Ivory Carving

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IVORY CARVING There is a long and rich history of ivory carving in India. Over the course of its millennia of artistic expression, several natural sources of ivory, antler, and bone were utilized interchangeably to fashion a wide variety of objects. Many of these works can easily be classified as decorative art, such as various containers, combs and other personal grooming items, ornaments, jewelry, writing implements and manuscript covers, hookah mouthpieces, dice and other nonfigural gaming pieces, nonfigural weapon hilts, and musical instruments. Many other extant examples are clearly sculpture, such as religious images of Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian subjects (but not Jain), and secular representations of royalty, the privileged class, and ethnographic or occupational types. Intriguingly, however, there are also several types of Indian carved ivory objects for which the traditional boundaries between figural sculpture and decorative art objects are blurred. For instance, numerous ivory plaques survive that were originally used in a decorative context by being affixed to various containers as ornamental facades. These plaques typically feature figures carved in intaglio, low relief, and in the round against a pierced background. Certainly the best-known South Asian ivory plaques are the hoard of about 600 extraordinary examples dating from the Kushana period (1 st–3rd centuries a.d.) found at Begram in Afghanistan, the summer capital of the Kushana kings. These world heritage treasures now survive primarily in the Museé Guimet, Paris, as many of those in the collection of the Kabul Museum in Afghanistan have been looted and are in danger of perishing. The tradition of using ivory facade plaques for decorative purposes continued in India for centuries. Particularly accomplished examples were created in South India during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; one of the finest surviving such works is an exquisitely rendered tripartite panel, depicting amorous couples, now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In addition to the ivory plaques, which were primarily carved in relief, there was also an extensive tradition of ivory carving in the round, featuring decorative throne legs, object handles, weaponry hilts, containers fashioned in figural forms, chessmen, and sundry representations of animals, humans, and conveyances that primarily served a decorative purpose. Ultimately, the classification of ivories depends upon the viewer's perspective—whether primacy is given to form or function. Given the extraordinarily high artistic level and extremely long history of Indian ivory carving, its classification should clearly not be determined on the basis of size or whether the medium of ivory is considered a "minor art" in comparison to works made of metal or stone.

Typology of Decorative Ivory Carvings

Myriad decorative ivory object types were carved in the Indian subcontinent, beginning at least as early as the Indus Valley Civilization (mature phase, dating from c. 2600 to 1900 b.c.), and continuing to the present day. Extensive evidence of the extent and socioeconomic importance of premodern ivory carving is provided by a plethora of extant ivory objects and numerous references to ivory carvers and their products contained within the vast corpus of Indian epigraphical records and literary works. In the earlier periods of Indian history, a wide range of domestic artifacts were made of ivory and bone, including pins, needles, hooks, awls, styli, pegs, rods, arrowheads, and gaming pieces. These everyday objects were generally unadorned or partially embellished with rudimentary cross-hatching and geometric designs sawed or drilled into the surface.

Personal grooming aids made of ivory, particularly combs and hairpins, were also common, and examples survive from many periods of Indian and greater South Asian history. Early ivory combs, typified by the Kushana examples found near Taxila in modern Pakistan, have fine or occasionally coarse teeth on one side and rectangular or round-edged flat handles decorated with incised animal and human figures and auspicious symbols. Later ivory combs, especially those made during the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries in South India and Sri Lanka, typically have fine teeth on the top and bottom with a central grip area often decorated with painted female figures and animals carved in bas-relief. Early ivory hairpins usually have a single tapering shaft with an animal-shaped or animal-headed terminal. Later ivory hairpins can sometimes have as many as several thick tapering prongs, and a flat handle carved in the form of an animal such as a rearing lion.

Indian ceremonial throne legs carved of ivory are prime examples of utilitarian objects that can be classified as both decorative and sculptural. The earliest and best known such Indian ivory is a throne or perhaps stool leg (once thought to be a mirror handle) in the form of an elegantly coiffured and adorned female figure. This ivory, now in the Archaeological Museum of Naples, was unearthed from the ruins of Pompeii, where it was buried in a.d. 79 following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. A similar ivory female figure was discovered at Ter in modern Maharashtra, which in ancient times was the important trade city of Tagara, mentioned in the first-century merchant account The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Thus, in addition to their artistic importance, these ivory female figures are significant for documenting the international trade in ancient Indian luxury items. The early use of female figures as subjects for furniture legs was generally supplanted in the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries by representations of lions, elephants, and mythical beasts (vyāla and śārdūla). With the introduction of British artistic influence, furniture legs often terminated in stylized lion paws. The tradition of making ivory ceremonial thrones continued in India at least until the mid-twentieth century. Many different types of ivory and ivory-veneered furniture and cabinets were created in India, each embellished with a different regional decorative style. The major centers of production were in Delhi, Orissa, Gujarat, Murshidabad in Bangla (West Bengal), Mysore in Karnataka, Vishakhapatnam (Vizagapatam) in Andhra Pradesh, and Travancore in Kerala. One of the finest and most famous examples of an Indian ivory-veneered throne, now in the Royal Collection, London, is the ornate one presented to Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) by Maharaja Martanda Varma (r. 1847–1860) of Travancore, which was displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

Only a few different types and sizes of Indian containers were made of ivory, presumably because of the dimensional limitations inherent in the medium. Cups, bowls, decorative storage vessels, jewelry caskets, pen boxes, and rosewater sprinklers were among the most frequently fashioned objects. The most distinctive type of Indian ivory container was the powder primer flask, which was used to prime the flash pan and touchhole of early firearms. A number of these important weaponry accoutrements survive from the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most powder primer flasks are fashioned in the form of an antelope, its head at the mouth of the container, with a bird at the other end. They typically have a bipartite, gracefully curved body enlivened with hunt scenes, animals of prey, and fowl.

The largest Indian carved ivory objects—sometimes utilizing an entire tusk and more—are the ivory boats mounted on display stands that were made during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Murshidabad, the great Bengali center of ivory carving. These are ivory models of royal pleasure boats, called peacock barges (mayūra-pankhī or morpankhī) because their prow was shaped in the form of a peacock, which were enjoyed by Siraj-ud-Dawla, the governor (nawāb) of Bengal (r. 1756–1757), and his guests during festivals on the Ganges River. The ivory models, made in varying sizes, depict the elaborate peacock barges in detail. They typically feature one or two covered pavilions in the forward section that were used for entertaining the ruler and his guests with musicians, dancers, and a communal hookah. A number of servants are often in attendance, including one whose job was to pull the cord of the swinging ceiling fan (pankhā). The stern has several pairs of rowers and a helmsman. Intriguingly, these ivory boats could also be customized for a Hindu clientele by omitting the pankhaā-servant and adding in its place a small shrine of the goddess Durgā Slaying the Buffalo Demon. Once graced with the divine image, the ivory boats may have been used for ritual immersion during the Durgā Pūjā festival.

The Murshidabad ivory carvers produced many other popular subjects, including bullock carts, elephants with canopied howdahs, and colonial personages such as Indian civil servants. Regrettably, the artistic glories of Murshidabad and other Indian centers of ivory production faded with the dawn of the modern age. The multipurpose use of ivory was supplanted by the introduction of plastic, and despite the 1972 ban on the trade in ivory under the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act, some formulaic carvings of limited subjects are still being created for the indiscriminate tourist market.

Stephen Markel

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