The Hidden India In America
You have to know where to look!
Walking in the bustling cities of America, you’d be surprised to learn that India is just a block or two away. Who would have thought, but in America there are thousands of Shivas, Parvatis, Ganeshas, Buddhas and a whole horde of celestial dancers – enough for a major Convention of the Gods! We are not speaking of Hindu temples or home shrines, but of a huge, totally hidden world of Indian antiquities, paintings and artifacts that people on the street might not even realize exists.
New immigrants may feel the culture clash, the loss of India as they merge into the frenetic mainstream of American cities and towns that often seem devoid of any markers of Indian life. Little do they realize that India’s art and culture – some of the most wonderful masterpieces – are preserved and documented in some of the finest museums across America.
Perhaps the place to start our art yatra is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA) which is regarded as the birthplace of Indian art scholarship and collecting in America, and has a strong Indian collection, particularly rich in the areas of Mughal paintings, Indian drawings, paintings from the Punjab Hills as well as early Buddhist art and medieval stone sculptures. The MFA has over 5000 objects of South Asian origin and the first Indian objects came into the museum around 1900.
Denman Waldo Ross, an important collector, donated several pieces to the museum, including the Yakshi figure from Sanchi, which may be the only one outside of India. He also purchased the private collection of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, a leading intellectual, and donated it to the museum. He was instrumental in appointing Coomaraswamy, who was of British and Sri-Lankan descent, as the first museum’s first curator for Indian art.
Although British archaeologists and aesthetes had begun to piece together the basic chronology of Indian art, Coomaraswamy was responsible for placing art objects in a social, religious, and political context, and for explaining the art so a Western audience could appreciate it. He wrote a defining book on Indian painting and was regarded as the father of Indian art history in this country.
Woodman Taylor, assistant curator for South Asian and Islamic Art, says Coomaraswamy went on several trips to India and acquired several important pieces and built the museum’s collection, which has the only fragments from Ajanta outside of the site. Indians in the Boston area are aware of the important collection the museum holds and Taylor says, “We do see a lot of Indian Americans coming into the museum and we hope to do a lot more with a major exhibition in the fall, Domains of Wonder, which has been organized by the leading historian Dr. B. N. Goswamy”
Visiting India through different time zones is possible in the rich, eclectic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met’s connection with India goes back to 1891 when a Pala sculpture was donated to it. You can see the vibrancy of several centuries placed together in the wonderful South Asian Galleries at the Met donated by Herbert and Florence Irving who have been dedicated collectors of South Asian art.
“Perhaps the most comprehensive collection anywhere outside India is at the Met,” says Steven Kossak, Curator of the South Asian Galleries at the Met. “We have a large collection and really there are important objects throughout the collection.” Asked about the high points of the collection, Kossak mentions four: a seated Gandharan Buddha which may be the first known Gandharan metal image of Buddha, and a bronze sculpture of the goddess Parvati, which is one of the finest Chola period sculptures outside of India.
There is also a powerful Gupta period terra cotta of Krishna killing Keshi, the horse demon. Says Kossak, “It’s extraordinary for its vibrancy. It displays many of the characteristics one thinks of with Gupta sculpture in terms of the way in which volume takes precedence over any kind of linear development or anecdote. It’s a very strong, very vibrant sculpture.”
Another masterpiece is Yashoda and Krishna from South India, perhaps Karnataka, 14th century, and it shows Yashoda nursing the infant Krishna. Says Kossak. “There are few pieces like this. There’s wonderful tenderness in the sculpture, the sense of the intimacy of the scene yet Yashoda is looking square at the viewer – the sense of the darshan being passed is quite extraordinary.”
Since the collection at the Met is so large it is arranged chronologically and geographically, starting with the Indus Valley civilization. “We also have a first class collection of South east Asian and Sri Lankan art,” says Kossak. “All these cultures were informed by Indic culture. This may be the only place anywhere where you can look not only at Indian art, but at the influence of Indian art.”
India is by no means confined to the South Asian galleries, because it spills over to the Islamic Galleries where you can see fine examples of Mughal and Deccani material – in fact, a remarkable Akbar period manuscript is on view currently in “Pearls of the Parrot” exhibit. Says Kossak, “When the Islamic Galleries, which are being renovated, are opened six years later, they may make a separate gallery for later India so that all the paintings can be seen together. To understand Indian painting one has to see it as a whole.”
Are Indians coming in more to view their heritage? Says Kossak, “In the ten years the galleries have been open I’ve seen a marked increase in the number of people visiting the gallery, both Indian and non-Indian, and I think just by the fact that this material is there and people know it’s there – there has been a manifold increase in the numbers. The museum’s outreach program in terms of education has also helped us and all this seems to be adding up to greater visitorship.”
And is the Met seeing more Indians as donors or sponsors? “So far we have not seen that,” says Kossak. “As far as I know, there are not a lot of Indians who have collected classical art of India or even Indian painting. There are a couple, but not many. I think the big push has been to collecting contemporary Indian art. Unfortunately there’s been very little involvement of the Indian community, certainly at the level of donor or even as Friends of Asian art. We don’t have any Indians on that.”
The next stop for viewing masterpieces of Indian art is the Asia Society, which houses the famous John D. Rockefeller collection. In February the museum is gearing up for the 50th anniversary of this collection with a blockbuster show: A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects. It features 150 of the most stunning and important Asian artworks originally purchased and owned by family members.
Adriana Proser, traditional arts curator, points out some of the best pieces including a sculpture of Sakyamuni which shows the influence of the early Gupta style: ” It’s a piece that has a very powerful presence. One of the marking is that he has webbed hands, very beautifully delineated in this sculpture.”
Then there’s wonderful sandstone Ganesha, 8th century from Uttar Pradesh, which greets visitors as they come into the museum. This endearing figure has a crown, a lotus pedestal and ten arms. The collection has major Chola bronzes of great importance. The most spectacular is Krishna dancing on Kaliya, an incredible feat of bronze casting with a lot of life and movement to the sculpture.
Asia Society does see many Indian visitors whenever there are India-related shows. “Last year we had a heavy India focus and because of that we did get many Indian visitors,” says Proser. “There is a lot of interest by the local Indian community in the arts of India; and we also have members who are involved as board members or high-level members. When we have India focused shows the Indian community really comes forward and helps makes those shows possible. As you know, even one show in one gallery, if it’s an international show, can cost more than a million dollars. An exhibition coming up in fall of 2007 is focused on the arts of Kashmir and quite a few Indians are involved to fund that research.”
Other important museums include the Cleveland Museum, which has a sizeable and important sculpture collection, although it is currently closed for renovation.
Brooklyn Museum in New York has a collection that now numbers 8,000 objects, a range of art from early terra cottas and ceramics dating back to the Neolithic and Indus Valley Civilization, all the way to contemporary art. Highlights include the Hamzanama painting, commissioned by the emperor Akbar, Indian terra cotta, and sculptures in stone and bronze.
“We have an outstanding collection of Indian sculptures in stone and bronze, Indian miniature paintings and textiles,” says Amy G. Poster, Curator and Chair of the Department of Asian Art. “Right now we’re concentrating on the decorative arts of India from the 17th to the 20th century, including jewelry. What makes Brooklyn unique is that we see India not only as an independent range of cultures within the sub-continent, but also its interaction with the Islamic world, China, and south-east Asia, because many of the subjects that were formed and created in Indian art made their way to other cultures and had a tremendous affect on those cultures.” Only a fraction is on view, but it’s a chronological display from the pre-Kushan all the way to the 19th century.
The museum has several Indian supporters and contributors, and some are also members of the museum’s Asian Art Council: “We try to keep an active program and we’ve had a history of very close collaborations with our colleagues in India. We’d love to do much more than we are,” says Poster.
You can actually see a pillared temple hall from the 16th century at the Philadelphia Museum, which too has an extensive collection of South Asian art. The temple hall is the only Indian stone architecture standing in the U.S. While particularly strong in sculpture from the great temples of India, the diverse holdings offer a comprehensive view of South Asian art, including paintings and sculptures from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; an important group of textiles; and a variety of decorative and “folk” arts.
Many of the works are from the collection of the eminent scholar Dr. Stella Kramrisch, who served as curator and curator emeritus for Indian art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954 until her death in 1993. Major exhibitions presented by the Department of Indian Art over recent decades include “Manifestations of Shiva” (1981), and “Painted Delight: Indian Paintings from Philadelphia Collections” (1986). In 1997, the Museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and the Aperture Foundation organized “India: A Celebration of Independence” (1997), an exhibition of some 250 photographs. Its current exhibit until May 2006 is titled “Adventures in a Perfect World: North Indian Narrative Paintings, 1750 -1850.”
The Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) also has a substantial Indian collection. This gallery displays a diverse range of South Asian paintings on a rotating basis, including 11th-century Pala dynasty manuscripts, 16th-19th-century Mughal dynasty paintings, and modern South Asian graphic arts. LACMA’s collection of South Asian sculpture is one of the most encyclopedic outside of South Asia. The earliest material on exhibit is from the Harappan civilization of the Indus River Valley, which flourished some 5,000 years ago. The display of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain sculptures in a variety of media documents the entire spectrum of stylistic and iconographic development of the art of these religions throughout South Asia
San Francisco is the home of the Asian Art Museum, which has one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian Art in the world, including India. Its temple sculptures, reliefs, bronze images, jades, miniature paintings, and wood carvings, reflecting the major trends in all major religions of India over a 2,000 year period – Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain. It is the only museum in the Western hemisphere with a gallery devoted to Sikh art.
Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany of California is one of the prime donors and indeed the Janam Sakhi manuscripts, which form the nucleus of his collection, belonged to his ancestors two centuries ago. His large collection includes paintings, arms and armour, and he has donated 100 objects to the permanent gallery of Sikh art, which is housed in the new $150 million facilities of The Asian Art Museum.
If you’re trying to see the best of Indian art in a beautiful environment, Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is a must. Norton Simon, who was married to the actress Jennifer Jones, traveled to India on his honeymoon in 1971 was deeply moved by his experiences and developed a life long love for the arts of India.
Christine Knoke, assistant curator of Asian art at the Norton Simon, says the museum has received generous donations of artwork from various Indian Americans, living on both the east and west coasts. Two generations of the Kapoor family in New York have been donors since 1997, including Subhash Kapoor, Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor, Suneet and Alka Kapoor and Vineet and Floretta Kapoor. Several important California collectors have also made significant contributions, including Narendra and Rita Parson, Pratapaditya and Chitra Pal and the late Ranjit Roy. Knoke says, “As we do not actively acquire works of art, it is only through donations that we are able to expand the collection built by Norton Simon and fill in the curatorial gaps.”
Knoke says, “Our current special exhibition, ‘Durga: Avenging Goddess, Nurturing Mother’ and the related programming including lectures, film screenings and a dance performance, has proven to be very popular with our local Bengali community. I am thrilled that the Bengali Association of Southern California agreed to lend us their Durga puja tableau, which was built in India in the late 1980s. It is one of the most popular artworks in the exhibition.”
The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) is also an important stop for any lover of Indian art for it houses the Edwin Binney Collection, which is renowned worldwide as one of the largest and most important concentrations of Indian painting outside of India. The late Edwin Binney was heir to the Crayola fortune, and he left his collection of over 1,453 works to the museum. The works in the collection range in date from the 6th through 20th centuries, with the strength of the collection in paintings from India from the 15th through 19th centuries. The collection provides a complete overview of Indian court painting with examples representing the best of each school.
SDMA has launched a nationally touring exhibition featuring 125 of the finest examples from its extensive collection of paintings from India. Titled “Domains of Wonder: Selected Masterworks of Indian Painting,” the exhibition opened at SDMA in fall 2005 and will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in fall 2006 and the Dallas Museum of Art in fall 2007.
Sonya Quintanilla,curator of Asian art, says the collection is a great source of civic pride: ” It is regarded as something unique, not just another fine collection of Indian art, but a world-class collection, which in terms of its encyclopedic scope, is unlike any other single collection inside or outside of India. Members of the local community have become so intrigued with the Binney Collection, that they have formed a support organization, the Committee for the Arts of the Indian Subcontinent (CAIS), which works to support the collection by raising funds for publication and exhibition of the paintings, and by sponsoring lectures, performances and other special events on related topics.”
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA has been a pioneer in the study and presentation of Indian art in the United States. Shortly after its founding in 1799, the museum began collecting contemporary art and culture from India. Today, its holdings include thousands of works from India, from the 18th through the 20th centuries, including paintings and drawings; works in clay, wood, and metal; embroideries; furniture; and a large collection of 19th- century photographs. The collection also contains important logs, journals, and letters recounting 18th- and 19th-century voyages to India.
It is one of the few museums to showcase contemporary Indian art and houses the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection of Contemporary Indian Art, which comprises more than 1,200 works by many of India’s leading artists of the second half of the twentieth century. A current exhibition, “Exposing the Source: The Paintings of Nalini Malani,” presents two decades of the artist’s works. Susan Bean, the curator, points out that the collection has some seminal works by Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain, the current stars of the international contemporary art market.
“The Boston area has a large resident population of Indian origin and we’ve seen a very significant increase in their attendance at the museum since we opened the new Indian galleries,” says Bean. “We now have three members of the museum’s board of overseers who are of Indian origin. In addition we are anticipating expanding the Indian galleries with the help of major support from within the Indian community. Next fall we’ll be mounting an exhibition built around works from the important series of Mahabharata paintings created by M F Husain for the 1972 Sao Paulo Biennale.”
In the Washington DC area, Charles Lang Freer created the first art museum of the Smithsonian in 1923, and remarkably it was dedicated to Asian art at a time when Asians were nowhere on the scene. The Sackler Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian has a rich collection of South Asian art with over 1,200 objects from first century BC to the present. The highlights include a Gandharan frieze illustrating the life of Buddha, the Freer Ramayana, an illustrated manuscript of the Hindu epic painted for a Mughal nobleman, as well as a small but superb collection of Chola bronzes, paintings from the Mughal and Rajput courts, Buddhist art from Nepal and Tibet as well as company school works by Indian artists for British patrons.
The bustling, gritty town of Newark has a large Indian American population, as does the entire state of New Jersey and Indian families will be happy to know that the Newark Museum has its strong Indian connections. Valrae Reynolds, curator of Asian Collections, says, “The Newark Museum has been seriously collecting Indian art since it received a major gift in 1941. The holdings are particularly strong in textiles and folk art, but many fine examples of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture have entered the collection in the last 40 years, including Birth of Buddha, The Elephant-Headed God Ganesha, and Durga Mahishamardini.”
Meme Omogbai, chief operating officer of the museum, observes: “New Jersey has the fastest growing Indian population in America and The Newark Museum with its extensive collection of Indian artifacts is actively engaged in outreach to the community with a new addition to the board of trustees, Poonam Khubani. The attendance at museum events has doubled each of the last few years.”
Reynolds adds, “We’ve begun an initiative to attract Indian visitors. Our last Asian Heritage Festival in May 2005 attracted a few hundred Indian family members, and we plan to make Indian culture the focus of our May 8, 2006 Festival. A contemporary Indian photography show is planned for 2007.”
Yes, the tentacles of Indian art spread far and wide – even till Honolulu, Hawaii! In fact the Honolulu Academy of Arts is one of the few museums where a gallery has been named after its Indian donor, Jhamandas Watumull. His son Gulab and daughter-in-law Indru, who are passionate art collectors, did this as a surprise birthday gift for him when he turned 100 years old. Indru herself is on the board of the academy and the Jhamandas Watumull endowment assists with purchases and programs. The academy’s collection of arts from India is one of the fastest growing departments in the Asian collection, and includes religious sculpture and decorative art.
In addition to these large collections countless smaller Indian art collections are spread across the United States. Says Met’s Kossak: “Basically the greatest Indian art is in India and will always remain in India. So whatever we have gives you a taste for what is there, but really the greatest examples still remain insitu on monuments and rock-cut sculptures or in museums in India. So this is only a primer for somebody who wants to know about Indian art. It doesn’t represent the absolute highest points that those traditions reach. What we have is first class but, on the other hand, the best of what exists in India is beyond first class.”