23 MAY 1992, Page 50

Exhibitions 3

Living Wood: Sculptural Traditions of Southern India (Whitechapel Art gallery, till 31 May)

Lessons in living tradition

John Henshall

Ihave commented before, most recently in my review of the Museum of Mankind's Mexican Day of the Dead exhibition, on the comparative lack of interest in, and feeble- ness of effort put into, most things 'festival' in this country, and indeed most of modern Western Europe. In Mexico in November almost a whole nation joins in a pantheisti- cally rooted celebration of the 'returning dead'. I compared this with the undisguised half-heartedness of most similar religio- ethnological celebrations here.

Of course, there are deliberately resusci- tated 'traditional folk customs', salvation of many a lazy regional picture editor once a year: tedious 'vegetable displays' at harvest time and twee nativity plays performed by self-conscious schoolchildren at Christmas. Apart from this, however, evidently we can- not be bothered. Perhaps in art, as in life, we shall only know what we have had once we have lost it.

Obviously, it is futile simply to compare the aesthetic and religious traditions of utterly different peoples in dissimilar parts of the world and mark them out of ten. However, the basic point holds, and for me is demonstrated again in this exquisite show of the wood carvings, religious and secular, public and private, Hindu and Christian, of the Karnakata, Kerala and Tamil Nadu areas of southern India, where they have been the main art form for cen- turies. If distressingly little has survived to reach Western collections, it is simply because wood rots so quickly in the region's humid climate; paint fades or flakes especially swiftly. Yet craftsmen there still create replicas of timeworn origi-

nals exact in every detail.

Here we savour the heaven-sent skills of peoples for whom art is a natural link between man, the gods and the 'other worlds'. There are three main types of sculpture. First, the vananas, 'conveyors of the gods', huge vehicles on which in Hindu Tamil Nadu effigies of deities are pulled through the streets. The gods may be humanoid, obviously divine, or animal perhaps elephants, lions or peacocks. On these occasions, they temporarily 'come alive', like Western merry-go-round figures.

Then there are the chariot panels of the rathas, again of Tamil Nadu. The rathas are also vehicles for deities, but are more usu- ally identifiable to Western eyes as chari- ots. Hundreds of people are needed to pull them along. Their painstakingly detailed panels may depict universal, town or household deities or guardians, with scores of attendants, musicians, dancers and fabu- lous beasts. Many panels show scenes from the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and as in Western her- aldry, the scenes depicted have a strict iconographic 'pecking order'.

The third main form is the bhuta figure of particularly strict Hindu Karnakata and especially Kanara. Ironically, bhutas belong to a belief system older than Hinduism. They are spirits whose cults are based on a `contractual obligation' between gods and man; they are 'possessors' of humans, who articulate the gods' demands in the 'real' world. They are the Panjurli (pig) and Nandikona (bull), or deities associated with Kainadllemi ',anima from Tamil Nadu, 19th/20th century the great Hindu god Shiva, or wronged humans who become bhutas in death from some desire for revenge.

In straitened times it is heartening to see a private gallery perform a public service gratis, and readers with particularly noi- some offspring to frighten the life out of could usefully show them the 16th-century Kerala ceiling panel `Narasimha Disem- bowelling Hiranyakashipu', where the eight-armed god rips the innards out of the demon he has slain. In a netherworld of gods with eight arms, I suppose it is just possible Hiranyakashipu had enough entrails to re-equip an entire cricket team.