07 October 2013

Samantabhadri: Perfect from All Sides

In Sanskrit, samantha means all sides. Bhadra means perfect. Thus, Samantabhadra (male) and Samantabhadri (female) mean "perfect from all sides".
Art by Robert Beer.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Samantabhadri (in Tibetan, Kuntuzangmo) is usually portrayed as inseparable from her consort Samantabhadra.
For my second sculpture project, I have been asked to create her as sitting alone, as the ultimate refuge, for those engaged in dakini practice.






 Samantabhadri is the female aspect of the primordial Buddha. She can be interpreted to represent the pure mother-source of all enlightened qualities.




My first step is to render her in my own hand, while remaining faithful to the basic traditional Tibetan scale of proportions.
Drawing by Minette Mangahas.

Here I simplify details and add form for the sculpture to come. Although she is traditionally without ornaments, lots of design decisions still have to be made. Are her ears rounded or square? Does she have a long slender body or a rounder body? How stylized do I want to make her? What is her hairstyle? What is the design of the lotus?

Sometimes, the only way to know for sure is to make a model.
So the next step is to create a small model in oil clay where I can work out the details at 1/4 scale. 

Melting the plasticine down from large bricks.
Blocking out the basic form and proportions.
There is a funny story here. Since I am working within a Thai sculpture department, I have to find ways to explain Samantabhadri to the faculty and staff--who speak very little English.

 

Samantabhadri comes from a Tibetan Buddhist tradition that is very different from the Thai Theravadin tradition. In Thailand, Buddha figures are all male. Other figures are either considered Bodhisattvas not yet enlightened. The females are often apsaras (female celestial beings) or Hindu goddesses. 
So the image of a female Buddha--stark naked--in the traditional full lotus meditation position is very foreign, and slightly uncomfortable to them. Especially since their culture tends to associate the sensual with the profane.  

 

For the first two weeks I worked on the model, I was given hints that her breasts were too large. At one point, my mentor took a blade and sliced off her breasts so that I could "check her proportions". He left the two mounds on the side of the wood board. I checked her over for a couple days, before returning her boobs to their rightful place. In the meantime, I looked for as many historical and artistic references as I could, to help everyone understand the tradition she comes from--and to inform me of the stylistic variations that have evolved throughout history.


Rotating to check all angles and ratios.
Seated figures should maintain a pyramidal
form from head to base at every angle.
Adding a base


Her arms and shoulders went through several iterations (amputations and extensions) before reaching the right proportion and angles. The shoulders should neither slump forward nor backward. They should be rounded and strong, but not stiff. The elbows should be at the level of the waist. The hands should fall in the center, framing the belly.

In working towards any reference to perfection, the sculptor needs patience and time. Every day I come into the studio, I see new aspects of the figure that I didn't see before. Refreshing the eyes. The time between sculpting sessions is every bit as important to the process.




To order a statue or inquire about a commission, visit The Buddhist Sculpture Workshop.


Ajantha: A Lady in the Making

After completing Ten Thousand Bridges it's nice to return to projects that fit on my table and require quiet time with my hands.

Serendipitously, both projects involve important female figures in the Buddhist pantheon that are rarely rendered in this way. So I'll work from research, traditional paintings and sketches to create the 3-dimensional sculptures in the round.

Courtesy of Petroglyphs
The first is inspired by a beautiful drawing I spied 6 years ago in the Delhi home of my friend, the art collector Suresh Jindal.  Sketched from the Ajantha cave murals in the early 20th century by the Indian artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), the figure is perhaps the goddess Tara. On the right is a photograph of the original mural and below is a small photograph of the drawing by Bose.


Drawing by Nandalal Bose. Photo courtesy of Siddhartha Tagore





The drawing is quite difficult to see in this photograph, but it is sublime. 





 To render it into 3-dimensions, I turn to the shilpa shastras, ancient Brahmanic manuals that codified proportions and forms for sacred paintings, sculpture and architecture.
  







Her left arm is cannot be seen in the drawing or the mural. So I look at dozens of ancient statues and to determine the angle and placement of the wrist and the drape of the hand.



Drawings by Minette Mangahas. (Originals lost.)

Studying the original sketch involves deriving the scale and proportions. If the hand is a unit of measurement, how many hands are in the torso? How does the curvature affect proportion?






PRESS for Ten Thousand Bridges on Thai PBS : ข่าวศิลปะ บันเทิง - สะพานศิลป์สู่ถิ่นนิพพาน



Honored to have a 10-minute feature on Thai PBS about the Ten Thousand Bridges installation and the book, "The Nalikae Tree". (Note: this is in Thai language.)