Category Archives: South Asian and Himalayan Art

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.

Yoga: A Transforming Exhibition

Crowds gathered for one last look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation during closing weekend.

Crowds gathered for one last look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation during closing weekend (photos by Neil Greentree).

We said goodbye to Yoga: The Art of Transformation over the weekend with tours and talks and ImaginAsia programs for young visitors (where else could you make your own chakra?). More than ten thousand people visited the exhibition on Saturday and Sunday to take one last look at stunning paintings and sculptures that brought to life the strong visual history of an ancient practice. Yoga newbies as well as longtime practitioners offered praise for the exhibition, as they patiently waited on lines to enter the galleries.

Taking a close look at yoginis during closing weekend.

Taking a close look at yoginis during closing weekend.

For those of you who missed the exhibition, or want to see it again, start packing your bags! Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be on view at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (February 21–May 25) and at the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22–September 7).


Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens Saturday, October 19

Vishnu Vishvarupa India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820 Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.5 x 28 cm Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald  Clark, IS.33-2006

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820, Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald Clark, IS.33-2006

Through masterpieces of Indian sculpture and painting, Yoga: The Art of Transformation explores yoga’s goals; its Hindu as well as Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi manifestations; its means of transforming body and consciousness; and its profound philosophical foundations. The first exhibition to present this leitmotif of Indian visual culture, it also examines the roles that yogis and yoginis played in Indian society over two thousand years.

Follow the conversation at #artofyoga

September 11, 1893

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of Religions, September 1893.

Swami Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of World Religions, September 1893.

September 11 is a day we’ve come to associate with intolerance, but 120 years ago that was not the case. In September 1893, Swami Vivekananda traveled from India to the United States to address the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. “Sisters and brothers of America…” the swami said, and was met with thunderous applause from the nearly seven thousand people in attendance. Only thirty years old, he wowed the audience, conveying a message of hope and peace. Wearing his orange robes, he spoke as a Hindu monk with a universal message: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Reporting on the event, the New York Herald wrote: “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”

Swami Vivekananda was also the author of Raja Yoga, a groundbreaking treatise that became a bestseller in India and around the world. In the book, Vivekananda writes that “Raga Yoga. . .never asks the question of what our religion is. We are human beings, that is sufficient” (Raja Yoga, 1896). His teachings helped shape modern discourses on yoga, which we will explore in greater depth when Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens on October 19.

Listen to Swami Vivekananda’s speech from September 11, 1893.

Learn more about Swami Vivekananda and his connection to Charles Lang Freer.

Danielle Probst: From Child’s Pose to Yoga Messenger

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst

Danielle Probst is marketing manager for River’s Edge Yoga studio in Alexandria and Virginia Yoga Week. In her role as Yoga Messenger, Danielle is helping to get the word out about our upcoming exhibition, Yoga: Art of Transformation.

As a native Washingtonian, I’ve spent many hours in museums, first as a child with the ubiquitous school tour, then, more memorably, as a teen. Back in the days before teens lived on their cell phones, I was a museum hound. My mother, a single parent, was more than willing to send me to this “Mall” to wander for hours. With a Metro farecard and a sandwich in my bag, the Freer|Sackler was among my favorite haunts. I recall stepping into the cool, quiet galleries, a refuge from the jungle-grade humidity of a Washington August.

What drew me in first was an interest in India. Small paintings, like pages from fantastic, magical books, lay upright in glass cases. These exquisite pictures amazed me with their vibrant colors, gold leaf, and miniature brushstrokes a hair’s breadth wide, bringing to life sari-garbed girls by the river being wooed by a playful young man with blue skin. These tiny worlds frozen on paper sucked me in and I was transported, and hooked.

The terrifying faces of wrathful deities on giant thangkas held me in awe. Gnashing teeth, blood dripping from swords, eyes rolling in wrath—I could almost feel the hellfire they walked in. From the secret mathematics of Durga’s Triangle to Lakshmi’s glittering coins, each room held objects of wonder. Every Buddha and yogini thrilled me.

Not surprisingly, I ended up in art school. In my years of traveling and study I spent many hours visiting Asian art in cities such as Chicago, London, and Berlin. As the wheel of my life spun, I returned again and again to read Buddhist texts, groove to the sounds of Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz, and learn how to make my own paneer and naan.

When I heard about the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, I knew I’d be back to visit my friends—those magical manuscript pages at the Freer|Sackler—that to this day can whisper their secrets to me.

Art in its many forms is, to my mind, the purest expression of the divine. Whether it is a simple rangoli created by a housewife on her front steps or the purest tone of voices joined in chant, we can’t help but express our connection with the universe.
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