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Indian Art
new aquisitions, directions and display

detail: 'Temple hanging [pichhavai]: Krishna's fluting summons the entranced gopis' India c. 1840 opaque watercolour, gold and silver on cotton Collection of the National Gallery of Australiadetail: Temple hanging [pichhavai]: Krishna's fluting summons the entranced gopis India c. 1840 opaque watercolour, gold and silver on cotton Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail
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The opening of a new Indian Gallery off the entrance foyer in August provides a perfect opportunity to reveal recent additions to the National Collection. It also refocusses attention on works of art from South Asia acquired over 30 years of collecting Asian art. One of the most spectacular of the recent additions is a series of massive wooden brackets which act as a major architectural feature drawing visitors into the newly refurbished spaces and creating a series of niches within which to display small miniature paintings, illuminated manuscript folios and small textiles. The angles of the intricately carved late 15th–16th century teak brackets echo the structure of the Gallery building, while the combination of Hindu and Mughal and Persian inspired ornamentation is a subtle introduction to the works displayed within. In fact a number of sculptures, such as the white marble Jain arch which surrounds the seated jina provide elaborate depictions of very similar architectural structures and ornamentation. Both the brackets themselves and their recurrence in many sculptures attest to the centrality of temple and palace architecture for South Asian artists. A stone ceiling panel in the form of a lotus further demonstrates the way in which key decorative elements are shared by the major religions of India: even the eight grotesque kirtimukha faces of glory, with bulging eyes, small pointed horns, and distinct fangs are found in the temple architecture of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

'Lotus ceiling' India 11th-12th centurystone Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Lotus ceiling eastern Rajasthan or northeastern Madhya Pradesh / India 11th-12th century stone Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Forming an introduction to the antiquity of certain key images in South Asian art is an image of the nagaraja serpent king, depicted in anthropomorphic form sheltering beneath the seven hoods of a cobra-like snake. A rare instance of a three-dimensional stone sculpture in the Gallery’s collection, the intermeshed coils of the serpent are sinuously depicted down the back of the red sandstone image. While derived from early nature worship, the naga serpent is a recurring image in Indian art, sheltering the meditating Buddha or buoying up the reclining Vishnu. A smooth oval egg shaped rock – a self born lingam – is also testament to the continuity of primal sexual imagery, restated in terms of the worship of the great god Shiva.

Inside the entrance to the new gallery, Buddhist and Jain art predominates. Among the earliest surviving sculptures from the Indian subcontinent are those from the great Buddhist stupas, and the marble frieze from the vicinity of the Amaravati stupa in central east India shows the adoration of the empty throne, an iconic image of the earthly Buddha dating from the 3rd century ad. Another early image is an imposing standing figure of a richly apparelled bodhisattva from Gandharan Pakistan revealing a very different early Buddhist style. Dating from around 300 ad, the powerful influence of the forays of Alexander the Great into this region of South Asia is evident in the strong Hellenistic features of the saviour, his drapery and stance. Also in white marble, the tall figure is a superb example of the syncretism of Greek and local iconography. Other Gandharan objects already in the collection include a fine stupa gable depicting a scene from one of the Jataka tales of the previous lives of the Buddha.

'Standing Bodhisattvar' 3rd-4th century, Afghanistan or Pakistan, stone Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Standing bodhisattva 3rd-4th century, Afghanistan or Pakistan, stone Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

While the Gallery’s collection of Jain objects is small, two sculptures of serene enlightened conquerors or liberators (jina) provide a fine introduction to the intricacy of Jain temple art: the serene white marble seated image of a simply robed jina and the stark standing ‘sky-clad’ figure, completely unadorned in the abandonment pose, represent the two main orders of Jainism. In contrast the Gallery’s internationally renowned Indian textile holdings includes a number of Jain works, the most famous of which shows a series of female courtiers in sumptuous costume. The hand-drawn 5 metre long cloth, dated 1500, echoes on a large scale the imagery of illuminated Jain manuscripts of medieval west India. Textiles in various techniques – double ikat, mordant painting, and pigment printing – are displayed throughout the new Gallery.

Also prominent are large pigment paintings which have been a recent collection development. The pichhvai hangings are created for rituals celebrating the Hindu deity Krishna. They contain some of the most charming images in Indian art – the popular blue god Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) surrounded by adoring milkmaids and their herds of cows. Other subjects for the very large Indian paintings are scenes of royal progress, such as the Maharana’s hunt, vibrant maps of popular pilgrimage centres and tantric cosmological diagrams. The dimensions of the Gallery building are ideally suited to the display of such large paintings.

The collection of Hindu sculpture has also grown over the past year with the addition of a number of important works from the southern Indian 9th–13th century Chola period. Arguably the pinnacle of Indian bronze sculpture, the recent acquisitions of a fine large image of the child saint Sambandar and a delicate rendition of the fierce deity Kali seated beneath the large trident of the god Shiva add significantly to the Gallery’s existing collection of Chola bronzes which includes the popular dancing Shiva Nataraj. However, the Chola also were famed for their stone images, and the recent addition to the collection of the voluptuous lion-headed goddesss Pratyangira demonstrates the superb skills of early Tamil Nadu artisans.

'Door guardian' [dvarapala] India 15th century stoneDoor guardian [dvarapala] Tamil Nadu / India 15th century stone Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The Gallery’s collection of Hindu art has been enriched by the addition of these images of the Great Goddess, one of the most revered deities who takes a wide variety of forms, both benign and threatening. The centrality of female deities, alone or paired with male gods as consorts and shaktis, has been surprisingly under-represented in the Gallery’s collection. The Chola sculptures join works in paper, textile and stone featuring Durga, the demon slaying goddess. In another recent purchase, Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance is shown in a lithe sensual embrace with her consort Vishnu.

Another aspect of the art of the Indian sub-continent which has been a target of recent acquisitions is Islamic art. The Gallery has good holdings of richly decorated textiles displaying Mughal designs, ornamentation which is also present in Islamic architecture and other arts. An intricate openwork pierced stone screen from the 17th century reign of great Mughal emperor-architect Shah Jahan – remembered best for his architectural masterpiece, the Taj Mahal – demonstrates the shared imagery: the design of floral buds within a diagonal grid, subtly set within a mihrab arch is found on numerous early Indian textiles in the collection, examples of which will be displayed in this section of the Indian Gallery. The jali screen is presented so that visitors can appreciate the quality of the stone carving on both front and back surfaces.

Open-worked pierced screen [jali] c.1630-1650 India, red sandstone. Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Open-worked pierced screen [jali] c.1630-1650 India, red sandstone Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

In the new entrance-level Indian Gallery recent acquisitions join old favourites. In juxtaposing works of different media – stone, wood, paper, metal and cloth – visitors are introduced the spectacular art of South Asia through fine examples of key images from the major strands of Indian culture and religion. In this process existing holdings in the collection are enhanced by conversations with new works located close by, such as the huge 12th-century Pala dynasty stone stele depicting a majestic Vishnu flanked by two diminutive images of his consorts Lakshmi and Sarasvati, now shown beside the newly acquired panel showing Vishnu and Lakshmi in a dynamic embrace of more earthly proportions. The addition of recently acquired works also encourages a deeper appreciation of the range of cultural, religious and stylistic representation and imagery in the art of the Indian sub-continent. Along with the physical move to a more central and accessible location off the main foyer, it is hoped that the displays in the new Indian Gallery will more successfully engage, excite and inform visitors about the arts of Asia.

Robyn Maxwell
Senior Curator, Asian Art