India’s Most Famous Sculpture

By Vinaya Kumar
The answer is that… it is the famous Didarganj Yakshi statue, kept at the Patna Museum. One catalogue describes the famous sculpture thus: “The depictions of Yakshas and Yakshis (spirits of hills and trees) are creations of the Mathura school sculpture in the 2nd century BC.

On the ground floor of the Patna Museum are sculpture galleries. The most important and significant sculpture is the Yakshi from Didarganj. She is a large, buxom woman, more than life-size, carved out of a yellowish standstone which was obtained from the mines of Chunar in Bihar. She is an attendant figure, or Chauri bearer (with a fly whisk), carved in the round. The Yakshi wears a fine lower garment, held in place by a belt of many chains. Her huge anklets, bangles and earrings are not unusual in design, and similar jewellery in silver is still worn by women in many parts of India. The kind of fly whisk she holds was traditionally made from the hair from a horse’s tail. The glossy sheen of the sculpted surface is quite spectacularly beautiful, a characteristic feature of most Mauryan sculpture. The Didarganj Yakshi is over 2,000-years-old and the lustrous finish of the stone remains soft and shiny even today.
One authority on Indian sculptures explains the excellence of this statuette thus: “Regarded as one of the finest example of Indian art, this piece has been exhibited at many museums, the world over. This 5’4” tall statue is carved out of a single piece of stone. It has been dated with certainty to the Asokan period. The prominent breasts, the narrow waist, the creases on the lower abdomen, and broad hips, are classic features of feminine beauty of all ages. They show the painstaking attention to details by the artisan(s). Equally striking is the depiction of clothes with which her body is draped. Elegantly folded and pleated in the front, held in place by exquisite waist ornaments (kamar-bund). Noteworthy also is the beauty of the ornaments that adorn this female figure from her head to toe. Interestingly, this style of ornaments remains unchanged to this day. The fly whisk (the chauri) seen in her right hand can still be found at wedding ceremonies all over Bihar. The slight bend in the left leg endows the statue with a subtle impression of graceful motion, which some observers have described as the “gait of a swan” or maralagimin.”
Several of hundreds similar ancient Indian stone carvings belonging to the Mathura art were unearthed by modern archaeologists in 19-20th century. The Didarganj Yakshi was unearthed in 1917 and then her status can be described as “A female sculpture with one arm missing, tip of nose chipped off, made out of sandstone” This damage is attributed to the iconoclastic fanaticism shown during the Islamic occupation of Bihar. This statue has been taken out of India for exhibitions abroad on many occasions and has been partly damaged further. In fact, among the scholarly circles, protests have been raised by the way the Government of India sends “the Didarganj Yakshi” abroad for exhibitions on Indian Art.
Dr Tapati Guha Thakurtha has written a thesis as to how the Didarganj Yakshi, has been damaged by its frequent trips abroad. It takes up the case of the sculpted icon, probing the shifting locations, discourses and aesthetic trajectories that marked the metamorphosis of the piece from a curious archaeological “antiquity” to a celebrated “art-object” of the Indian nation, and later even into a “travelling emissary of ancient Indian art and culture”. It follows its career from the time of its initial recovery and transference to the provincial museum in Patna in 1917, to its removal (on loan) to New Delhi in 1947 to grace the landmark exhibition of the Masterpieces of Indian Art that the capital hosted on the occasion of Independence, to its later journeys abroad in the 1980s as a part of the Festival of India exhibitions in England and USA.
Even today, museum curators all over the world are outraged at the way this famous statue is kept in the Patna museum, without any glass case to protect it. One museum experts mourns thus. “On a revisit to the Patna Museum I found even the famous Didarganj Yakshi, an exquisite piece of art, which could be the envy of any museum anywhere in the world, kept like any other statue with the visitors allowed to touch and feel its smoothness.” But then there she is, the Didarganj Yakshi - the most famous example of India’s sculptural heritage. MF