The definition moves by contrast. Sculpture, they say, doesn’t open up space like a landscape painting: it occupies space. In India, it also occupies time. That petite, 10-cm-tall dancing girl of insouciant aspect—the archaeologist’s delight—is 4,500 years old. Between the Harappan artist who captured a kinetic moment on that tiny piece of bronze and those Buddhist architects who thought of carving immense sacred spaces out of sheer Deccan rock, there already spans two-and-a-half millennia. From there to the present, another two! Entire epochs that cast the celestial and the carnivalesque alike in a profusion of three-dimensional art.
Another contrast, then. The relative poverty of the modern age, the thinning out of the sculptural imagination, its withdrawal from centrestage, its surrender of primacy to painting, its very ambivalence about its status and relevance in the contemporary art world: all this is a new affliction. Trace it through time again. One subplot in the story of India’s visual culture in the last one-and-a-half centuries is bookended by two well-known dates: 1857 and 1947. It was in the year of rebellion that the country got a milestone institute: Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay. Nine decades later, as India turned a chapter with the tricolour’s official ascension in New Delhi, a few sculptures started vanishing from Rajpath, the former imperial boulevard.