Category Archives: South Asian and Himalayan Art

Tibetan Healing Mandala

Tibetan monks working carefully to create the sand mandala in 2012.

Tibetan monks working carefully to create the sand mandala in 2002.

In January 2002, four months after the tragedies of September 11, 2001, twenty Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Tibet came to the Sackler to construct a healing sand mandala (sacred painting). Many of us working at the museums at the time scrambled to make sure we could record the activities of the monks during their three weeks here. In addition to a time-lapse video recording the creation of the sand mandala, we placed notebooks in the gallery so visitors could share their thoughts. Those who wished to draw added sketches, most often of the monks at work. These words and pictures became some of my favorite museum memories. One person wrote:

In four months I’ve come to different levels of understanding, grief, and horror. I’ve wept and screamed. I’ve written and wondered. Simply standing here today brings me to another level. One day I’ll have a word for it. For now, I thank you.

When the mandala was completed, it was subsequently destroyed. The act of destroying a mandala symbolizes the impermanence of existence. At a closing ceremony, the monks distributed some of the sand to visitors in small plastic bags. The rest they poured into the Potomac River, sending the mandala’s healing energy out into the world.

During the closing ceremony, a monk empties sand into the Potomac River.

During the closing ceremony, a monk empties sand into the Potomac River.

So many years later, I still remember the monks, the mandala, and the crowds looking on patiently. I recall the stories and pictures people left behind in our notebooks. Last year, the post we put together on the Tibetan sand mandala became the most shared of any the Freer|Sackler has done on Tumblr. A dozen years after its creation, the mandala’s message was distributed once again.

Friday Fave: Shrine of a Perfected Being

Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being); Western India, 1333; Bronze with traces of gilding; Purchase; F1997.33

Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being); Western India, 1333; Bronze with traces of gilding; Purchase; F1997.33

Commissioned in 1333 by a member of the renowned Gurjara family, this small bronze altarpiece—Siddhapratima Yantra (Shrine of a Perfected Being)—intrigued me from the minute I first saw it in the galleries. What fascinates me most is that it depicts the body as a negative space. The absence of the body draws me in. Carved from a single sheet of copper, the figure is full of light as it floats above a flower. When I look at it, I imagine energy emanates from the shapes. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer|Sackler, describes the altarpiece as “brilliantly evoking the enlightened soul as liberated from the earthly body.”

This object triggered my interest in the Jain tradition. I found out that Jains are depicted in meditation, a state in which no harm can be committed. Jainism, one of the oldest Indian religions, prescribes a path of nonviolence toward all living beings. Practitioners believe nonviolence and self-control are the means to liberation. Siddhas are the liberated souls who have destroyed all karmas and have obtained perfection or enlightenment. Siddhas do not have a body; they are soul in its purest form.

As a graphic designer at Freer|Sackler, I find the strong shapes of the silhouettes simple, powerful, and most of all, inspiring.

The shrine will be on view in the Freer until January 3, 2016, when the museum closes to the public through summer 2017 for renovation. It is always available at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks; Muhammad Afzal (act. 1740–80); Delhi, Haryana, India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1740; color and gold on paper;  Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art

When I was very young, I once looked up to my father during a Fourth of July fireworks show and demanded to know more about the exploding stars in the sky. What were they? Years later, when I first encountered Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks in the collections of Freer|Sackler, I was again curious about fireworks and set out to learn more about their history in South Asia.

Fireworks had been introduced in Delhi several hundred years before this painting was created. One of the earliest recorded uses of pyrotechnics in South Asia was during the fourteenth century. By the mid-fifteenth century, fireworks were regularly displayed during festive occasions, from weddings to royal parties. There were even Indian medieval manuals containing special firework recipes, which called for fascinating ingredients like iron powder, pastes made from different kinds of foods, and cow urine. Today, the subcontinent’s love of fireworks can be seen in the colorful celebrations of Hindu holidays such as Diwali.

In this painting, women from the imperial Mughal court seem to have stolen away from a party and gathered under the night sky in order to have a bit of their own fun. I love how the artist depicted them in delicately embroidered outfits that match the golden starbursts showering from the lit end of their friend’s sparkler. The nursemaid—the woman on the right wrapped in a white shawl—holds in her outstretched hand a small, velvety apricot, while a rambunctious youngster reaches for his snack. Meanwhile, the sparkler’s flames softly light the women’s faces and the foliage behind them.

Happy Fourth of July, Washington, DC! Here’s hoping your celebrations are as graceful and elegant as the one painted here.

Friday Fave: Pen Box

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

Pen box (qalamadan); Shaykh Muhammad; India, state of Gujarat, 1587; lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay; purchase, F1986.58

My favorite object in the Freer|Sackler’s collection is one I saw on my first visit to the museums with family several years ago. I’ve been with Freer|Sackler since 2013 and have seen many spectacular works of art from Asia. However, the pen box in the South and Southeast Asian galleries in the Freer is still the object that captivates me the most. From the moment I saw the pen box, I was in awe. This elegant 16th-century object is perched high in a case with other objects made in the Indian state of Gujarat. Its shiny lacquer surface and glimmering figures feature graceful nasta’liq script inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These elegant details make it one of the most beautiful artworks in the collection. Whenever I bring a friend or family member to the Freer, the pen box is always our first stop.

As someone who has a great love of literature and a passion for art and art history, I suppose it’s not surprising that I would be drawn to this object over so many others. The translation of the inlaid script on the box reads, “When I tested the ink, I remembered your black tresses.” Such a poetic phrase matches the physical beauty of the box. Its owner must have had a love of literature and poetry, just as I do. I think this is the reason why I continue to return to it and share it with everyone I know. The pen box reminds me of a time when writing was an important act that took care and effort. Today, we often use iPads and computers to do our writing as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

I hope everyone who visits the Freer and Sackler Galleries can connect with one (or more) of the hundreds of works of art that are on view. If you can’t visit, more than 40,000 objects in our collections have been digitized and are available in super hi-rez at Open F|S.

Friday Fave: Tibetan Shrine

The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice Kandell Collection

2010 Installation of the Tibetan Shrine, The Alice S. Kandell Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Years ago, long before I considered becoming a designer in a museum, I made a fateful visit to the Freer|Sackler. In 1990, during my sophomore year at the University of Montana, I traveled with my dorm roommate George to DC for spring break. He was studying to be a scholar of Chinese Buddhism and made a special point of visiting the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which were his favorite museums on the Mall. As a Montana native, I didn’t have much firsthand exposure to Asian art or any non-Western art, for that matter. For me, it was an eye-opening experience.

That spring, there was an amazing exhibition on view at the Sackler, The Noble Path: Buddhist Art of South Asia and Tibet, that sparked my appreciation for Asian art. The works, on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featured rich oxblood-red and gold Tibetan thangkas and mandalas. The imagery was expressive, hyper-detailed, and exuberant. You could almost smell the yak-butter lamps burning nearby and imagine the sound of Tibetan monks chanting. The experience was transformative, and I was hooked.

Some fifteen years later, I was offered a rare opportunity to work as a graphic designer at the Freer|Sackler. I carried with me my love for Asian art born that afternoon on spring break. In 2010, I was reminded of that moment when we installed “The Tibetan Shrine from the Alice S. Kandell Collection” as part of the exhibition In the Realm of the Buddha. Every time I walked by that gallery, I’d stop and spend a few contemplative moments drinking in the atmosphere of the room, which contained hundreds of works of Buddhist art including sculptures, scrolls, and textiles. I’m looking forward to the reinstallation of the shrine in the Sackler in the coming years.

Mats Matter

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Islamic and Indian paintings at the Freer|Sackler are breathing a huge sigh of relief now that the pressure is off! Over the last few months, the paper lab of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has rehoused more than one thousand individual folios into new window mats. The window mats relieve the paintings’ fragile surfaces from any pressure when stacked in storage boxes—critical for their long-term preservation. Plus, the paintings just look better that way.

Every painting had to be individually measured and the measurements entered into a spreadsheet. The data was sent in batches to an outside contractor. In return, every couple of weeks we would receive 200–250 newly cut mats. We then had to remove the paintings from their old folders, add new hinges, and attach them into the new mats. We make our hinges in-house from Japanese paper, and each hinge is cut to size to fit the particular folio. Since at least two hinges are used to hold each painting in the window mat, we went through more than 2,024 individual hinges! Although one thousand new mats were cut, 1,012 individual folios were rehoused, since some are presented in double window mats (a single mat with two window openings).

Old, insubstantial folders at left, and new, clean and sturdy mats on the right.

Old, fragile mats on the left; new, clean, and sturdy mats on the right.

One hundred sixty-eight folios had already been placed in mats in-house for various rotations, exhibitions, and loans, bringing the grand total of matted folios to 1,180. But that’s not everything. We still have approximately one hundred Islamic and Indian paintings left to move into mats in the future. Then, on to other collections!

The project was funded by a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund grant. It could not have happened without the untiring work of Amanda Malkin (Hagop Kevorkian Fellow in Islamic painting conservation and hinger extraordinaire), Stacy Bowe (mat-measuring maniac and intern), and Emily Cummins (pre-program intern).

Friday Fave: Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja; Tamil, India, Chola dynasty, ca. 900; bronze; Purchase—Margaret and George Haldeman, and Museum funds, F2003.2

Shiva Nataraja; Tamil, India, Chola dynasty, ca. 900; bronze; Purchase—Margaret and George Haldeman, and Museum funds, F2003.2

As a longtime museum educator, I relish the opportunity to teach in the galleries. Since arriving at the Freer|Sackler a year and a half ago, I repeatedly return to the Shiva Nataraja, currently on view in the Freer’s galleries dedicated to the arts of the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas.

Shiva is a Hindu god who has many manifestations; as Nataraja, he is a cosmic dancer vigorously performing the “dance of bliss.” A basic question I ask visitors is, “How did the Chola artist who created this Shiva more than 1,000 years ago express in bronze that he was Lord of the Dance?”

Before they answer, I ask them to walk around the sculpture and observe Shiva from multiple angles and perspectives. I may ask visitors to try to adopt Shiva’s pose and feel how difficult it is to maintain one’s balance.

After taking time to look, they note that his left foot is raised. Then they might notice that his right foot is balanced on top of a small misshapen figure known as “the demon of ignorance.”

Visitors often observe Shiva’s face with its slight smile and piercing eyes (including a third eye, which he uses to bring light into the universe). When I ask groups to describe his expression, they respond with words such as “calm,” “serene,” “peaceful,” and “composed,” and they often note that his face is the evocation of stillness. His hair, however—in matted locks (jata) worn by religious ascetics—flows around his head, propelled into rhythm through the energy of his dance.

Groups realize that Shiva has four arms and that each hand represents a different gesture (mudra). For example, his lower right hand illustrates the gesture meaning “Be without fear.” Visitors wonder at the small fire in one of his left hands—a symbol of creation and destruction. This is no ordinary dance!

Museum-goers often conclude that Shiva Nataraja is Lord of the Dance in part because he does what is difficult with ease and grace, and that his dance has great meaning beyond the physical act of movement. He defeats a demon while balanced effortlessly. His face evokes calm and serenity although he is dancing vigorously. Ignorance is crushed; light is restored to the universe.

Friday Fave: Chape of a Scabbard

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I first encountered this exquisite chape while visiting the Freer Gallery several years before I began to work here. Created in India during the seventeenth century, it is an ornamental covering for the tip of a scabbard. To my mind, it stands on its own as a work of art.

Indian art of the Mughal period is known for its sensitivity to detail and a delight in forms from the natural world. Like so much great Mughal art, this iron and gold chape exists as a world in itself—one you can return to again and again. And so I used to return to the Freer to rediscover it when it was on display. When it wasn’t, there were plenty of other marvels to enjoy, but I never forgot it and it was one of the first works of art I looked up when I arrived.

Like the leaves and flowers it depicts, the chape appears to have been created effortlessly by nature. It is possible to forget that a skilled artisan painstakingly etched out the fractal, interlocking plant forms and filled them with inlaid gold. There appear to be four or five kinds of flowers depicted—one of them a poppy—and six little butterflies lie nestled in the leaves. The intimate power of its scale and the economy of its form make the chape a marvel to behold. Yes, it was created for wealthy tastes that reveled in fine decoration, but from the vantage point of our consumer culture awash in mass-produced things, this little wonder is a reminder that the natural world is the original source of elegance. A true work of art speaks for itself and can be astonishing at any scale.

Remembering Collector Robert H. Ellsworth

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Nandi; India, Chola dynasty, 12th century; bronze; Purchase, F1985.30

Former head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at Freer|Sackler, Paul Jett was with the museums for nearly thirty years.

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, a preeminent collector and dealer of Asian art, passed away on August 3 at the age of eighty-five. Long a friend and benefactor of the Freer|Sackler, Mr. Ellsworth gave his collection of Chinese calligraphy to the museums and also supported many of their fundraising efforts. In addition, he was the source for a number of important works purchased by the museums, such as the beautiful bronze figure of Nandi pictured above. Mr. Ellsworth said he found this work being used as decoration near a swimming pool at the home of the owners of the Tandy Leather Company in Texas. (In the Freer|Sackler, the piece earned the nickname “The Tandy Nandi.”)

When I met Mr. Ellsworth, I was a young conservator studying a particular type of Chinese Buddhist bronze from Yunnan, one example of which was in his collection. I was certainly not known in the field of Asian art, and yet Mr. Ellsworth treated me with a gracious, generous cordiality that overwhelmed me. He allowed me to visit his home and study the bronze, and then went on to show me dozens of other bronzes from his collection. It was breathtaking and the first of many visits I made to see his collection and talk about art. A raconteur of the first order, Mr. Ellsworth always had a story to tell, about his collection, his life, or the people he knew. He could be incredibly charming, funny, and welcoming.

For years after my first visit, whenever Mr. Ellsworth saw an article or news about Yunnanese Buddhist bronzes, he would send me copies of the information. I was stunned once to learn that Mr. Ellsworth had bought one of these bronzes for about five times more than anyone had previously paid, but it took him just a month or two to sell it for a significant profit. Mr. Ellsworth not only knew the art market well, but he also seemed able to forecast it. Knowing the art market is one thing; knowing art is something else. I have always believed that, in his prime, Mr. Ellsworth had an eye for art that was better than that of anyone else in the field I ever met.

The museums have lost a good friend, and there are many more who will mourn and miss Robert Ellsworth.

Meteor Spotted in Freer Gallery!

Knife made for Jahangir, partially of meteoric iron; 1621 1621 Mughal dynasty  Meteoric iron, with gold inlay H: 26.1 cm  India  F1955.27a-b

Knife made for Jahangir, partially of meteoric iron; Mughal dynasty, 1621, India, F1955.27a-b 

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

No, it’s true! One of the prized objects in the Freer collection, and perfect for celebrating Meteor Day, is a knife made from a meteor that fell into Emperor Jahangir’s kingdom in the early 17th century. In his memoir, The Jahangirnama, Emperor Jahangir described the scene:

“At dawn a tremendous noise arose in the east. It was so terrifying that it nearly frightened the inhabitants out of their skins. Then, in the midst of tumultuous noise, something bright fell to the earth from above….”

Jahangir’s fascination with unusual natural events—and his power to harness their aura—is revealed by this dagger’s blade, forged from the glittering meteorite. Jahangir further noted that the blade “cut beautifully, as well as the very best swords.”

Happy Meteor Day!

Learn more about South Asian and Himalayan Art in the Freer|Sackler collections.