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MFA Boston opens new Indian/Southeast Asian galleries this December
Durga as Mahishasuramardini (the Slayer of the Buffalo Demon), Indian, Southern, Late Pallava or early Chola period, 8th century A.D. Green schist. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Denman Waldo Ross Collection. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- Two new galleries are set to open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this month. One will celebrate rare sculptural works from India and neighboring countries (South Asia) and Southeast Asia. The other will showcase rotations of the rich painting traditions of India, Korea, the Himalayas, and Persia beginning with an important collection of Indian works in the exhibition Gems of Rajput Painting. The two new galleries will reflect a broad range of cultures—from Iran to the west and Indonesia to the east, and from the Himalayas to the north and Sri Lanka to the south—reinforcing the global nature of the MFA’s encyclopedic collection. Highlights include important Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain works, such as a rare 5th-century painted fragment featuring Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda, from the caves in Ajanta, a UNESCO World Heritage site in central India—the only known work to have left Ajanta—and an elaborately carved 11th-century sculpture of the elephant-headed Hindu god of good fortune, Ganesh. The new galleries are located on Level 1 near the Museum’s Huntington Avenue Entrance.

South and Southeast Asian Sculpture Gallery (opening December 15)
Some 120 works in the South Asian and Southeast Asian Sculpture Gallery will highlight the artistic traditions of India and the surrounding South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as Southeast Asia, which includes Indonesia, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. In addition, the gallery will emphasize the important cultural exchange that took place between the two geographic regions during the course of two millennia. Many of the objects on view have recently been conserved and will be displayed in new cases and on new mounts to enhance their presentation.

“This gallery presents South and Southeast Asian art from a new angle, one that previously hasn’t been explored at the MFA. It combines objects from across a vast region, illuminating the long history of artistic exchange that connected communities on both sides of the Indian Ocean. Today we constantly hear people talking about staying connected to one another. In the new installation, we’ll see an earlier age of connections, expressed through art,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA.

Such connections are evident in a display of sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist goddesses at the entrance of the gallery. Two 11th-century bronze statues (approximately 3 feet tall) greet visitors—the Great Goddess of Hinduism from India shown with curving, sinuous gestures, and a more restrained and formally posed Cambodian Buddhist deity—which reflect the different yet related conventions for depicting female figures. Juxtapositions of this kind appear throughout the gallery, organized chronologically, to encourage comparisons between works in pairs and groups. Among the other sculptures on view are an 11th–12th-century stele representing Buddha’s enlightenment surrounded by carvings of the eight major events in his life, and a two-sided slab depicting him bathing in Nairanjana River on one side, complemented by a richly decorated stupa carved on the other side a century later. Also on display are a variety of objects relating to pilgrimage sites commemorating events in the life of Buddha, including sculptures from India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Java, and Tibet.

Works of art in the South Asia and Southeast Asia Sculpture Gallery are celebrated not only for their distinct cultural identity, but also as reflections of 2,000 years of important exchange. By the 4th century, people from the two geographic areas were frequently traveling in both directions. Trade flourished as merchants from India went to Southeast Asia for spices and exotic woods, and their counterparts in Indonesia, Cambodia, and neighboring countries went to India to acquire textiles and materials such as limestone, sandstone, and marble. The spread of Buddhism and Hinduism—both of which originated in South Asia—was furthered by missionaries, monks, and pilgrims and made unique to a particular area when combined with existing religious practices. Through the exchange of ideas, aesthetics, and goods, as well as iconography, language, and customs, the works of art of one region began to reflect the cross-cultural influences of the other.

“The MFA’s collections of South and Southeast Asian art are among the best in the world, in part because they were begun at a time when few other institutions were collecting. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean collections are also outstanding, and one by one the MFA will be renovating these galleries over the coming years,” said Jane Portal the Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa.

Gems of Rajput Painting to Debut in Asian Paintings Gallery (opening December 10)
Gems of Rajput Painting, on view December 10, 2011, through September 3, 2012, is presented with generous support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund. It is the inaugural rotation in the Asian Paintings Gallery. (Upcoming rotations will feature works from Korea, Persia, and the Himalayan region.) The exhibition draws from the Museum’s holdings of some 1,200 Indian paintings and drawings ranging in date from the 12th to the 21st centuries. This specific type of painting was commissioned during the 16th to 19th centuries by rulers (Rajputs or “sons of kings”) who shared a common elite culture centered on Hindu worship, Sanskrit poetry, and the fierce pride of warrior clans. The 35 paintings and manuscript illustrations included in the exhibition represent the height of the artistic traditions developed at workshops associated with the many Rajput courts in Rajasthan, Central India, and the foothills of the Himalayas. Rajput paintings often illustrate poetic texts and are small in size—generally kept in a portfolio-like format rather than bound or hung on the wall. They were usually painted on paper in watercolor (gouache), often brightly hued with gold accents. Although burnished to create a very smooth, hard surface, these paintings have a textural quality because, during finishing, the artists sometimes used tiny drops of white pigment to represent pearls or even bits of beetle wing to evoke jewels. This exquisite type of Indian painting, one of the strengths of the MFA’s Indian collection, was discovered only in the past 100 years by Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947), who was the MFA’s first curator of Indian art and the first such curator in the United States.

“Rajput painting is one of the great traditions of Indian art, and yet for unfamiliar viewers, the exaggerated bodies, incredibly bold colors, and use of multiple perspectives can be dizzying. Thematic groupings in this exhibition are designed to give visitors a way into the material, illuminating the conventions Rajput artists followed and played with in their work,” said Laura Weinstein, the MFA’s Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, who organized the exhibition and the South and Southeast Asian Sculpture Gallery.

Gems of Rajput Painting is divided into four themes of particular interest to Rajput painters: romance, devotion, heroism, and courtly life. The artists looked to love poetry for romantic inspiration, especially texts that drew upon amorous relationships—heartfelt and even heartbreaking—between courtly men and women, such as Dipak raga (Rajasthan, India, court of Kota, about 1740, attributed to the family of Nainsukh), in which a couple’s passion prompts objects all around them to burst into flame. Ragamala paintings such as this illustrate the mood of particular modes of North Indian classical music (ragas), very often in the form of romantic scenarios. Another example of romantic love is seen in The hour of cowdust (Pahari region of India, about 1810–15), where the god Krishna, as a youth, was a mischievous cowherd who stole the hearts (and sometimes the clothes) of local milkmaids. Hindu gods also figure prominently in Rajput paintings as symbols of spiritual purity, or as sometimes meddlesome deities. Two notable devotional works in the exhibitions are Devagandhari Ragini (Pahari region of India, court of Bahu-Jammu, about 1700–10), which shows two courtly ladies flanking a representation of the god Shiva in the form of a garlanded lingam (phallic symbol), and Maharana Jawan Singh of Mewar worshipping an icon (Rajasthan, India, court of Mewar, about 1830), a painting that is both a depiction of worship and an icon to be worshipped, showing the ruler of the Rajputs of Mewar before a form of Krishna.

Images of heroism and epic confrontations between good and evil were also favored by Rajput artists. The exhibition showcases the dramatic Battle between Arjuna and Karna (Rajasthan, India, court of Kota, about 1740), the central confrontation of the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic where the blue-skinned Krishna serves as a charioteer on what will be the winning side. Similarly, The victory of Kali (Pahari region, India, court of Guler, about 1780) features the great goddess Devi, who created a frightening creature named Kali to defeat demonic foes. The exhibition’s final theme, courtly life, is expressed in images that reinforce the ideals of kingship, convey political messages, and show whimsical scenes of royal leisure. Included among them is Krishna celebrates Holi with Radha and the gopis (Rajasthan, India, court of Kishangarh, about 1740, attributed to Nihal Chand), which depicts Krishna (wearing a halo that associates him with Rajput royalty) and his lover Radha celebrating the festival of Holi on the terrace of a palace, as though they were royals from the Kishangarh court. A 21st-century take on the Rajput vision of court life is reflected in Horse with Gold Head Dress (Rajasthan, India, Udaipur, 2007), one of two works in the show by contemporary artist Raja Ram Sharma, whose used traditional Rajput techniques to create these paintings.

In addition, the exhibition features two silver ewers and matching goblets, made by Grish Chunder Dutt in 1885–90. They show how imagery characteristic of Rajput painting continued on and was transformed during the country’s colonial period (19th century through the mid 20th century). One ewer is decorated with an image of the Ganges pouring down from heaven, a story sacred to Hindus and appearing often in Rajput paintings. Its pair depicts the river Hugli, a branch of the Ganges River near Calcutta, as it looked when that city was a major hub of the British East India Company.

SOUTH ASIAN COLLECTION (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka)
The South Asian collection. comprising some 5,000 objects, is the third largest in the Museum’s Department of the Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa, after Japanese and Chinese. The first Indian objects arrived at the Museum around 1900, but focused collecting in the area did not begin until about 1910, when Denman Waldo Ross, a Harvard professor of design and long-time supporter of the Museum, began to give objects to the MFA from his eclectic collection. Many of the Museum’s finest Indian sculptures, including the Yakshi figure from Sanchi, were originally in Ross’ collection. In 1914, Ross facilitated the MFA’s purchase of the private collection of Victor Goloubew, a Russian-born Orientalist living in Paris, who in his youth compiled one of the world’s greatest collections of Mughal and Persian manuscript pages. Ross continued his generosity with the 1917 purchase of the private collection of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. Ross immediately donated the collection — which consisted primarily of Rajput paintings, including a number of celebrated masterpieces — to the MFA, and arranged for Coomaraswamy to become the Museum’s first Curator for Indian Art in 1917.

Since these early years the MFA has continued to acquire important works of Indian painting and sculpture. In the 1960s, collector John Goelet donated many Indian paintings, ranging from a page from the earliest known illustrated Bhagavata Purana to a famous study of the personal harem of the Mughal emperor. Additions to the sculpture collection include a North Indian sandstone sculpture of Ganesh with his wives and an exquisite Pala period sculpture of Avalokitesvara, which will be on view in the new South and Southeast Asian Sculpture Gallery.

SOUTHEAST ASIAN COLLECTION (Indonesia, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam)
Approximately 700 stone and bronze sculptures, ceramics, metalwork and jewelry from Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam enable the Museum to show the full range of the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia. As with the Indian collection, many important works came to the museum through Denman Waldo Ross. Later in the 20th century the collections growth was fueled by scholar Jan Fontein, who served as curator and then as the Director of the MFA.

The Classical Javanese stone sculptures from the 9th through the 15th centuries are among the finest in the West. Of particular note is a monumental statue of Bhairava or Mahakala from Eastern Java acquired for the Museum in the 1970s. This powerfully forbidding sculpture is one of the most important Javanese works in America today. Other sculptural masterpieces in the collection include a recently acquired 10th-century sculpture from Cambodia of a standing goddess, and an architectural fragment from an 11th-century Cambodian temple, with two celestial figures posing playfully on its sides.

Among the extensive collection of decorative arts is an 11th-century ceremonial dagger from Cambodia or Thailand, the only known dated and inscribed dagger from this period. The Museum’s Vietnamese ceramic collection of some 250 objects is another highlight; it is among the most comprehensive such collections and continues to expand.

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