The Name of the Gods
the Stakes of Using Sanskrit in the Art World
by Johan Levillain
Once out of the temple, does Sanskrit, the language of the gods, resonate in the same way in museums halls, in auction houses and in the pages of scientific works? Globalization and popularization of knowledge challenge the use of Sanskrit, which oscillates between the pledge of erudition and the selling point, between the obstacle to understanding and the panels adornment.
Tell me how you name an “Indian” artwork and I’ll tell you if you are a curator, an art dealer or an academic. Terminology is a largely unconscious mechanism, but it is not insignificant, in that it often distinguishes between the members of the fields mentioned above. In this article, I will use “name” to refer to the title of an object on a label or the legend of an image, often highlighted by a larger and thicker font. One language is at the heart of those issues when it comes to Indian art: Sanskrit. The primary meaning of the term saṃskṛta – “that which is prepared, refined” – evokes the idea of perfection, that of a language made immutable by its extreme grammatical and phonological elaboration.
Sanskrit was used in the writing of much of the literature of ancient India, in all fields: narrative, poetic, philosophical, normative… In fact, this language endows each of the gods of the “Indian” world with a dizzying cloud of qualifiers, of which a minute quantity forms the lexicon intended for the description of images. Whether a token of erudition or unproductive jargon, the Sanskrit language is put to the test of new communication strategies imposed by globalization, and its use in the art world is increasingly questioned. The three domains which hold our attention – museums, the art market, and academic publications – are each illustrated here by a specific example. If those case studies cannot give an exhaustive account of the question, they are sufficiently revealing to initiate a transversal reflection.
The museography of the Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet in Paris
The successive quarantines put in place in France in 2020 and 2021 to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic have had the positive effect of giving the staff of the Musée Guimet the time to update the exhibition rooms devoted to South and Southeast Asia. They moved certain artworks, changed the lighting, repainted the walls, but more importantly, rewrote the wall texts. When referring to a figurative image, the first information on a museum label is often its iconography: the character(s) represented on the artwork must be named.
As far as images from South and Southeast Asia are concerned, the labels at the Musée Guimet which do so have clearly diminished their use of Sanskrit. When in the past the name of the artwork was given in both Sanskrit and French – such as “Ekamukhaliṅga or liṅga with face” – the preference today is for the French designation alone, the Sanskrit term being able to discreetly remain in the explanatory text in the continuation of the wall text. That is also the case for “Shiva master of music […] (vinadharadakshinamurti)” for example. Interestingly, when the museum kept the Sanskrit terms on the labels, it used a simplified transliteration that does not use diacritics (which should be Śiva Vīṇādharadakṣiṇāmūrti). Finally, the French equivalence sometimes used on the wall texts, as in the case of the “master of music”, are far from actual translations of the Sanskrit terms. Hence, Vīṇādharadakṣiṇāmūrti literally means “the form in the south that bears a vīṇā,” which, for many, tells little about the musical quality of the god Śiva.
Could the addition of labels in Indian language, written in an elegant alphabet, paradoxically contribute to the preservation of Sanskrit terms at the museum?
The reasons for this gradual disappearance of Sanskrit on the labels at the Musée Guimet are undoubtedly pedagogical: it is a matter of giving more readability to the explanatory texts, both visually and in terms of content. One also seeks to overcome the first obstacle of reading itself, since neither Sanskrit nor its learned transliteration are familiar to the French-speaking public: what difference is there between an ṣ and a ś, etc.? In this context of cultural mediation, Sanskrit alone cannot stand on its own at the risk of being limited to a discourse of insiders. Moreover, the question of pedagogy is crucial for an institution whose collections are Asian and therefore often not very accessible to a Western public whose reference points have been challenged. However Sanskrit, the “perfect” language, is not so easily ousted in the museum sphere.
There are cases, such as that of the South Indian yoginī images, where French cannot substitute for Sanskrit. The difficulty with the term yoginī is that it escapes, in my opinion, any satisfactory translation (or equivalence). In the masculine form, the term yogin refers quite simply to a follower of yoga. In its feminine form of yoginī, the word takes on a significantly more “supernatural” and polysemous meaning, as a yoginī is a deity with great powers that she shares with practitioners of tantric yoga. The yoginī are quick to reward or punish, both protective and child-devouring, far from the ideal of purity. They are eminently ambiguous deities, which the name “magic goddesses” used in French on the cartels fails to convey. As proof of this, the word yoginī has not disappeared from the text accompanying these striking images and, in fact, remains at the top of the labels at the Musée Guimet.
Interestingly, the labels used in the rooms dedicated to China and Japan at the Musée Guimet are trilingual, using French, English, and Chinese or Japanese. This proves that the museum can cope with the difficulty of foreign languages and accommodate a wide audience. Could the addition of labels in Indian language, written in an elegant alphabet, paradoxically contribute to the preservation of Sanskrit terms at the museum?
Christie’s and Sotheby’s Auction Catalogs
The purpose of an object label in a sale catalog is to showcase an artwork – more than a specific iconography – and to stimulate buyers. But beyond mere advertising, an auction catalog needs to compensate for the fact that potential buyers may not be able to see the object in person. From this point of view, it is interesting to notice how Sanskrit is used on the art market, and with which elements it is associated. To that end, I consulted auction catalogs from Christie’s and Sotheby’s which were rich in information – even if they may not be representative of the art market overall.
First, I noticed that Sanskrit retains a good position in the caption of Indian artworks, but in its simplest transliteration, without diacritics. Considering that the art market, surely more than museums, is catered to a restricted public of potential connoisseurs, Sanskrit is not perceived as too complex and detracting from the image. Secondly, one is struck by the emphasis on the sensual and physical aspects of the artwork in the labels, highlighting the dimensions and materials of the object. In the catalogs, they become part of the name of the work: “an andesite head of Buddha”, “a buff sandstone relief of Narasimha”, “a large bronze figure of Krishna Kaliyadaman”… The Sanskrit terms, with their consonance of mystery, sharpen the interest and take on all the appearances of a sales argument.
I was able to trace the evolution of a Tibetan painting, which has been published both in exhibition and auction catalogs and in articles for specialized journals. The way its designation evolves is not without interest. This painting depicting a maṇḍala was first published in the catalog for the exhibition Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet. The painting is not part of the corpus on display but is included, for comparison, in an introductory essay, where it is referred to as the “Vairochana mandala.” This same appellation is retained in 2002 by J. C. Singer in an article in The Tibet Journal, with the difference that diacritics are used (“maṇḍala of Vairocana“). It was during the exhibition Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure that this maṇḍala was finally exhibited. It was then presented as the “Vajradhatu mandala,” a term that can be translated as “the diamond matrix” and refers to a universe revolving around the cosmic buddha Vairocana, who is depicted precisely in the center of the image. When it went on sale in 2015, Sotheby’s listed it as “an important thangka of the Vajradhatu mandala”.
The importance of the object is not an empty word since it is suspected, since its first publication, to be the oldest preserved example of portable painting from Central Tibet. The entry for the painting in the Sotheby’s catalog includes a bibliography of the various publications cited above. Its editors therefore had a choice: on the one hand, the name available in the older literature, more accessible because it is the same as that of the main character in the representation; on the other, the name taken from a more recent source and reflecting a more complex reality. As I said, naming is a largely unconscious act. Perhaps Sotheby’s choice of the maṇḍala‘s name was guided only by the chronology of publications, with the most recent name seeming to be the most cutting-edge. Or is the term vajradhātu, chosen for its complexity, more appealing for sale? Does Sanskrit help the interests of the art dealer, where it seems to hinder the museum curator?
The Goddess of Dhar and Sanskrit in interaction
Let us conclude with the field of research, which seems to be at the convergence of the two previous ones: like the curator, the researcher evolving in the academic sphere is guided by an imperative of clarity and, like the art dealer, addresses a restricted and informed public. Hence, the use of Sanskrit is maintained within academic publications: some do not spare diacritics, and others voluntarily resort to a very erudite tone. However, scientific publications are not exempt from compromises and unconscious thought patterns that preside over the choice of names for Indian images.
The example of the female deity of Dhar at the British Museum is particularly telling. The base of the sculpture bears a Sanskrit inscription listing the accomplishments of a sculptor who made, among other things, an image of the goddess Vāgdevī (“goddess of speech”) and another of Ambā (“mother”). The first translation of the epigraph in 1924 identified the sculpted image as that of “Vāgdevī”, while a second in 1981, matched it with the name “Ambā.” Even then, the translators did not refer to the sculpture as a representation of Vāgdevī or Ambā per se, but, respectively, as Sarasvatī or Ambikā, which are the names most commonly used for these goddesses today. That is, Sarasvatī (or Vāgdevī) is the Hindu deity of knowledge, of music; Ambikā (or Ambā) is a patron deity within Jainism.
Inscriptions on Indian sculptures are relatively rare, yet when they exist, scholarly publications might resort to names other than the ones written on the artwork itself. This proves that the use of Sanskrit remains flexible, even in the heart of the field that is usually very intransigent with anachronisms. The now-called sculpture of the goddess Ambikā from Dhar has since generated unofficial requests for restitution by Indian art enthusiasts, who often refute the sculpture’s new iconographic identification and continue to see it as an image of Hindu goddess Sarasvatī. Surprisingly, they are sometimes the most uncompromising with the Sanskrit, taking the text carved into the marble of the sculpture to the letter. Hence, it is not Sarasvatī’s return that they long for, but that of Vāgdevī (वाग्देवी): “Vāgdevī is imprisoned in Britain’, briṭen mẽ kaid hai vāgdevī.“
- Ambā, Dhar, Madhya Pradesh (India), 1034 C.E. British Museum 1909,1224.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum
- Linga Purana, Sanskrit, Devanagari
- Liṅga with Face of Shiva – Ekamukhaliṅga, Bihar (India), late 7th-early 8th century C.E. Musée Guimet © Johan Levillain
- Yoginī, Kancipuram region, Tamil Nadu (India), late 9th-early 10th century C.E. Musée Guimet © Johan Levillain
- Maṇḍala of Vairocana, Central Tibet, 9th century, Painting on canvas © Sotheby’s New York
- Ambā, Dhar, Madhya Pradesh (India), 1034 C.E. British Museum 1909,1224.1 © patrika.com