The region of South Asia covers India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The South-Asiatic Department at the Museum contains about 2,500 exhibits.
The Indian part of the stock is the most comprehensive one. The bulk of the collection consists of the items accumulated before the October Revolution of 1917 by the well-known Russian art collectors Piotr Shchukin and Konstantin Nekrasov, and comprises miniatures, textiles, lacquer wares, wood-carvings, etc.
The Indian civilization, one of the oldest in the world, goes back to the third millennium BC, when a highly developed urban culture is known to have existed in the valley of the Indus river. The most ancient monuments of the Indian culture are represented in the Museum by archaeological finds from Kalibangan (North Rajasthan) dating from the third or mid-second millennium BC. These are fragments of ceramic vessels, toys, necklaces, bracelets and so on. This valuable collection was donated to the Museum by the Archaeological Department of India in 1972.
The first centuries AD are represented by the monuments of the Kushan civilization. The Kushan Empire, founded by immigrants from Central Asia, stretched from the Aral Sea to the Indian Ocean coast. The Kushan works of art therefore include not only artifacts from India (produced in Gandhara and Mathura), but also those discovered in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The collection of Kushan sculpture from different parts of the Empire includes small clay heads of the Buddha (fragments of reliefs) which, for all their general similarity, show distinctive local features.
Sculpture in general has traditionally played an important role in India. The earliest monuments of medieval Indian art at the Museum are the stone and bronze sculptures from East India (1 Oth to 12th centuries). Bronze sculpture holds a special place within Indian art. Small bronze sculptures retain the characteristic features of monumental sculpture and at the same time possess some distinctive traits of their own. The examples in the collection represent Buddhist deities treated in a refined and exquisite manner.
Monumental religious sculpture is represented by stone figures of dancing women from West India dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Other examples of medieval Indian sculpture are wooden reliefs from the Jagannath chariot (18th century) representing characters from the Ramayana.
Decorative and applied arts of the Middle Ages and of the later period are illustrated by many fine examples in the Museum's collection. Among them are exquisitely decorated weapons, ivories, metalwork, lacquer and ceramic wares, textiles and embroideries. Wood-carving, which has always been among the foremost of Indian crafts, is also represented by a number of interesting articles.
The collection of Indian miniatures is the gem of the Indian section. It numbers some 150 items covering the period from the late sixteenth to the nineteenth century. The miniatures are mainly representative of the Mogul school, with a few examples of the Rajasthani, Deccan and Pahari schools.
Among the exhibits here are the priceless miniatures from the Babur-nama manuscript-57 separate folios with a total of 69 miniatures. The latter are unsigned and have no marks or inscriptions to suggest the artist's name, or the place or date of their production, but, in all likelihood, they come from the court scriptoria in Delhi and date back to the last decade of the sixteenth century. The title of the manuscript is associated with Zahir ud-din Mohammed Babur-quite an outstanding figure of his time-a politician, poet, musician and connoisseur of art. As the Emir of Fergana, he conquered the Afghan territory and asserted himself as the ruler of India (1525-30). Throughout his stormy and eventful life Babur kept a diary which was illustrated during the reign of his grandson Akbar. The events accounted in Babur-nama cover the period between June 1494 and September 1529. The miniatures in the book accurately follow the narrative. Battle and hunting scenes, feasts, landscapes and pictures of animals and birds form an integral part of the layout of every page and are inseparable from the text, which, indeed, seems to have been also designed as an ornamental element. Despite the deliberately decorative treatment, the flatness of the figure representations and a certain conventionality in the composition, the postures of the characters are natural and their movements and gestures are dramatically expressive. The composition is designed with utmost care and minuteness of detail. The principal characters are always placed in the centre of the scene. Babur himself is the central figure in the majority of the episodes depicted and the way he is portrayed indicates the artist's attempt at a likeness. The landscape plays an important role, since it often unites separate picture planes. Forty miniatures in the cycle deal with the Indian period of Babur's life. Most of them represent Indian flora and fauna and are remarkable for their artistry and exquisite colour treatment.
One of the earliest of the other miniatures in the Museum's collection is the Wrestling Acrobats by Balchand, an artist who was active in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
A prominent place in the collection belongs to several seventeenth-century Mogul portraits, which have long enjoyed the attention and admiration of both scholars and connoisseurs of Indian art. These portraits represent the Mogul rulers in conventional postures: either enthroned or standing upright, in their ceremonial clothes and with insignia. A high artistic quality distinguishes many of these portraits, for example, those of Akbar, Jahangir, Aurangzeb and others. Although the artists apparently concentrated on achieving a likeness, some portraits also reveal their attempts at a psychological characterization.
The Pahari school, which flourished in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, is represented by two beautiful miniatures-Radha and Krishna on the Terrace (1770s) and Shiva and Parvati (1770s-1780s). The Pahari miniature emerged as a consequence of the revival of Vishnuism, which took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and was closely connected with the development of the vernacular literatures of India. The teaching of love and devotion, or bhakti, has always been central to Vishnuism, but at this new stage it was endowed with a new meaning. In North India Vishnuism took the form of Krishnaism, and the cult of Krishna, with its newly-acquired importance, took on a somewhat unorthodox interpretation. The philosophic and religious notions of Vishnuism and the divine pairs of Krishna-Radha, Rama-Sita and Shiva-Parvati came to be used by the Pahari artists as vehicles for simple human feelings, for the concept of beauty in Man and Nature, and for vivid depiction of the Indian's everyday life.
The Deccan and Rajasthani schools of miniature are represented by a small number of highly artistic pieces. The highlight of the Rajasthani collection is a series of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miniatures showing scenes evoked by various musical themes (ragas), which could be regarded as a special genre of Indian painting.
An interesting part of the collection is formed by a group of miniature portraits on ivory by nineteenth-century Delhi artists. Such portraits of rajahs and court beauties, executed in brilliant colours in a life-like manner, were the vogue of the day and in great demand with foreign visitors to India. The flourishing of the extremely popular ivory miniature continued well into the early twentieth century.
On the whole, the collection gives a fairly comprehensive picture of the development of Indian miniature painting, particularly of the Mogul school, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century and illustrates the particularities of different stylistic trends.
Contemporary Indian art is represented at the Museum by a collection of decorative and applied art, and by paintings and graphic works.
The bulk of the decorative art collection consists of textiles. This is not surprising, since weaving is one of the oldest artistic crafts in India, taking its origin from as early as the third millennium BC. Indian fabrics were widely known and valued outside India. Contemporary Indian hand-woven textiles present an overwhelming variety of patterns. They are decorated with representations of birds and animals, with florafdesigns, or even with many-figured narrative scenes. Whateverthe design, the colouring is always rich and varied. All kinds of saris, veils, shawls, curtains, etc. on display are decorated with the help of wooden printing blocks. This seems to be the commonest way of applying a pattern to hand-woven textiles in India. Among the highlights of the textile section are the magnificent brocades from Benares (Varanasi) and the world-famous gossamer muslins.
The Museum prides itself on the collections of beautiful articles carved of precious woods traditionally used in India for such purposes: sandal wood, ebony, rosewood, etc. These include figurines of animals, boxes, tables inlaid with ivory, and so on. Another traditional craft is metalwork performed in a variety of shapes, techniques and materials. In the repertory of Indian metalwork represented at the Museum are polychrome Jaipur enamels, brass and bronze articles adorned with engravings, chased ornamentation and exquisite filigree work. Lacquer-work is also still a living craft in India. The black, red and brown nirmal lacquers are usually decorated with polychrome or gold painting. Representations of dancers in traditional costumes, floral motifs and copies of ancient Ajanta paintings are also often found on these articles and leave no one indifferent to their beauty. The Kashmir lacquers are no less colourful, but their painted decor is based on a minute floral pattern covering the entire surface of the articles. Another glory of Indian craftsmen has always been ivory-carving, a craft which requires a high degree of proficiency. The craftsman's skilful hand can turn an elephant tusk into ingenious figure compositions, sometimes also decorated with an intricate floral ornament. On the whole, the ample display of objets d'art made by Indian craftsmen witnesses to their high professional skills and artistic originality.
One of the most interesting collections at the Museum is that of contemporary Indian painting and graphic art. The fifty odd pictures by Indian artists, dating. mainly from the 1940s and 1950s, illustrate the distinctive features of contemporary Indian painting.
Its actual history began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the growing national liberation movement in Bengal inspired what was called the Bengali Revival-a movement within the artistic intelligentsia of Bengal aimed at the revival of national traditions. The artists of the Bengali revivalist trend turned to national classical art and literature, to mythology and folklore in search of imagery and subjects for their works. The subsequent development of Indian painting was based on the foundations laid down by the Bengali revivalist movement. The declaration of the Republic of India opened a new era in the history of Indian art. Numerous different, sometimes even mutually opposed, artistic schools and trends emerged. They reflected the versatility of new Indian art and at the same time the artists' concern for the preservation of national flavour both in the choice of subjects and in their treatment.
The collection of art of Sri Lanka is among the youngest at the Museum. Its exhibits are not numerous but varied, and are fairly representative of the major artistic crafts in Sri Lanka. These form the principal part of the collection and cover the period from the beginning of the century to the present day.
Although art of Sri Lanka developed under the strong influence of Indian culture, its national identity and distinctive local traits have always been preserved. The magnificent and unique architectural monuments, sculptures and paintings of antiquity and the Middle Ages, as well as examples of medieval handicrafts, present convincing and vivid evidence of the vitality of national artistic traditions. The folk arts in Sri Lanka received a new impetus after the victory of the national independence movement. One of the traditional crafts is metalwork, whose secrets were passed over from generation to generation. Radnadvip, or the Island of Gems, was a name given to Sri Lanka in the past. The Museum's collection of jewellery- necklaces, bracelets, etc., adorned with chased or incised ornamentation and semiprecious stones-testifies to the excellent workmanship of contemporary craftsmen.
Wood-carving is one of the most popular crafts in Sri Lanka. Wooden articles are often painted with alternating stripes of red, yellow, green and black lacquer which gives them an additional picturesque touch.
Plaiting is another traditional folk craft. Mats plaited of hena-grass are usually decorated with simple geometric patterns or birds, snakes and animals. Unlimited by any canons, the craftsmen's creative fancy gives birth to an infinite variety of decoration.
Plaiting and weaving are the oldest kinds of folk art in Sri Lanka. In 1974, the Museum received a fine collection of batiks by Vida Keineman, a talented artist, well known both at home and abroad, whose works were exhibited in Moscow. The Museum also displays decorative panels: among these special attention should be given to Piedas Guademana's works.
The collection of masks is another of the highlights of the Sri Lanka section. Masks appeared in Sri Lanka many centuries ago, first as ritual accessories, and later as the attributes of folk dances and games. They personify, for example, youth or old age, and sometimes serve as symbols for generalized social types, such as a king, a queen, various officials and so on. Animals can also be personified by such masks. The masks are usually quite large (up to 70 cm long) and brightly painted.
Mask-making as a craft is almost extinct. The collection of masks at the Museum is therefore all the more interesting. It includes some of the finest examples of the craft; among them is the mask of a warrior covered with bleeding sabre-wounds, with a cut nose and deformed mouth. Other very expressive and beautifully made masks represent old people and various demons.
Contemporary painting in Sri Lanka is represented at the Museum by two artists, Deni and Premachandra, who draw their subjects from the everyday life of their people and depict their work, customs and the exuberant tropical scenery.
The collection of Nepalese art was set up in the 1950s and since then has grown up to about a hundred items. The development of Nepalese art was also influenced by Indian culture. For various historical reasons the country was closed to foreign visitors up to the 1950s. As a result, Nepal has long remained a terra incognita, and collections of Nepalese art outside the country are relatively small. This imparts an additional interest to the Nepalese collection at the Museum. The largest part of it consists of bronze sculpture and covers the period from the eighth century to the present day, thus tracing the long history of this traditional Nepalese art.
The contemporary artistic culture of Nepal is illustrated by objects of decorative and applied arts (brass articles, ritual objects and decorative silver panels).
In 1977, the Nepalese Embassy in Moscow donated a small but valuable collection to the Museum, which comprises two contemporary bronze sculptures and several samples of traditional wood-carving. The Museum also possesses over thirty paintings by the well-known Nepalese artist Chandra M. S. Maskey.
Pakistani art is represented in the Museum by only two exhibits-the Buddha's head (a fragment of a sculpture from Gandhara dating from the third or fourth century) and the picture The All-Triumphant Power of Reason by the eminent Pakistani artist Sadequen, whose one-man show was held at the Museum in 1975.
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