No one will ever know what you are talking about," Dr. Joseph M. Dye III recalls being warned when he decided to make the study of Indian art the focus of his career. Since receiving that warning as an art history graduate student in the late '60s, Dye, the Virginia Museum's E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, has made it his mission to demystify the art of that region.
"Teaching people about Indian art is one of my schticks," he says. "It's evangelizing, it's preaching. Until very recently our educational system was very Euro-centered. Most people arrive at this material with no knowledge whatsoever."
The Virginia Museum's new exhibition, "Worlds of Wonder and Desire: Indian Paintings from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts," goes a long way in spreading the gospel of Indian art. The exhibition celebrates the publication of "The Arts of India," an encyclopedic catalogue of the Virginia Museum's internationally recognized holdings in Indian art. The product of 15 years of research, Dye says he wrote the catalogue for both a scholarly and non-scholarly audience to enjoy.
The exhibition of nearly 100 paintings and about 20 decorative objects traces the evolution of Indian painting from the 12th to the early 20th century. It is a revelation of brilliant color, incredible technique and charmingly exotic subjects: the gods and myths of India; the pleasures and pastimes of its royal courts; and poems celebrating love, the seasons and music.
Even Dye, who has worked with these paintings every day during his 21 years at the museum, still seems to be amazed at the beauty and skill exhibited in the works. As he and a visitor tour the exhibition, he pauses before an exquisite scene of the Hindu god Krishna making love to a woman in the forest. He shakes his head in amazement at the luminosity of the opaque watercolor and the detail of the fine brushstrokes. "It really is marvelous, isn't it?" he says with a smile.
Dye is hoping museumgoers have a similar reaction when viewing these paintings, all works from the museum's permanent collection. Even if visitors know nothing about Indian art, they still can appreciate the works on a purely visual level, he says. "Each one is a miniature world unto itself. By looking at each one, you enter a magical world."
For those who want to learn more, extensive label copy provides the background and explains the meaning of each work. "It is extremely profound and complex material with many layers of meaning," Dye says. " I enjoy introducing it to people. Indian civilization is one of the world's great seminal cultures. It is to Asia what Greece and Rome are to the West.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically and regionally, beginning with pages from a 12th century Pala dynasty manuscript executed on incredibly fragile palm leaf. One of the most curious objects in the exhibition is a talismanic shirt that has the entire Koran written on it in miniscule script. "It was worn by soldiers for protection," Dye explains.
The next major group of paintings in the exhibition comes from the period after the Mughals conquered India in 1526. Emperor Akbar, a Muslim, sponsored the creation of many brilliantly colored Imperial manuscripts. "The style is a combination of Persian elements with Indian color and Western naturalism," Dye explains of the stylistic evolution in the art.
Another gallery in the exhibition examines works sponsored by the Rajputs, a group conquered by the Mughals. "The Rajput style is more abstract and focuses on Hindu subjects instead of Persian subjects," Dye says. Of particular note is an amusing painting of Krishna celebrating the Hindu holiday of Holi from about 1710, in which the viewer is treated to a pictorial history of Krishna's antics on this merry-making day.
The exhibition also includes later works, the most recent being a traditional painting from the early 1900s. In addition, a small sidebar exhibition, "Picturing Philosophy" features about 25 pages from the 1763 "Jnaneshvari" manuscript, a commentary on a the revered Sanskrit text, the "Bhagavadgita."
Dye started planning the exhibition more than a year ago, but says it is really based on his research on the collection for more than a decade. "It has been in my head for years," he says. "We have a really wonderful collection of Indian paintings in the museum. They haven't had it out in totality for more than a quarter of a century."
The museum's renowned Indian art collection was begun in 1968 with the purchase of 160 pieces from the private collection of pioneer South Asian art collector Nasli Heeramaneck with money from Paul Mellon. Since then, the museum and Dye have added carefully selected works every year. Today, the collection contains about 240 objects.
"[The collection] very efficiently tells the story of Indian art," Dye says. "It is not just a trophy collection."
But it is a great treasure. The quality of the Virginia Museum's collection ranks with top collections of Indian art around the world, including those at the Los Angeles County Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musee Guimet in Paris and the British Museum in London. "It's all ours and it's all in Richmond," Dye says. "To me that's one of the wonders of it. There are very few places in the world of this size where you can find something like this right around the corner. It is a real treasure to the city and the state." S
"Worlds of Wonder and Desire: Indian Paintings from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts" is on display through Feb. 24.
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