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How Can the Sacred be Sensuous?

How Can the Sacred be Sensuous?

“For most people, bhakti is that intense personal devotion towards a chosen deity and there are many strands of it and one major strand of bhakti is to extoll the sheer physical beauty of the divine.” Keeping this theme in mind, the renowned art-historian Vidya Dehejia engaged in a thrilling discussion with William Dalrymple on JLF Brave New World, which relooked at the idea of the ‘sensuous’ present in the Indian art of the pre-modern period. 

While the West talks about God having created man in his own impression, without the slightest disrespect, Dehejia mentioned how the visual and verbal artists of India made gods and goddesses in their own image in the pre-modern period. The creation of these works and imagining the divine in the form of a sculpture with fascinating physical qualities became a medium of expressing ‘bhakti’ (devotion) towards the deity. 

To explore this world of sensuous art, Dehejia emphasised on three main sources: hymns of saints, courtly literature and inscriptions. “All of these sources point to the fact that one easy way to approach the divine is through revelling in the sheer bodily beauty of the god and goddess and adoring that divine body,” claimed Dehejia. 

As the fascinating sculpture of the “wondrous dancer” Shiva, filled the screens of the viewers, Dehejia began to quote the 7th -century Tamil poet-saint Appar and talked about the saint’s desire to be reborn on Earth once again, as long as he could see the beauty of this form of Shiva. “If one may but see the beauty of his lifted foot of gold and glow, then indeed one would wish for human birth upon this Earth.” As she translated Appar’s hymn from Tamil to English, she mentioned that the poem sounds much better in the original, because in English, “one cannot capture the music and the cadence of Tamil”. 

This was followed by her beautifully orating the same poem in Tamil and even though Tamil may have been a language unfamiliar to many of the viewers (including me), the manner in which Dehejia captured the essence of the hymn and bestowed the quality of music upon these words, the intense love that the hymn carried was communicated appropriately. 

By reading out these hymns, Dehejia was able to establish a connection between written works and visual forms – this allowed for the session to be all the more engaging and vivid. And though these sculptures and stories are separated from us by many centuries, Dehejia still managed to bring a vibrant glimpse of the past to the ‘Brave New World’ of Zoom.  

A moment in the session that resonated with me the most was when Dehejia expressed her displeasure with the manner in which many sculptures have been placed in museums. Numerous times, sculptures possessing the ability to captivate anybody with their alluring qualities get placed against their rear and thus, the view of the sculpture in its entirety is obstructed. “I am always trying to get behind the case…and even get a picture from the back!” quipped Dehejia and it reminded me of the endless times I have tried to do odd things at museums just to get a picture, only to be told by museum-guards to move aside! 

The mention of museums also made me miss those spaces, not only because I am too passionate about the past but also because of all the alone-time I get at museums since hardly anybody visits them. To my relief, Dehejia brought the museum to my screen as she displayed slides with beautiful sculptures of our divine gods. Without a doubt, the sculpture which captivated me the most was the image of Shiva imagined as the ‘Supreme Beggar’ or the irresistible mendicant, ‘bhikshatana’. The art-historian emphasised the fact that the artist had done something fantastic with this piece, something that impresses and also shocks the viewer. 



The imagery of Shiva as the ‘Begging Lord’ and his physical beauty became the focus of the poems of many saints. As this Supreme Beggar roamed the Earth with an alms bowl in one hand and a serpent knotted around him as a loin-cloth, the sculptor was able to model a figure in which the vision of Shiva “stole the hearts of all those who came to give him alms”. At each home he went to, the women were aware of the incongruous nature of his beauty and yet were absolutely enamoured by him. This added further nuance to the main theme of the session - how the expression of love towards the physical beauty of the divine becomes an important strand of bhakti and that the sacred and the sensuous are not that far apart. “What I really hope to explore…is the fact that the sensuous and the sacred in pre-modern India are not worlds apart in the imagination of that period….that they blend, that they overlap and that there is continuum between the sacred and sensuous,” claimed Dehejia. 

As the session continued, Dalrymple and Dehejia began to discuss the sculptures of Ancient Rome. Dalrymple suggested that in terms of bestowing physical beauty to the divine, the sculptors of Rome did a similar job as the artists of India. Though the two might have had similar approaches to portraying the divine, Dehejia expressed how Rome did not phrase their love in the same way as India, in the form of a huge corpus of poetry and writings. This was the point which made me realise how due to a Eurocentric view of history, for a long time, the fascinating sculptures of India have not been able to capture popular imagination in the same way Roman artwork has been able to, worldwide.

When questioned about how long has it been since the sacred has been fused with the sensuous in artwork, Dehejia talked about its forms existing from about 2nd century BCE. As time proceeded and India came under Islamic rule, followed by the British rule – slowly, norms which move away from the mingling of this sacred and sensuous got established. Thus, being surrounded by cultures which believed that the sacred is one and the sensuous is another, the belief made its way to the ethos and thinking of many Indians of today. Thus, this age in which the sacred and sensuous intermingle, is for many people, a distant past. 

In the exceedingly materialistic world we inhabit, there is an overabundance of imagery and we have learnt to underplay art. Many of these sculptures now sit in rather-empty museums, collecting dust. Not only an insult to art but also to the artists who expressed their bhakti by sculpting these images of the divine. 

 It is claimed that these sculptures have to be kept in these centres for posterity but the issue is that they might catch 'bronze disease'. Dehejia explained that the simplest way to avoid bronze disease is to wash these sculptures with water and give them air. This is exactly what happens in a temple! These sculptures are washed with water and taken out in the open air during processions… “This is why they have survived, that is all that is needed to preserve bronzes.”

Dehejia also expressed how spoilt we have become as a generation. Today, we are inundated with images on the internet. Anything we want to view or listen to is one click away. As a student of history, I think that it is highly unfortunate that we have failed to engage with history -think of an age when these sculptures were kept in temples and devotees travelled from faraway lands, only to be enamoured by the beauty and the power these images possessed.To establish a connection with the past, we need to think historically and imagine ourselves at a time when there were no reproductions, just originals. Think about how seeing these images would have been a rare moment for devotees – a moment when they were overpowered by the sheer beauty of their deity and when the senses and the soul would converge. 

Watch the full session here:

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