“But what did they change?”
That was the unexpected question a friend asked me after seeing the completely revamped South Asian galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which opened in the fall to the public.
After attending a briefing, press previews, and a recent ordinary afternoon in the galleries, I had been preoccupied with the differences. Lighting has gone from murky to excellent. Windows have been blocked to allow the display of a much greater range of material, including works on paper, wooden objects, and textiles.
Moreover, the galleries now have a more or less coherent narrative that they had long lacked. The histories of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, and Tibet are long and complex. The people are diverse culturally and linguistically. Their art reflects religious beliefs and political phenomena with which most visitors -- even those with roots on the subcontinent -- are unlikely to be familiar.
The new display doesn’t try to make every visitor an expert or a connoisseur, but it does offer enough information to make comparisons between the works of art, and to draw some conclusions of your own. And there are smart graphics and digital devices that offer those with patience the opportunity to really figure out some works that seem, at first glance, to be impossibly complex.
In short, a lot has changed in the South Asian galleries. Yet, I can see what my friend was getting at. Much that is here has been part of the museum’s collections for half a century or more. The galleries are still dominated by the mid-16th-century granite hall that was originally part of a temple complex in the South Indian city of Madurai. This has been part of the Art Museum for more than a century, and it is the image most visitors conjure when they think about Indian art in the museum.
Stone sculpture, most of it fragments from older temples, has long been at the heart of this collection, and it is well-represented here, as it should be. Visitors who know the collection will find their favorites, whether it is the dancing figure of Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the Hindu god Shiva, made about 750, or the serenely sensuous figure of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion in Buddhism, which dates from the late 400s.
New lighting and labeling -- along with a new installation of temple fragments against a large photograph of a temple wall -- illuminate the sculpture as never before. Still, the galleries have much that you have seen before. And that is as it should be. It is, after all, a permanent collection, and a distinguished one at that.
Indeed, I think the shrewdest thing that Darielle Mason, the museum’s curator of South Asian and Himalayan Art, did was to highlight this collection, how it came to be, and what it can show us. The installation provides plenty of cultural, historic, and religious context so we can understand the objects, but the works themselves remain the focus.
The collections have an interesting history of their own. Adeline Pepper Gibson, a socially prominent Philadelphian, bought the temple, which had already been dismantled, in 1912. Nobody knows what she intended to do with it. After she died of influenza while working in a military hospital she founded in France, the rubble was shipped to Philadelphia, and her family donated it to the museum.
The other key figure is Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993), the museum’s legendary curator of Indian art from 1954 until her death. The collection contains more than 1,000 works she gathered, most of which she donated to the museum. The collection today largely represents her sensibility -- both her enthusiasms and her blind spots. Kramrisch, who spent two decades in India when young, was drawn to Hindu art. A gallery devoted to her contains a rare and ancient work, a phallic linga with the face of the god Shiva that is about 2,000 years old. She also collected many distinguished pieces from the Jain and Buddhist religions, but she was not interested in the Islamic art of the region, and the museum owns few examples.
There is a gallery devoted to Kramrisch, to the right of the entrance to the temple hall. The temple is an almost irresistible attraction, but it embodies the profusion and cacophony that many find off-putting in Indian art. It is better to take the right and see the work through the eyes of Kramrisch, who built so much of the collection. From there, you can move from object to object, looking at what catches your eye, learning more about what intrigues you, gleaning clues to the states of mind and soul that produced the works on display.
Early in this path, you will encounter something decidedly new, an animated work, Disruption as Rapture, by Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander, in response to a rare 18th-century Sufi manuscript in the museum’s collections, Gulshan-i-Ishq (Rose Garden of Love). You see it while sitting in a small domed room from Isfahan, one of several Persian architectural elements surviving from a different conception of the museum. Here, though, the animation, with its metamorphosing visions based on the manuscript, itself a Muslim retelling of a Hindu tale, is fully at home in this intimate, beautiful space, and its music, by Du Yun, slows you down and, perhaps, helps you open your eyes.
As the labels explain, much South Asian spirituality is about the desire to get outside of time, and its most compelling gallery juxtaposes Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain objects that tell that story. One is a rare ninth-century mohra, a head of Shiva that is periodically remade from the same metal and used in ceremonies. Equally compelling is a less-precious object, a Jain meditation aid in the form of a piece of brass from which the outline of a man is cut out. It embodies an aspiration toward nothingness.
Then, after going through the Himalayan gallery, with its wall-size painting-map of pilgrimage sites in Nepal, you can make a turn and enter the temple with its profusion of demigods and demons. After the journey you have taken, you might be ready to see it as though for the first time.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; until 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.