The Hindu and Jain temples of medieval India are richly adorned with heavenly dancers (apsaras), mythical serpent beings (nagas), amorous couples (mithuna) and other divinities. Present around and within temples, these figures are essential components of the sacred architecture, serving to protect structures and award favour to gods and their devotees.
This overtly sensuous celestial maiden (surasundari) was created as an ornate ceiling bracket and, alongside other brackets of its type, likely surrounded a lotus ceiling. The nymph’s prominent breasts and hips, tiny waist and lean limbs epitomise an ideal of female beauty, fertility and abundance in Indian art. The exaggerated bend of the torso at the waist and the combination of semi-profile and full frontal pose were devices employed by sculptors to emphasise voluptuous curves. They also served to accommodate the angle and perspective from which the final image would be viewed. The straight, angular style of the legs is a distinctive feature of northern Indian medieval figurative sculpture.
Carved from sandstone, the surasundari wears elaborate jewellery—heavy earrings, bangles, anklets, hair ornaments and a multitude of chains—to signify her heavenly status. The nymph’s only garment is the sash that cascades onto the tiny attendant kneeling at her feet. In her left hand is a manuscript ribbon, an indication of learning and courtly skills. The ribbon, which could not have been read once the sculpture was installed as a ceiling bracket, is inscribed with the words, ‘Shri Somadevaya’.
The acquisition of this exquisite surasundari has been supported by Roslyn Packer AO, who has assisted in the purchase of other important works for the national art collection, especially of Indian art. The much-loved granite sculpture The sacred bull Nandi, vehicle of Shiva from the Chola dynasty (ninth–thirteenth century) and the commanding second-century red sandstone Buddha from Mathura in northern India were also acquired through her generosity.
Melanie Eastburn Curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 71, Spring 2012