Indian Icons in All Their Fine Clothes

By Holland Cotter
New York Times, Sunday, June 30, 1996

IN THE HEAVEN-REACHING TEMPLES of South India, bronze images of the deities are treated like next of kin who just happen to be kings and queens. Gently put to bed at night and awakened with music at dawn, they are bathed, dressed in fine silks and rocked in swings by the temple pool.

Even in the home, icons are coddled and cosseted: pleasured with incense, the ringing of a sweet-sounding bell and fruit served in pretty dishes. Gods and goddesses have the power to harm or heal, but they also have appetites like our own.

Can such devotional vivacity -- a crucial ingredient in the meaning of Indian sacred art -- be conveyed in a museum setting bare of the glitter and jangle and scent of life?

Not easily, but two exhibitions -- one at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, the other at the Newark Museum in New Jersey -- are making surprisingly successful attempts to do just that.

The two shows complement each other without traveling precisely the same terrain. One concentrates on temple worship, the other on worship in the home. But together they offer objects not usually considered candidates for museum "masterpiece" display. These include implements -- bells and lamps, plates and ladles -- defined by their ritual utility, and figurative sculptures whose beauty often departs from the Indian classical tradition.

Shrines at the Sackler

"Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion," at the Sackler through the end of next year, opens with a truly extravagant, visionary image: a l9th-century fountain-size lingam, the abstract emblem of the Hindu god Shiva in phallic form. With its central column of ice-clear quartz crystal and its dishlike base -- symbolically the female component -- of flesh-pink stone, this extraordinary object looks like a spaceship ready to lift off.

Lingams are rarely exhibited or studied in the West, but dozens of them, large and small, are included in "Puja" (the word means worship), along with an array of domeshaped, masklike lingam covers cast or hammered from brass. With faces worked in high re lief, the covers both give the lingam a personal immediacy and, it is said, prevent the unwary worshiper from being blinded by its spiritual radiance.

Hindu worship is, in fact, very much about direct visual and physical contact with the divine, as the 125 objects on view here suggest. An impressive large-scale recreation of a temple altar in the show's first gallery, for example, includes spoons for l adling holy water over statues, which are also anointed with sandalwood paste and colored powders.

Farther along, one finds a cabinet-style l9th-century home shrine painted with exultant female musicians in gold saris and a plump infant Krishna, his round eyes smiling and expectant. The doors of this shrine would have been opened for family worship, not just so the devotees could see the figure of the god inside but so the god could see them. To receive his gaze was to have his blessing.

Many other objects in the show -- which has been organized by Sarah Ridley and Stephen P. Huyler and consists largely of loans from the collection of Paul F. Walter -- have a distinct folk flavor that will come as a revelation to viewers familiar only with sinuous Indian figures of textbook fame.

Some are modern and ephemeral: terracotta elephants, their ears as round as cookies, were made to be left as offerings for open-air shrines where they disintegrate over a rainy reason. Others, like a l9th-century brass dance mask in the shape of a boar's head from Karnataka, appeared only at public worship.

By contrast, a 10th-century egg-shaped pot devoted to Manasa, the goddess invoked against snakebite, was for personal worship. And two miniature spidery goddesses on swings make up a compact little family altar on their own.

Feeding the Gods in Newark

The family altar is the theme of "Cooking for the Gods: The Art of Home Ritual in Bengal" at the Newark Museum, an exhibition drawn primarily from objects given to the museum by David R. Nalin, a research scientist and collector, and his family and on view through July 28.

With around 80 eclectic and mostly small objects, all from eastern India, the show carries a wonderful, intimate sense of Indian life. It also gives particular attention to the role of Indian women in realms where the mundane and the sacred intersect. They prepare the family's food but also the sacrificial meals that turn divine attention in favorable directions.

Significantly, icons of the goddess, whose power, particularly in rural India, easily outstrips that of the male gods Shiva and Vishnu, appear throughout the show. She takes many forms: the fierce Durga, wielding weapons in her many arms; Lakshmi, protector of the home, riding a great owl, and tiny cone-shape clay fertility deities whose form has remained virtually unchanged over thousands of years.

Many of these objects in "Cooking for the Gods" were made in the 20th century for village use. They represent a kind of art that has yet to find its way into the history books and has only recently began to be awarded serious scholarly attention. Newark makes a significant contribution in this direction with a slender but solid catalogue by Pika Ghosh, with contributions by Edward C. Dimock and Lee Horne and Michael W. Meister.

The catalogue raises complex questions about the position of a ritually functional art in a museum context, though the work in the show is so visually delightful as to render any problems moot. A lovely 18th-century brass image of Durga, swathed in scarlet cloth, her lips painted blood-red, looks as soft and pliant as butter. A l9th-century porcelain sculpture of Krishna and Radha might have been right at home in a Victorian parlor. A 20th-century terra-cotta pot cover bears dashingly brushed images of deities in tart vegetable colors.

When unpainted, such covers are used to seal kitchen rice jars; decorated, they are elevated to use on the home altar, and just such an altar is the centerpiece of the Newark show. Assembled by members of the city's Hindu population, it is a bounteous table carefully set for a formal meal, with pots of flowers, plates of sweets and camphor burners ranged around figures of gods as small as toys in criblike shrines.

Newark, it should be mentioned, years ago pioneered the art museum use of such contextual settings for sacred art. once the province of ethnological museums. It has been often adapted since -- thrillingly, for instance, in "Face of the Gods" at the Museum for African Art in Manhattan in 1993 -- and proves effective again in "Puja" and "Cooking for the Gods."

Thematically focused, carefully selected, their spare explanatory wall texts wearing scholarship lightly, both shows illuminate a religious art in which beauty and function are inseparable, and in which ritual use is warmed by the touch of homely affection. They also gently put art history in the right perspective. The spiritual ideals they document are as alive today as they were centuries ago, and even reconstituted in a museum context they breathe the air of life.