepal exemplify refined beauty. Believed to have been born from a lotus in the tear of the deity Avalokitesvara, Tara gained great favor in Tibet, where she is thought to aid those on the path to enlightenment. In Tibetan Buddhism she has numerous manifestations and is highly revered as a divine woman.

In the arts of India, Tibet, and Nepal, the fierce demonic and wrathful aspect of some female deities counters the sublime, compassionate aspect of feminine beauty; occasionally both aspects are shared in one. An example of this dual nature can be seen in the sculpture of a dakini, or skywalker, a fierce angelic deity that was originally associated with the popular Indian Hindu deity Kali. In Tibet dakinis are associated with Tantric yogic practice. The idealized beauty of the feminine form presents a strong contrast to the image’s horrific face and crown of skulls.

All objects in this section of the exhibition are on long-term loan from a private collection.

Julia M. White
Senior Curator of Asian Art