The San Diego Museum is “home to the most encyclopedic collection of South Asian paintings in the world,” says curator Sonya Quintanilla, and this permanent exhibition will present “some of the museum’s most world-class and significant objects in a fresh and innovative display.”
The collection of over 2,000 paintings, along with sculptures, calligraphy, and architectural works, are arranged in three new South Asian and Persian art galleries according to the devotional and cultural spaces they inhabited. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious art objects are displayed in the final gallery of the three to be opened to the public, “Temple.” The “Palace” and “Mosque” galleries are dedicated to works of art commissioned for palace settings and Islamic Art appearing in mosques or created for Muslim patrons.
Underpinning the basis of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain art is the concept of “multiplicity,” with each religion worshipping and celebrating a number of icons and deities embodied in monuments and depicted in narrative sequences and sacred texts. The art of each of these religions is also linked through the sacred significance of the works in religious acts and ceremonies.
Sculptures of holy individuals such as Buddha, or in Hinduism, a multitude of deities, in stone, bronze, and wood, originally embellished exterior walls and shrines of temples or stupas. Other sacred objects may have been used for private devotions in the home or as movable icons, carried out of the temple and through the streets during festivals and processions, allowing worshippers closer proximity to the divine. The image of a deity is particularly important to Hindu worship in which to “see” and be “seen” by a deity (“darshan”) is the central act of worship, achieved through being in the presence of the deity image or sculpture in which the deity is actually present and through which one receives divine blessings.
The arts of the Palace enlighten us as to the artistic process and social context in which many of these pieces were commissioned and give us a glorious picture of what royal life might have been like in the Moghul courts. Artists worked together in workshops associated with a particular patron to create portraits, paintings and sculptures on commission, the artist of the piece often remaining anonymous. Watercolor paintings, illustrations of ancient texts, and portraits from regions throughout India and Iran exhibit painstaking detail, delicately rendering scenes from ancient texts and colorful and lively depictions of royal life.
Watercolor manuscript illustrations and brilliant calligraphy excerpts from Koran texts in the “Mosque” gallery inform us as to the artists’ interpretation of the Koran and what many consider to be its loosely defined prohibition on the depiction of figural imagery in artworks. During the period of the Moghul courts, images were generally permissible in illustrations of epics and secular works commissioned by Muslim patrons depicting court life. The art of calligraphy, considered to be the highest of all art forms in Islamic art, was mastered by calligraphers over the course of a lifetime and its principles and styles passed down from generation to generation. Artists meticulously copied script from the Koran, elaborate copies of which were often commissioned and housed in a mosque or used for reference in teaching the word of Allah.
The museum’s new, permanent galleries celebrate the rich diversity of South Asia’s religious and cultural traditions through its associated artworks, providing an illuminating context in which to view the paintings, sculptures, and other works of this exhaustive collection, ranging from the 6th through 20th centuries. The galleries are a fitting testament to the generous gift of Edwin Binney who devoted nearly three decades of his life to creating one of the most comprehensive collections of South Asian paintings in the world.
Opens Monday, Aug. 23. San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, 1450 El Prado, San Diego. (619) 232-7931. www.sdmart.org.