Written by Janice Leoshko
THERE ARE MANY THINGS TO BE SAID about the place held by Walter Spink in the study of Indian art, perhaps most especially in regard to his long-term studies of Ajanta. But I want to highlight an aspect that may not always seem apparent in his meticulous ruminations on patronage and dating at this Buddhist site. This is a way in which his humanness has informed the direction of his questions:his interest in what the people who actually worked at this site many centuries ago had to do. Such concerns are especially clear in a brief article, "Flaws in Buddhist Iconology," which appeared in the 1987 volume Facets of Indian Art: A Symposium Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum (edited by Robert Skelton, Andrew Topsfield, Susan Sronge, and Rosemary Crill). Spink uses examples from Ajanta to illustrate the role that artistic choice and specific production problems may have played in the appearance of seemingly anomalous iconographic details. As he notes, iconographic usage in Indian art primarily understood in terms of textual prescriptions, current doctrine, and established convention. What such a perspective unfortunately does not take into account is the role of the artists, the persons who had to deliver the goods, so to speak.
CERTAINLY categorizing images from a relevant textual source is an important aspect of the pursuit of understanding art objects, but too many studies chart the history of Buddhist art solely in this manner. Ironically such studies, which purport to be about the development of imagery, often provide simply a succession of one type replacing another with little or no reflection upon the ways in which such imagery emerged, changed, circulated, interacted, or developed, perhaps independently from texts. Texts can be useful for understanding themes encountered in art (and may even have inspired such presentations), but images present such themes in an entirely different manner, in virtually a different language. What is still lacking in many studies of Buddhist art is not only a more thorough consideration of the complex relationships between texts and images but a more direct confrontation and consideration of the nature of art objects. This is a sustained concern of Walter Spink's work, providing us with examples of the fundamental importance of continually looking and asking questions.
This is not the place to review the limitations of conflating meaning with iconographic identity, but it is important to note that this perspective creates a legacy that emphasizes the identity of something over the question of why something is the way it is. This has been a general problem in art historical studies of many traditions, not just Indian art. While it is increasingly recognized that form and content are not separate issues, the actual activities of artisans in the production of India's plethora of ancient religious art are still seldom considered. Thus Spink's observations on the way artists accommodated geological flaws as they sculpted Buddhist figures out of the specific material they encountered at Ajanta is noteworthy. Although he gives only a few examples, there are doubtless more, as well as more questions to be asked about how artists went about the actual tasks of creation. Even though the names of these individuals have not been preserved, the consideration of such questions can better acknowledge the particular abilities of those responsible for the creation of monuments and works that are certainly one of the wonders of India.