Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: "Lives of Indian Images" by Richard H. Davis

Central to the purpose of this book is the notion that the identities of Indian religious objects are not fixed or permanent but constructed and reconstructed by the religious, cultural, economic, and political circumstances in which they are found. Davis approaches this idea by adapting the reader-response theory of ‘interpretive communities’ into his notion of ‘communities of response’ in which one may consider “the plurality of ways viewers approach and encounter a visual object" [1, p. 9]. The location, presentation, and environment in which an object is encountered constitute a “frame” that guides the responses of a viewer in looking at and acting toward the object. The viewer also brings a second frame or “dispensation”, i.e. her own socially shared assumptions, ideas, needs, experiences, and hopes, to this encounter. This interaction between the icon and the viewer creates a series of responses or “reinterpretations” over time in which these objects may be animated as much by these encounters as by the deities they represent and support. By going beyond material creation, Davis argues for “an expanded frame for viewing Indian religious objects, one that accepts contingency, instability, and plurality in the identities of images" [1, p. 263]. This focus on the moment of creation restricts the meaningful possibilities of an object and distracts from the participation of the object in the ongoing social life of its communities.

To demonstrate his purpose, Davis examines a series of objects and sites to explore significant moments or shifts in response that affect these and other Indian objects. He begins with a bronze Siva to juxtapose how an American museum and its original temple setting would present this icon to the viewer. He then illustrates the range of rhetoric in the appropriation of select religious images such as the Calukya door-guardian by medieval Indian rulers. Next he uses Islamic iconoclasm and Hindu response to demonstrate the ways in which Indo-Muslim and Hindu texts narrated acts of image destruction and reconstruction, differing ways of interpretation and response to Indian religious icons, and the political and theological purposes behind them. After this Davis explores the transformation of Indian icons into ‘art’ vis-à-vis the acquisition of “Tipu’s Tiger” by British colonial forces and the altered political relationship of Britain and India. Next he traces the diachronical formations of meanings in relation to Somanatha and the efforts of diverse social groups to retell its story according to each group’s purpose. Finally he examines the current market in the West for ancient Indian art by following the bronze image of Siva Nataraja to illuminate the conflicting claims and views of Indian worshippers and Western collectors hold toward these objects.

In all of these “biographies” Davis demonstrates how historical, devotional, and cultural frames affect the meanings and interpretations of these objects by different viewers. I found his treatment of the bronze image of Siva Nataraja to be especially illuminating in that I also previously held the assumption with the Indian Government of “once a religious image always a religious image" [1, pg. 252]. By exploring the various layers of ‘the recovery of ritual selfhood’ he truly demonstrates the murky definitions of how we should approach these icons. The fluidity of how these ‘dispensations’ can subtly morph as well as the ever-changing environmental framework in which these icons are found truly form multiple complexities of the subjective imposed on the objective.

- Safari Bob

[1] Davis, R., H. (1997). Lives of Indian Images. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 0-691-00520-6

No comments:

Post a Comment