FIVE rare wooden sculptural masks made in India — recently acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) — have become the highlight of a special exhibition titled “Encountering Vishnu: The Lion Avatar in Indian Temple Drama”, which opened recently at the MET. Worn by actors in plays presented during religious festivals in southern India once upon a time, the masks represent a largely unrecorded category of late medieval devotional art from India.
John Guy, curator of South Asian Art at MET, says that the masks were purchased from an old English dealer who acquired them in southern India in the ’80s as part of his interior design business. “I have always been fascinated by the early avatars of Vishnu, especially Varaha and Narasimha. The acquisition of this set of masks allowed me to build this exhibition around the dramatic narrative of Narasimha’s battle with the evil,” says Guy.
Mythologically, Vishnu has appeared in as many as 10 guises, known as avatars. And the MET has chosen to highlight his Narasimha appearance through the current exhibition. The objects on display explore the theme of Vishnu in his man-lion form, revealing himself at the court of an evil king in response to the king’s attempts to slay his own son for his unwavering devotion (bhakti) to Vishnu. A frightful battle ensues, in which Narasimha finally overcomes the protective magic with which Hiranyakashipu, the evil king, has surrounded himself. Order is thus restored in the universe.
Through the ages, this narrative has been dramatically represented in several sculptures and paintings, and when staged, has been known to heighten the drama through these expressive masks. This temple drama, known as Hiranyanatakam, is still performed in the Kaveri delta region of Tamil Nadu, mostly in villages around Thanjavur.
Guy says that since the exhibition deals with the sensitive subject of mythology and devotion, the objects chosen are of the highest quality, representing the antiquity of Narasimha imagery and the ways in which Vishnu has been honoured and worshipped in the past. “A second aspect is the presentation, which is highly respectful of the devotional role of these images,” he says.
Along with the bulky wooden masks, the exhibition comprises works in bronze, sandstone and wood, as well as miniature paintings, lithographic devotional prints, and early photography, all of which illuminate the theme of Vishnu’s divine appearances. Dating from the sixth to the 20th century, the 30 works have been drawn from the MET’s own collection, as well as sourced from various private collections from world over.
Also finding pride of place in the exhibition are two rare copper alloy sculptures — one of a standing Vishnu, and the other of Yoga Narasimha from the Chola period (880–1279). There is an antique bronze mask of Vaikuntha Vishnu, created in the ancient kingdom of Kashmir in the 5th century. There are pages from a dispersed Bhagavata Purana manuscript belonging to the 16th century Delhi-Agra area, one of which depicts the scene of Bhima slaying demon Jarasandh, while the other shows Krishna subduing Kaliya, the snake demon. Also part of the showcase is an extraordinary seated Narasimha in sandstone from the sixth or seventh century.
The shows Guy has curated for the MET include “Ragamala: Picturing Sound” and “The Royal Hunt: Courtly Pursuits in Indian Art”. “The exhibition is one of a series of small-scale, highly focused exhibitions, with 25-30 works, exploring one aspect of Indian art. Our future shows will also include themes central to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain art, and the work of 20th century artists,” says Guy.