Vignettes from India: Ephemeral Art

12309735_1531597767160527_5699193532395945396_oI had read about them in an obscure book even before I first went to India: terracotta horses grouped beneath south Indian trees as gifts to the Gods and as vehicles for their spirit soldiers to ride in their nightly battles against evil. The entire concept was intriguing. How many of these sculptures were there? Would I be able to find them? And so, when I was just twenty years old, I went on a search. I traveled by third class train, local bus, by bicycle and on foot throughout the rural roads of Tamil Nadu looking for these shrines. I found them in abundance. Outside almost every rural community and even on the outskirts of cities were clay horses: some singly, some in herds of as many as two hundred, some as small as a few inches, others ten and twelve feet high. They stood in every state of repair. Most were broken, given in previous years and allowed to slowly crumble to dust. I learned that it was the act of giving that was important: gratitude to the God Ayyanar, Protector of Boundaries, for his help in providing good crops or healthy children or the healing of illness. Once they had been given, these often elaborate sculptures had no value. As the God knew of the gift and its intent, its material shell had no further importance. And so these often beautiful, sometimes magnificent, works of art were simply allowed to disintegrate. The entire concept of ephemeral art fascinates me. In the West we place such importance upon permanence and signature: an artwork’s value often lies in its age, its history, and its pronouncement of the artist’s identity. Here were thousands of sculptures, many superbly fashioned and unique ‘works of art’, whose entire purpose were as invocations to the Divine. Their creation and their donation were enough and their rapid or gradual destruction was integral to their conception.