Hindu art shakes off its archaic image at the Sackler Gallery of Art’s sensitive display

By V.G. Julie Rajan, Philadelphia

Prior to the current exhibit at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery of Art, viewing Hindu art in a museum was boring at best. Sure, the aesthetic impact was often impressive and, to a few initiates, exciting, but it was still “just a museum.” To knowing Hindus, the art was out of con-text, and out of touch with the maker’s intent. It felt abandoned, cold, old and irrelevant.

While Washington, D.C.’s, Sackler Gallery is still a museum, its semi-permanent exhibit, Puja, Expressions of Hindu Devotion, boldly and triumphantly places Indian art, specifically Hindu art, in proper context as objects of worship. Largely donated from the private collection of Paul Walters with minor con-tributions from Georgana Foster and Dr. David R. Nalin, the 125 pieces in the exhibit were not originally intended to exemplify Hindu worship at all. While categorizing the objects, co-curators Stephen P. Huyler and Sarah Ridley slowly realized that the concept of puja, the Hindu worship rite, was like a sacred thread binding the collection together.

Rather than displaying the artifacts as obsolete historical relics, the sociologically sensitive curators insisted that the exhibit be a show of living art, art that is as much a part of Hindu life today as when it was made. Huyler, the art historian, ethnologist, writer and photographer who masterminded the show, told Sackler that he “would only be willing to co-curate if they were willing to show the objects as they were meant to be seen rather than as art objects.” Sackler concurred, cementing a conceptual shift that has effectively made Puja an exhibition as much about Hindu devotionals as Hindu art.

Once in agreement, Huyler and Ridley divided the artifacts into three categories relating to the spatial dimensions of Hindu worship—temple, household and outdoor shrines [diagram, facing page]. “We wanted to give the exhibit some organizing principles that made it seem less foreign,” explains Ridley, who has been working with the gallery for 11 years. “A lot of Westerners just think that Hinduism has multiple gods with multiple arms, and that is it. But when you say that worship takes place in the temple and in the home, most people, no matter what culture they are from, can make a connection. This was important to all of us. In an art museum like ours, many of the objects for much of our audience seem long ago and far away. Although many items here were made hundreds of years ago, they still have significance today. We wanted to show Hinduism today, to remind people that these are Americans who are practicing Hinduism.”

This innovative conceptualization developed to include on-going free lectures and demonstrations of Hindu art, music, dance and worship, along with professional videos of authentic religious rituals in India and the US. “We have been having a regular series called ‘Puja Today,’ where various Hindus in the Washington, D.C., area talk about being a Hindu in the United States,” Ridley elucidated. The primary exhibition is considered a long-term addition to the gallery, not a mere six-month show. Temporary exhibits, such as Huyler’s photographs of Indian kolams, Painted Prayers [see cover photo], were scheduled to enhance and sup-plement the main displays.

The cathedral-high glass ceiling and the wide-open lobby in which cultural events are often held connote a sense of space and open-mindedness. During regular hours, visitors can sit in a theater and view a video, narrated by National Public Radio’s Chitra Raghavan, detailing Hindu worship in the United States. They can browse through literature on Sanatana Dharma in a reading area within the exhibit, or can browse the gift shop for books, photographs and other objects relating to the exhibit. The exhibit’s educational impact is enhanced by well-informed docents, whose knowledge of Indian spiritual concepts gained by rigorous training and visits to temples in the area will astonish most practicing Hindus.

To accomplish all of this, Sackler sought the help of American Hindus, who eagerly took up the gauntlet. “There was a priest from the Siva-Vishnu temple in Maryland who actually came and installed the Siva Linga and the Sundarar and Paravai sculptures,” details Huyler. “Then we had a member of that temple, Uma Nagarajan, install the household shrine to Vishnu. Sackler felt from the very beginning that it would be inappropriate for anyone other than a traditional Hindu to place the objects.”

A volunteer for almost five years at the gallery, Uma Nagarajan was involved in the exhibit from the outset as a liaison between the local Hindu community and the gallery. She also plays a significant role in the Puja video [see page 47], demonstrating the simple and profound devotion of Hindu home worship. She described her community’s out-reach efforts, “We really got involved through devotional programs twice a month. Other temples in the area also contributed. Some of the participants gave lectures, demonstrations of devotional music and things like that. We are happy that the Hindu religion, which is a living, practicing religion, is getting some notice and attention.”

Giving the Eternal Path such public prominence was an early intent of Huyler, who proclaimed that, for him, the purpose of Puja is “to reach the Western public, both NRI and non-Indian, in the hopes of both readdressing the massive misinterpretation of Hinduism in the contemporary world and to be able to look at it as a late-20th-century, innovative, progressive, vital religion, and not something that is archaic, third-world, remote. To show that it is living in America. It is vital to America, and vital to India. It is not just half-way around the world.”

Capital Idea: This noble goal is partly achieved simply through the show’s impressive venue. After all, this is the Smithsonian, an institution of the US government and the world’s largest museum and research complex. Nine Smithsonian museums are clustered on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Five others are scattered elsewhere in Washington. This unique geography gives Puja country-wide prominence. Attendance to the two side-by-side galleries, Sackler and Freer, between May 12, 1996, when Puja opened, and August 31, is estimated at 200,000—roughly 1,780 art afficionados per day. Sackler’s staff estimate that half the attendees are Hindu.

Puja enchants the press, too. Enthusiastic coverage heralded the opening.Most notable were a feature in the Wash-ington Post and an artful piece by Holland Cotter in the New York Times. The Times has been typically critical of Hinduism, but Cotter’s story, “Indian Icons in All Their Fine Clothes,” proved a welcome exception. The exhibit’s intent was crystal clear to him: “Thematically focused, carefully selected, the spare explanatory wall texts wearing scholarship lightly, the show illuminates a religious art in which beauty and function are inseparable, and in which ritual use is warmed by the touch of homely affection. It also gently puts art history in the right perspective. The spiritual ideals documented are as alive today as they were centuries ago, and even reconstituted in a museum context, they breathe the air of life.”

Creating Sacred Space: Huyler tried hard to bring the display to life, and harder to maintain some sanctity, but was stymied by red tape—perhaps a kind of osmosis from the Capitol next door. “We fought for there to be deepas lighted; but there are fire regulations, and it just could not happen. We wanted people to take off their shoes when they entered the whole exhibition, but there was a union regulation against that. We had temple bells that were going to be hung near the Lingam that people would strike as they circumambulated, but our antique pair of bells broke at the last minute. We wanted the exhibition to be more interactive than it could be, but we were hindered by either museum or government regulations.”

Still, credit is due. For a first-of-its-kind exhibit, Puja is a triumph. Uma Nagarajan provided local assessment. “I think they have done a good study. What is presented is in such a way that Hindus cannot find fault in it. Americans who do not understand our religion seem to be very happy and satisfied because they understand exactly what it is through the explanations given.” Huyler has also watched visitors’ reactions. He remembers during the opening, near the extraordinary Kashmir crystal Lingams [photo, page 22], “a woman was prostrate in front of it for quite a long time. It was very strong to watch.” While exploring the exhibit for this article, I was personally struck by the authentic display of a magnificent granite Lingam, dated 17th century Tamil Nadu, that is situated as it would be within a temple. Between the pedestal on which the adorned Lingam was placed, the oil lamps surrounding the Deity and the offerings of fruit and flowers that were placed in front, I felt a strong impulse to take off my shoes in reverence before approaching. 

The significance of an exhibit on Hinduism in the US capital signals more than just an artistic show. Puja is already functioning as a bridge between the Hindu community and the American public, breaking down barriers and discrimination caused by ignorance. Tour guide Dr. Marleyse Ken-nedy explained, “I think it signifies an opening of the spirit, a trend toward multi-ethnicity, and the recognition of the validity of other beliefs. Once you understand something, you can accept it, and there is less discrimination.”

The exhibit also serves to bridge -first and second-generation Hindus, allowing those who are not as familiar with their religion to delve daringly into their roots. “Now-adays many youngsters seem to help in the Hindu temples that are in every city,” notes Nagarajan. “This may help them to get involved even more.” Huyler describes this as a pri-mary motivation. “One of my concerns in the very beginning was that there would be second and third-generation Indians—children that receive the common peer pressure that looks at Hinduism as something biz-arre—that they would be able to come with a class or bring in a friend and say ‘Look, this is what we’re about’ and be really excited about it. I taught at Ohio State University, and half of my students were Hindu. Some of them were skeptical, and to watch the dawning pride grow in them—there was just this excitement and understanding that ‘Yes. This is something worthy of pride.’”Art’s Apt Apostlehat could stephen p. Huyler (rhymes with miler), an American from the small coastal town of Camden, Maine, offer the Hindu world? To start, he could catalog in exquisite photographs India’s long underappreciated sacred folk-art. He’s been doing just that, living in Bharat four months out of every year for the past twenty-five years. Open any page of the 1994 Painted Prayers, his current apogee, and you know instantly the scale and tenderness of his labors with a camera [see this month’s cover and gatefold].

Such photographic feats only laid the foundation for his latest revolution. It is, according to him, “the culmination of my heart/spirit experience in India,” namely, the Puja exhibit at the Sackler Gallery of Art. “I think that this is a first of its kind for Hindu art in America,” notes Huyler. “It is attempting to change attitudes, to change the level of respect towards a belief system that must be understood in the West. I think it is about contemporary Hinduism, its vitality and its modern value.”

Living in and out of India and America exposed Huyler to the truths and discrepancies in and around Hinduism. “My understanding of Hinduism has been on a day-to-day basis of just householders all throughout the country, staying in Indian homes and watching devotional practices. I watched women and men painting in their homes as a part of daily or seasonal ritual. It had a deep and heart-opening impact on me.” This ultimately motivated him to use his artful abilities to make a difference. “I really believe that I was given a trust, and this exhibit is a way to live up to that trust and give something back. It is a chance to right some of the wrongs that exist in American and Western opinion of India. I fully believe that India is going to be a leading power in the 21st century, and that if Americans continue to be condescending towards the culture and the thought processes of the Indian subcontinent, we’re going to be left rapidly behind.”