Archeologist George Michell Talks on Hindu Wood in London Gallery

This year the cultural tectonic plate of India is crunching into Europe like never before. Turn on BBC TV. Art historian Michael Woods is excitedly talking about Shiva as "the oldest living God on Earth" in a stunning series on ancient civilizations. Check into the Universal Expo at Seville, Spain. Amidst science gadgetry and society exhibits is a sand-colored, conical building by Indian artist Anish Kapoor that looks like a three-story Siva Lingam. It represents the Hindu concept of the transcendent void, a metaphysical counterpoint to the Expo's materialistic celebrating. Germany is drinking up India's culture as hard and fast as beer at the annual Oktoberfest. There is even a flashy newspaper out of Berlin dedicated to exploring pure Hindu music plugged into by European musicians and connoisseurs.

Cold stone sculpture from India has toured through Europe and the US for decades – usually with plenty of "don't touch" signs warning curious fingers. But in east-end London, the fashionable White-chapel Art Gallery isn't showing stone – or heavy metal. It's into wood this year, "Living Wood: Sculptural Traditions of Southern India," displaying on shiny oak floors a range of wood artifacts, from a Tamil Nadu mansion door to a rare triple-headed Brahma out of Kerala. It is the first world showing of this art from.

London's Asia aficionados came in droves. The show was free. It also featured inventive kid stuff, and entire staff set up to orchestrate workshops that introduced Hindu cosmology and encouraged youth to craft their own wood icons and instruments. Whitechapel curators said it was their most successful educational program. One of its most touching scenes was blind children running their hyper-sensitive fingers over the chiseled surfaces and grooves of the sculptures.

Michell & Hampi

Say, Mr. Michell, would it be too much of a bother to have your autograph? Right here on my brochure, please," pleads an admirer of George Michell, archeologist and expert in Hindu temple architecture. Michell, dressed in a red sport coat and khaki pants, graciously scribbles out his name, offering a few words – an Australian accent. He is leading a small group of sculpture buffs through Whitechapel. Isn't Indiana Jones the only archeologist asked for autographs? Nope. In real world archeology, Michell's reputation is as solid and interesting as an ornate granite plinth on a thousand-year-old Siva temple. Over the past twenty years his output of evocative books on Indian temple architecture is heaps higher than other researchers'. He stand on the heap. And besides, he kind of looks like Indy Jones – or Jones looks like Michell – closecropped hair, well-chiselled features, a man comfortable in exotic, sun-blasted digs.

Continuing on with his tour, taking his audience into layer upon layer of history and art and Hindu mythology and philosophy, Michell is clearly at home talking with people, weaving the spell of cultured' India. He is the curator of this exhibition, and here he is giving tours to Indophiles and curious tourists alike. "Seen in an exhibition, Indian sculpture is inevitably isolated from its original context, the sac red shrines and temples where men can communicate with the divine," he starts off. He talks to them about Hinduism fluidly, a bubbling brook of knowledge that if you turned on a tape recorder could be transcribed into a readable book. Michell himself brought the collection together, harvesting pieces from India. Europe and Australia. Wood of course does perish – the most ancient temples in India were made of wood, of which not a tiny splinter is left. Later temple designs of stone and brick replicated the look of timber and bamboo. Kerala and Assam still craft temples in wood. But none of Living Wood pieces is old, eighteen hundreds is the oldest.

But Michell's love is really embedded in stone – the time-impregnated stone of ruins in India. Massive stone blocks piled into walls, puzzle-fit into floors and floating overhead in long ceilings. Delicately carved stone that squirms with dancing devis and creeping vines. Square-edged stone that geometrically sinks into ablution tanks where powerful kings and ministers once sunk into ablution tanks where powerful kings and ministers once sunk their heads under cool water for purification. "I'm anxious to get back to Hampi," he tells HINDUISM TODAY's Rakesh Mathur in a rare interview. Hampi is a weathered village in the arid outback of Karnataka, India. It's the only sign of civilization next to a jumbled stone wonderland left over from Vijayanagar (City of Victory), the capital of the last great Hindu empire in South India. The city was literally smashed by Muslims in the 16th century. Michell, who has homes in Australia, England and America, also spends a good deal of his life observing and interpreting the ruins of Vijayanagar. Michell is leading a tour to South India in October this year, which will include Vijayanagar.

George Michell began his career education as an architect student in Melbourne, Australia, but ended up going to Indian on an exchange program. He says a he was totally ignorant of Indian languages so he communicated with India "through exploring its rich visual heritage." Out of this Indo-vision, he navigated his life into Indian temple architecture, eventually attaining a doctorate in archeology. His most popular book is The Hindu Temple, a richly textured college-level guide to sacred architecture in and outside of India.

Michell was burned once by the Indian press – a misquote that lead to an uproar in India's national parliament and caused Michell immense problems in getting his India visa renewed. He routinely shuns media publicity, but was gracious enough to grant and interview to HINDUISM TODAY.

HT: This collection is very eclectic, but where did most of the woodwork come from?

GM: A lot of the objects in this exhibition you know, come from Hindu temples, from processional images in Hindu festivals in Hindu towns. We didn't want to make the exhibition only a Hindu exhibition, but as you know, the chariot's panels, the vahanas and Kerala architecture are connected with Hindu religious life in India today. We've called the exhibition Living Wood, by which we mean to imply this is a living tradition both in terms of arts, and religions.

HT: Because they are wood, these are not very antique, and also susceptible to forgery as in a case several years ago.

GM: This is a tradition that is continuously renewing itself. It always has in the past and continues to do today. This is a living wood tradition. So we have no sense of authentic or fake. Things are redone all the time, and some of the objects in this exhibition were quite old. And we don't have any trouble showing recent things or old things because we want to illustrate it as a continuous tradition. And it is first exhibition of this material. You have to understand nobody's ever seen all of this material together either in India or in Europe.

HT: You specialize in Hampi art which is done mostly on stones. And here's the wooden tradition. What differences do you find?

GM: Probably at Hampi there was a lot of wood originally but it did not survive the sixteenth century. But on the contrary I find many points of contact between the art of the sixteenth century on stone, and the art of wood, seventeenth and eighteenth century. For example these rearing yadis, these mythical beasts. Or horses with riders. These types of motifs we've known in stone, we've also known in wood. So I don't find it as a great deal of difference between the world of stone and the world of wood. And this for me is very reassuring, for the arts in India are very connected between wood, metal, and stone.

HT: How about the use of wood in modern architecture?

GM: There was the great tradition of incorporating woodwork into architecture, including domestic architecture. We have here some doorways from great houses as well as temple architecture. These days people with money in South India probably prefer to build in concrete, rather than in wood. So there's a chance that some of these traditions will be under threat. One of the aims of this exhibition is to draw attention to this tradition before it completely vanishes.

HT: This exhibition is going to Bradford. How about to other countries?

GM: It will travel to Bradford, and it may also travel to Germany.

HT: There's a big festival of India taking place in Germany – exhibits in the Prussian palaces. Was this woodwork exhibition and the German one a coincidence or was it deliberately planned?

GM: Not at all. We have nothing to do with Germany. This happened to occur in London this year. It's quite difficult for us to take the exhibition to Germany because they have had in a sense almost too much Indian art. Here we haven't had a big Indian art show as you probably know for some years.

HT: Tell us about you fall tour to South India

GM: It will be in October of this year, and we plan to visit some of the places in southern Indian where woodwork can be seen. It will not be restricted to woodwork places. We will go to some of the great temple towns of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We will also go to Hampi where I do my research. So it will be like a background tour to coincide with this exhibition. And I'm hoping that people who have come to our show that have never thought of going to South India, will be stimulated to travel and we can explore South India for a few weeks.

Article copyright Himalayan Academy.