Shed light on the age-old passion
Wonderful objects created by Indian artists / craftsmen over the centuries can be found in museums across the United States. Several museums are famous for their Indian collections, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Cleveland, the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, Philadelphia, and many more. Each object serves as an ambassador for Indian culture and although some people think they should be returned to India, consider their contribution to educating Americans about aspects of India.
People are fascinated by the objects and learn something about India, especially Indian religions, but also history, through the exhibited paintings and sculptures. Museums create special lecture series around the collections and universities and young students also come to learn from them. So I was initially interested in India. Loan displays of items on loan from India have become expensive (insurance, security, transportation, installation). Some museums organize international loans that interested parties can use to obtain further training. Fortunately, many museums have now published their collections on websites.
An example of the educational potential of Indian art objects are oil lamps. In India they are ubiquitous and used in temple rituals and at home. When they are worn out, they are exchanged for shiny new ones in the metal shop or given to a temple (and what happens to them then?). Old brass or bronze lamps are often melted into new ones. Yet those kept in museums in India and around the world are historical records of religious fervor expressed by talented temple artisans. Others are kept in India as family heirlooms or in temples or private collections.
As early as 1927, the Philadelphia Museum of Art received a hanging oil lamp with a bird incorporated into the chain. Such lamps once illuminated the interior of a temple, the flame drove away darkness and ignorance and carried a prayer to God. The same museum has one vanchi vilakku, a kind of miniature snake boat design that carries five thickly lit torch wicks; it was used for processions around the temple or to the sea for the ritual bathing of the temple deity.
The Honolulu Museum of Art has a wonderful 14th century double-sided hanging lamp from Kerala with mythical scenes from the cosmic dream of Vishnu; Ananthashayana on one side and Rama on the other, above the oil plate. It is a miniature masterpiece of bronze relief carving. The same museum has a big tree lamp vrikshavilakku, about six feet tall, crowned by Krishna playing the flute added to Garuda. This is a kind of eternal lamp with oil cups in the form of leaves burning in the temple grounds. Believers book their train a year in advance to give the oil for the lamps to convey their prayers to God. A much smaller tree oil lamp is in the Denver Art Museum’s collection, dated 1555 and a prayer for someone’s recovery from a fever.
Denver has one too Changala vilakku, an elegant, curved design that is believed to have come from the influence of the Greeks who worked in southern India. It was used to light the way home for the king after prayer. Americans never see an oil lamp in their home or church; there has never been such a tradition. Candles yes, oil lamps no. The use of oil lamps in India is virtually unknown to Americans, but there is such a rich variety of them in India, each with a specific ritual function in worship. Their design and modeling are adorable and have interesting symbolic meanings.
The Kavara The lamp in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is large, dignified and contains small figures of dancers, musicians and gods on its shaft and base. It is known to originate from Kerala. In the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC, there is a standing donor couple from Nayak Karnataka from the 17th century; These are large figurines (about 34 inches tall) of temple guests offering a leaf-like platter in which oil wicks would burn. Apart from their sacred role, one cannot help but admire the two as figure sculptures of international artistic quality.
The author is a research fellow at the Smithsonian.