Indian Art and Ideals of Female Beauty

The question of nudity has not been directly tackled but is at least tangentially addressed by any study which looks at the tradition of Indian sculpture. One particular type of nude image was not mentioned, and those are 'baubo' or 'shameless woman' type figures which Sankalia (1960) draws attention to. These figures have a very different iconography to the Yakshi type nudes, they are often headless (reminiscent in this way of mother goddess figures) with their legs widely spread, either sitting or squatting. They appear to originate at about the same time and in the same places as the full frontal nudes, and while Sankalia is right that they are overt fertility figures he is probably wrong to suggest Roman influence. However, it is likely that there appearance is part of the same trend that introduces full nudity in monumental art.

Wolf (1990) has been both praised and critiqued by a variety of groups, however her account provides information on the sort of process that might change female images and more importantly the sort of effect that might have. The second is important because art historians tend to treat the relationship between society and art in a one-way fashion, with society dictating the evolution and form of art. However, there are several problems with using her analysis. The first is that it is not cross-culturally applicable because the meaning attached to art by viewers is essentially arbitrary and cannot be extracted simply by looking at the physical form of the piece of art. The second is intrinsic to her work, in that she is very clumsy in her use of abstract agency. Wolf shows evidence that society (an abstract agent) is able to affect the body image of women in a negative manner through art. The effect benefits particular groups in society, certain men (specific agents), but this does not mean that those men intended the effect, or are even aware of it. Wolf often conflates the abstract agency of society, which is an emergent property of the many members actions, with the specific group that benefits giving the impression of a some shadowy conspiracy behind the depictions. There are no grounds for this. So it must be realised that if in female images of Ancient India we can see tensions over the position of women being played out or contested (and it is certain those tensions existed in this period) it is exactly because that is not a conscious act, a conspiracy, that it is both important to society and interesting to historians. 

The Huntingdon Archive

The Huntingdon's are well known figures within Buddhist Studies. They are somewhat ahead of other academics in having made significant contributions to work online. The Huntingdon Archive at is a must visit for those interested in female images and consists of a substantial black and white archive drawn from both Gandhara and India, including more than thousand from the Kushan period..


Kamat's Potpouri,, a slightly eclectic site on art, women and history, though with some interesting material on erotic sculpture in the middle ages.

Image Indian,, by Shishir Thadani, another slightly eclectic site, this time a collection of images from India, all very nicely presented.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, , a timeline of Indian Art in the first five centuries of the common era.

An interesting blog musing on the tribhanga pose


Contents Page Ideals of Female Beauty  Courtesans and Tantric Consorts Faces of the Feminine Naomi Wolf

Robert Bracey.