A new NGV exhibition highlights Indian art and its storytelling traditions
Currently on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the exhibition Gods, Heroes and Clowns: Performance and Narrative in South and Southeast Asian Art, showcases more than 50 rarely seen artworks from India, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Through the display of ornate storyteller’s cloths, elaborate ceremonial hangings, puppets, sculptures, paintings and masks, the exhibition foregrounds the rich storytelling traditions of centuries past. In particular, the works explore the narrative customs unique to various ethnic groups and religions of South and Southeast Asia. When viewed together, the objects reveal strong connections and shared heritages that link individual works of art.
Indeed, India has centuries-old traditions of telling stories that still thrive today. Religious epics, village folklore and the great myths and legends were often passed from one generation to the next through storytelling. Many of these well-known stories, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were popularised in poetry and the artistic traditions of visual narratives.
Exhibition curator Carol Cains said, “Hindu epics such as the Ramayana have been a rich source of inspiration for more than a millennium, and continue to be so, demonstrating the universality of its themes.”
Presenting a diverse arrangement of objects, this display explores the enduring ways these legends and tales were represented in different parts of India. For instance, the exhibition captures the epic Ramayana through the shadow puppet repertoire of Karnataka. South Indian shadow puppets made from goat or deer skin were traditionally used to recount Hindu epics. An enigmatic scene is pictured in which the hero Rama, or his brother Lakshmana, goes to battle accompanied by the monkey general Hanuman and a member of the monkey army.
The exhibition also features elaborately painted cloths that celebrate Buddhist and Hindu deities. A highlight is an eight-metre Indian narrative cloth banner (phad) illustrating the legend of Pabuji, a sacred Rajasthan folk hero, in brilliant detail and animated colour. This cloth is said to be a dwelling of the god and constitutes the backdrop for a bhopa (storyteller and priest) and bhopi (the priest’s wife) to narrate and sing the legend of Pabuji to a village audience throughout a single night.
Another standout piece, by artist Niranjan Maharana, is a five-metre long Patachitra (painted cloth) that depicts more than sixty incidents from the life of Krishna, including his birth, childhood pranks, flirtations with the gopis (female cow-herders), his love for Radha, the destruction of the demons and the flight from Gokul to Vrindavan. Exquisitely painted cloths such as Patachitra – Depicting scenes from the life of Krishna (2004) are typically produced for display in temples and in public spaces during religious festivals devoted to Krishna, such as Krishna’s birthday.
The labels alongside each work of art, providing interpretive information, make the exhibition easily accessible to any person interested in art or the stories behind the work. They explain, for instance, how the Krishna narrative has inspired contemporary works of art in many forms, including plays, puppet performances, festivals, song, narration and film. Although the exhibition does not look at contemporary transformations of these traditional forms of storytelling, such as through modern technology and western modes of narrative including the graphic novel, it does magnificently showcase contemporary objects that take inspiration from Hindu deities and folklore.
Other more contemporary works celebrating Krishna in this exhibition include a painted cloth hung during festivals in Orissa; eighteenth-century Rajasthan court paintings depicting Raslila dance performances held at Udaipur palace in 1736; a Kashmiri manuscript of the Bhagavad Gita; and Indonesian puppets depicting characters from the epic Mahabharata, in which Krishna appears as a hero.
Carol Cains acknowledged, “In recent years, popularity has extended to more modern communication methods including television, films and comic books. However the traditional methods of performance as represented in Gods, Heroes and Clowns continue to play a unique and important role in communities across South and Southeast Asia.”
What is particularly striking about this exhibition is the cultural context in which the Indian artworks are displayed. Audiences are able to view intricately detailed works from the 18th century through to today from many parts of South and Southeast Asia. This setting provides a rich picture of the shared stylistic and narrative similarities between the works whilst highlighting their unique and ongoing role within contemporary society.
Measuring more than 30 metres long, a ‘Buddhist narrative scroll depicting the Vessantara Jataka (Pha yao Wet)’ from Thailand has a compelling presence in the exhibition space. It is one of only two in Australia and is currently displayed in its entirety for the first time. The NGV has also especially commissioned a new contemporary sculpture by Cambodian artist Svay Sareth, which sits amidst 26 painted wayung puppets from Indonesia, featuring clowns, court ladies, demons and ogres.
The exhibition also includes interactive components with multimedia displays of video and photographs that illustrate the performance of shadow puppets and masks, which were often accompanied by singers, musicians and dancers.
Many of the objects displayed are used in rural villages, royal courts, temples and modern urban settings. They form part of ceremonial traditions which continue to flourish and adapt to changing audiences and conditions.
Viewed together, the works of art in this exhibition tell the tales of folk heroes and mythical kings, igniting the voices of storytellers past. They reverberate complex stories of myth, history, magic, everyday life, pathos, bravery and humour, which not only encourages viewers to remember the past, but also captivates new audiences.
God, Heroes and Clowns: Performance and Narrative in South and Southeast Asian Art will be on display in the Rio Tinto Gallery of Asian Art at NGV International until 30 August 2015.