There are ways, and ways, of seeing, as one keeps discovering. I was reminded of this again while going through a slim little volume of poems that Diana Bridge—distinguished poet from New Zealand, and a cherished friend—handed me the other day as we met while she was on a brief visit to India, together with Nick, her diplomat husband, another enduring friend of our land. Porcelain is how the volume is named, and no title could have been more appropriate, for the poems that nestle in it are delicate and smooth, her words as translucent and exquisite as her thought. Diana, a scholar of Chinese language and art, has spent time both in China and India, and her soul has been touched by both cultures, each working in its own way. Others have spoken of the "poised mix of European and Asian repertoires" in her voice, of her ways of "constructing a collage of images, drawing on present and past".
On my part, I have always been struck by the elegant sympathy with which she views things and people, regardless of where she is. There is something very moving about it.
Consider her little poem on A Head from Sarnath. The reference clearly is to one of the most beautiful heads ever carved: that of the Buddha, made from Chunar sandstone by a Gupta sculptor somewhere in the 5th century, now in the National Museum in Delhi. It would not be easy to think of a historian writing on the art of India who has not had to engage with that work. It is everywhere, in every book on Indian art, being a work of near perfection, something that comes close to descriptions of the precise moment when the Buddha attained his Enlightenment, sambodhi.
Long years afterwards, the Buddha was to recall the sensation and describe it to the dearest of his disciples: "My mind was liberated", he said, "ignorance vanished; knowledge was acquired,
darkness melted away, light sprang out." In this sculpture, noble and serene, the Gupta sculptor helps us glimpse that state of inner awareness. With the exception of the urna, that little whorl of hair on the forehead between the eyebrows, the iconographical features that one reads about are all there, of course: The elongated ears, the piled-up curls of hair on the head spiralling in the direction of the sun, the cranial protuberance called the ushnisha. But it is not iconography that makes the head what it is: It is the light that glows from within it. To capture it, the sculptor has fashioned eyes which bend and dip and again tip upwards, conveying a feeling of utter peace and compassion; only the barest indication of eyebrows is brought in, so soft is the modelling around this area. With their crisp, precise outlines, the lips carry that air of benign calm which one associates with the Enlightened One. Everything about it is in a state of near perfect balance, the sculptor stopping knowingly just a little short of making it excessively sweet. The smile is knowing, and the aspect meltingly gentle. Speaking in the context of the period in which it must have been made, Stella Kramrisch describes the moment in which this kind of Buddha image took shape, for, in her words, it was the moment "when art awakened with a smile from a past of symbols and legends." This is lyrical in its own right. But Diana Bridge puts it in her own fashion while writing about this
Head from Sarnath:
Conjure a head to bypass text:
crowded with snail-shell curls and
topped by a pebble dome,
lids dipped on conquered thought,
ears long with attending,
mouth sensual as blossom,
a stem of neck—a young man
invulnerable to kissing—
the senses presented and discarded,
a lotus from the mud.
In this poetic rendering, there is no description as such, only deep sensibility.
Again, I was looking the other day at an intaglio print of Humayun's tomb by a young, contemporary artist, Dattatreya Apte. It is a crisp, precise work in monochrome in which the artist superimposes upon a view of the monument from a distance little architectural details—carved cartouches inside niches, segments of ornament from a pillar, some calligraphy—to create a layered, lyrical effect. During her stay in India, Diana Bridge also saw many Mughal monuments and registered them
upon her mind. This is how she speaks of one in a poem of hers:
The tomb turns a shoulder to its mosque
and positions its terracotta-smocked,
Unwaisted lines onto scaffolding.
It settles into landscape: light-limbed,
Empathetic, congruent with its air -
A Mrs. Ramsay among tombs.
Green parrots stamp the flecked stone
in pairs. The two of us watch,
your hip compatible as the mosque
alongside, not quite a prop to my back.
In the stone arch above our heads,
a fan of courtly parabolas.
Glass-cracks skew the symmetry of empire..
As I said, there is a different sensibility at work here, a different way of seeing.