The arts of India are richly populated with animals. From ants to owls, cranes to crocodiles, these creatures are more than figures within the landscape. They can be emblems of power, legendary heroes, poetic metaphors, and much more. Their significance in the arts of the subcontinent reflects their ubiquity in everyday life as well as their roles in Hindu, Jain, and Islamic religious beliefs. Drawing on its rich collection of Indian opaque watercolor paintings dating from the 16th century to the 19th, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Fantastic and Functional Animals in Indian Art. This exhibition of over thirty works explores the many meanings of India’s scaly, feathery, and furry inhabitants, both natural and supernatural. Fantastic and Functional Animals in Indian Art will be on view in the William Wood P. Gallery (Gallery 227) from December 9, 2006 through June 2007.
Many of these works will be exhibited for the first time, including three pages from a manuscript of the Panchatantra, the most famous book of fables from India. Emerging from a long tradition of oral storytelling, this collection of tales uses anthropomorphized animals to teach about leadership, morality, and human nature. Also shown for the first time is an 18th-century painting from the Himalayan foothills depicting a magical vision of cosmic creation involving a hidden tortoise, an enormous cobra, a white elephant, a seven-headed horse, and a wish-granting cow. Another highlight of the exhibition is a lively battle scene from the Hamzanama, an Islamic adventure tale. This magnificent page comes from the oversized, copiously illustrated manuscript made for Akbar, the great 16th century Mughal emperor of India.
“There are so many wonderful depictions of animals among the Museum’s Indian paintings that it was really hard to choose,” says Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art Darielle Mason. “Some painters focused on the animal’s power and beauty, others on its comical antics, but all rendered animals with great respect. What comes across most strongly, though, is how many ways these painters found to weave a huge variety of animals into the very core of their visual storytelling. ”
Each Hindu god and goddess has an animal vahana (vehicle) that underscores some important aspect of the deity: the martial goddess Durga rides a powerful lion; a virile bull attends the ardent/ascetic god Shiva; and Indra, king of the heavens, charges across the sky on a storm-cloud elephant.
Some animal characters, like the monkey-general Hanuman, are heroes in their own right while others, like the wish-granting cow Kamadhenu, are magical creatures. Certain animals, such as birds and deer, appear as poetic metaphors for love or longing. Animal imagery even pervades manuals for interpreting dreams.
In addition to their central role in Indian epics and fables, animals fill a host of functions in everyday life. Cattle have long been vital to India’s agrarian economy. Horses, elephants, and camels were major forms of transportation and crucial in battle. Popular entertainment for kings and courtiers included hunting with hawks and dogs and elephant combats held inside the palace.
Some animal representations within the exhibition are strikingly naturalistic, as in The Monkeys Build a Bridge to Lanka, a painting that carefully contrasts India’s two most common primates, the rusty, red-faced Rhesus macaque and the gray, black-faced Hanuman langur. Others are clearly fantastical, as with the elephant in Divine Rider on a Composite Elephant Preceded by a Demon, whose form is actually composed of many smaller animals intertwined. Lions, dragons, antelopes, and goats create the body while a fish forms the trunk, a cobra makes a tail, and each foot is a little hare.
Shiva and Parvati at Night (The Immortal Marriage) is a kind of family portrait that depicts the ash-covered Shiva and his wife resting peacefully, surrounded by a small menagerie that includes a king cobra, a ring-necked parrot, and the god’s white zebu bull. This tender and beautifully rendered scene underscores the Indian view of a symbiotic relationship between human beings and animals.
About the collection of Indian and Himalayan art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art contains one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the spectacular Pillared Temple Hall (16th century) from Southern India, paintings and sculptures from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; an important group of textiles; and a variety of decorative arts. Works from the Indian and Himalayan Art Collections are displayed in a series of galleries (224, 227, 229-232) located on the second floor. The William P. Wood Gallery houses changing installations of 16th- through 20th-century art from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Gallery 232 is devoted to works from Nepal and Tibet.