Stephen Huyler shares the story of his life’s mission and a new California art exhibit
HINDUISM USED TO BAFFLE ME, AS IT does most Americans. But now it feels like an old, familiar friend whom I deeply enjoy introducing to others. Wherever I go, I am confronted by comments and attitudes that portray Western ignorance about India. Misperceptions litter our public and social media and conversations everywhere. I’ve spent most of my life trying to correct misconceptions and thus alter those attitudes. Consequently, I was thrilled when eminent Indian art scholar Dr. Pratapaditya Pal and Susan Tai I asked me to help put together an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) exploring the commonalities and differences of three indigenous religions of India—Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. I was grateful for the opportunity to resume my work in this field.
Youthful Pacific Cultural Center
Santa Barbara is a small but influential city on the top edge of southern California, less than two hours north of greater Los Angeles. Susan Tai, SBMA’s Elizabeth Atkins Curator of Asian Art says, “This initiative to exhibit sacred Indian art featuring our permanent collection and regional loans was aimed to educate the public.” As a university town with several small colleges and a University of California campus, Santa Barbara is a vibrant center of youthful culture. With global communication and transmission of ideas increasingly in digital format, especially among youth, it is ever more essential to provide tactile examples of vital world cultures. “Puja and Piety: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Art from the Indian Subcontinent” is a successful and valuable contribution that helps to build awareness of diversity by providing insights into currently active South Asian religions anchored in ancient sacred traditions. My own work has long attempted to achieve similar goals. Here is my story:
My Early Encounters with Hinduism
During each of the past forty-five years, I have had the good fortune of spending several months in India conducting a cross-cultural survey of the nation’s traditional arts and rituals. I have lived in hundreds of Hindu homes throughout the country and been a guest for meals in thousands of others, and I have witnessed and participated in innumerable Hindu rituals. These experiences have transformed me. Raised by a strongly Christian family with typical American ethnocentric attitudes, it took me years to break through my own misconceptions about what I was experiencing in India. What was this culture that so deeply impressed me? I recognized from the beginning the diametric opposition between most Western interpretations of India and its reality. The roots of these misperceptions lie in our Abrahamic religious worldviews. Most Westerners just cannot open their minds to fully comprehend the multilateral realities that infuse the very way of life in India. We are dependent on our historical mandate that there is only one true authority, one proper means of government, one correct system of justice, and one absolute right—and that all else is either inferior or absolutely wrong. In consequence, most of us cannot comprehend a vast culture that accepts each individual’s right to his or her own perception of these basic truths. Despite India’s phenomenal diversity of beliefs, my rich experiences during my almost half-century of travel in India have taught me that all Hindus share certain underlying common values and identity; all Hindus are united through an undeniable and pervasive sense of ethics that governs each action and perception. These ethics are the guidelines that unify and have unified the religion throughout millennia.
I have experienced an enormous learning curve. During my first year in India I was just twenty years old. I had always wanted to be a writer and to explore the world’s cultures. India gave me a focus and an incomparable wealth of material with which to work. As I read the materials then in print, I realized that much scholarship in my field was based upon a shallow or, at best, uneven understanding of Indian culture. Foreign researchers and travelers would spend a few months in the country and then publish their impressions, convinced that their brief but life-changing experiences had given them the authority to propound and publish theories as if they were gospel. Often the results are erroneous or misleading or have simply perpetuated generalizations that do little to correct earlier misconceptions. Determined not to fall into that trap myself, I continued my in-depth field research in India for ten years before I felt qualified to write my first article, and thirteen years before I wrote my first book.
From Scholar to Public Presenter
I have since authored six more books, based on surveys and interviews of thousands of individuals in regions the length and breadth of India. My university degrees are in Indian history, art history and archaeology, but I consider myself a cultural anthropologist. Scholarship about India has greatly improved in the past forty-five years, and I continue to grow and learn along with it.
In 1993 I was asked by the Smithsonian Institute to co-curate an exhibition on practical Hinduism. For three years I worked closely with Sarah Ridley in the education department of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Museum in Washington, DC, to find ways to effectively, accurately and respectfully convey concepts of Hindu devotion. I was well aware of the Hindu objection to the typical Western practice of displaying their sacred objects solely as works of art, devoid of the elements with which they are generally adorned in worship. Therefore, I agreed to the museum’s request only if they would allow us to display Hindu murtis (images of Deities) in proper context—dressed and garlanded as they were originally intended to be seen. The result was Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion. Intended to run for just six months, this show was extended to four years (1996-2000) due to its enormous popularity.
Writing the text for that exhibition and the subsequent book associated with it (Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion, Yale University Press, 1999) taught me immeasurable lessons about Hinduism. Determined to jettison my own lingering Western misconceptions, I insisted that my Hindu friends help me redefine Hindu beliefs and rituals that had long been misunderstood or disregarded in the West. The local Hindu community enthusiastically supported the exhibition. Their comments affirmed that the murtis enshrined in the show were displayed with compassion, respect and honor and that the signage successfully conveyed the enlivened awareness of and relationship with the Divine in Hindu pujas. When the show finally closed, the Smithsonian declared it one of the most popular exhibitions they had ever had in any of their museums.
Taking Hinduism Across America
The success of the Puja show assured me that the American public wanted to know more about sacred India. It seemed important to travel, taking the show beyond its initial confines. The objects in the Freer and Sackler were not allowed to travel, so I created a second exhibition based upon the same concept. I titled it Meeting God: Elements of Devotion in India, to tie in with my book of a similar title. It is difficult and costly to transport invaluable sacred sculptures around the States, so I instead photographed (with permission) images in Indian shrines and temples. I then purchased in India portable shrines of varying sizes in which I placed large backlit photographs of dressed and adorned murtis. In the foreground were secondary murtis and the accouterments of worship—arati, deepa, incense burners, flowers and offerings. Large framed photographs of household and community pujas, processions and festivals surrounded these shrines. Although the majority of shrines and photographs depicted Hindu rituals, I expanded the concept to include some examples of the worship of Jains and Sikhs.
Ironically, the show first opened under another name, Touching Fire, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, because local authorities were concerned that Texan Christian fundamentalists would boycott any exhibition of non-Christian culture using the name God. Nevertheless it was a big success and traveled from there in 2001 to an enormous Meeting God exhibition at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. This grandfather of American museums gave me carte blanche to choose any objects from their archives to complement my collection of shrines and photographs. My intention was to recreate the sense of sacred Hindu sanctuary right there in the heart of Manhattan. I found wonderful pieces in their extensive vaults. I worked for three years with a huge and excellent staff, assisted by pujaris and devotees of several of the area’s active Hindu temples, to create a truly remarkable show that included a life-size sacred banyan tree whose roots were wrapped around ancient stone Malayali Naga images. The show was very well publicized, with expectations of a huge attendance and the promise of it traveling to at least five more American museums.
Disaster Changes the Mission
Meeting God opened in New York on September 8, 2001. Just three days later the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed, and the museum immediately shut down for a month. The show re-opened later, though, for a very successful six months. The New York Times published a prominent review stating that Meeting God served as a healing sanctuary for the many shocked and distraught New Yorkers who placed offerings of flowers, fruits and cash in all the shrines every day. Nevertheless, the attacks tainted the entire impetus to take the show to other museums, as Americans became increasingly myopic and distrustful of all Asians. The exhibition closed forever in 2002, and the previously popular book began to be left on the warehouse shelves unsold.
After focusing for ten years on interpreting Hinduism for the Western public, I had to reinvent myself. I returned to my previous endeavors, documenting and conveying the art and identity of Indian women. I wrote two more books, curated a large museum exhibition in San Diego and created an award-winning documentary film on the subject. In 2009 I even went on a lecture tour of India to promote my book Daughters of India. As a tall, pale American male, I imagined audiences of potentially hostile Indian feminists, but I was quickly able to persuade them that I am a knowledgeable feminist myself.
A Call from California—Santa Barbara
After more than a decade’s hiatus, it was heartwarming to be requested by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) to again be involved with the organization of an exhibition about sacred India. I was pleased that Dr. Pal particularly asked me to infuse examples of the passion and sanctity of daily Hindu devotion into the chapter on Hinduism I wrote for the catalog. As I worked with the art that Dr. Pal had carefully chosen for the show, I grew to love the many pieces that are rarely shown in museums, in particular the magnificent Hindu woodcarvings and a superb collection of Jain devotional art that usually reside in the Southern California home of lenders Dr. Narendra and Rita Parson. I worked closely with Susan Tai, the museum’s curator of Asian Art, to find the best ways to group the objects so that images and concepts could flow one into another. Mrs. Tai’s superb arrangement of the final displays entices viewers into learning more about these three religions’ commonalities as well as their uniquely different ways of approaching the Divine. At her encouragement I created an introductory video for the exhibition, drawn from live footage that I was given the rare permission to film in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist households, roadside shrines and temples throughout India.
A local Santa Barbara chiropractor, Dr. Schuyler DuBourdieu, commented to me after he had seen the show, “I now understand so much more about these three indigenous Indian religions. I was drawn into experiencing darshan, having a true sense of communion with God, through many of these sculptures and paintings. I understood more fully that just as there are multiple ways of viewing and reaching out to the Divine, this exhibition allows me the grace to respond to that which draws me, that speaks directly to me—while other objects may resonate more clearly to someone else. It really is an exploration of the one and the many and of the universal truths that underlie innumerable different approaches.”
This successful show has been another important step in my life’s work of trying to bring to the American public a deeper awareness and appreciation of Hinduism and Indian concepts and values.
SUSAN SHIN-TSU TAI, THE ELIZABETH Atkins Curator of Asian Art at SBMA, explains on the acknowledgements page of the Puja and Piety catalog, “Seventy-five years ago the founders of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art envisioned a museum of world art. Since 1941, its inaugural year, SBMA exhibited, acquired and was lent works of Asian art from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Cambodia. Art from the Indian subcontinent, however, was conspicuously absent. In the decades that followed, the trustees of the Museum made a concerted effort to present a wide range of Asian art exhibitions and sought expertise to acquire major works of Asian art to enrich the collection. The landmark exhibition at UCLA in 1968, Art of the Indian Subcontinent from Los Angeles Collections, organized by J. Leroy Davidson, UCLA professor and department chair of art history, provided SBMA the opportunity to acquire two 11th-century stone sculptures that once graced a Vishnu temple in northern India.
“These sculptures, Avatars of Vishnu: Buddha and Balarama, today remain two of the finest masterpieces in the Museum’s collection. One year later, the arrival of Dr. Pratapaditya Pal to head the Indian and Southeast Asian art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art further inspired interest in Indian art in Southern California. SBMA’s trustees were quick to seek out his advice, and in 1970 the SBMA acquired a fine 13th-century bronze sculpture, Dancing Krishna, from South India. Thus began an ongoing relationship between Dr. Pal and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art,” explains Mrs. Tai.
“In 2008, two large gifts from the Pal family and Stephen Huyler transformed SBMA’s South Asian collection and set this exhibition into motion. We are indebted to Dr. Pal not only for his family donation but also for his unstinting advice over the years that made possible the continuing expansion of this collection area in the Museum, even for a small museum with limited resources. Particular thanks also go to Stephen Huyler, who generously made trips to the Museum this past summer to offer advice and expertise in the installation, and to Debashish Banerji, who in addition to his contribution in this catalog also wrote the educational deities charts, didactic texts and labels for the exhibition.”
The Puja and Piety exhibit is considered unique in presenting pieces from a long period of history. Instead of a collection from a particular historical period, this exhibit was organized around the theme of worship. Indian art aficionados may want to get the beautiful catalog, which includes information on all three religions. Order online from the University of California Press site. Go here: www.ucpress.edu and search under books for “Puja and Piety.”
Award-Winning Cultural Power
Though a small museum by some standards, SBMA’s collection of 27,000 works of art spans 5,000 years of human creativity and, according to their website, “includes classical antiquities rivaled in the West only by the J. Paul Getty Museum.”
Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest and most frequently utilized evaluator of charities, has awarded a four-star rating to SBMA and ranks it second among all US art museums (second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and fourth among all US arts, cultural and humanity organizations. Charity Navigator’s rating show potential donors how efficiently a charity can be expected to use their support. “We are pleased to be recognized for the hard work of our staff and volunteer groups,” notes Larry Feinberg, SBMA’s Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Director. “As we continue to friend-raise and fundraise, we can point to this as a demonstration to current and prospective donors that their contributions are used carefully and responsibly and their money will be applied very effectively with real results in the community.”
Outreach to the Community
SBMA’s mission is declared as “integrating art into the lives of people.” In addition to working in the museum itself, the staff—60 full-time and approximately 25 part-time—coordinate educational events related to exhibit themes across Santa Barbara County. For example, during the opening of the Puja and Piety exhibit, guests, were invited to write down a problem or task they needed help to overcome, place them at a small shrine to Ganesha and in return they received an image of Ganesha.
Its website explains, “The Museum provides education programs to over 40,000 people in Santa Barbara County each year, free transportation for school groups and after-school activities, and free California State Standard based education programs for Santa Barbara School district students in grades K-12. In addition, the Museum regularly organizes and hosts lectures, symposia, film series, music events and focused gallery tours for the Museum’s major exhibitions. Many of these programs involve collaborations with community organizations, schools and teachers, colleges and universities, as well as selected artists.” (See: www.sbma.net)