India: Embracing Change

The Saginaw Art Museum Takes on a daunting exhibit with The Art & Spirit of India

Posted In:   From Issue 650   By: Lauren Davis

06th December, 2007     0

Too often, western countries picture India as a Third World entity with strange customs and an even stranger allegiance to the bovine.  Perhaps it's because of the myriad of identities within that has it confused with so many other civilizations.  Due to this confusion, India's many accomplishments are frequently and inappropriately credited to the Chinese, Egyptians, Mayan, and ancient Greeks.  Basically speaking, India's work gets attributed to any other ancient civilization that one can think of.  

In truth, India is a thriving and culturally rich democracy, the largest in the world. And it touts one of the most ancient and living civilizations known to man, at over 10 thousand years old. It is famed for its many temples and its holistic approach to medicine.

A culture this rich in diversity, spiritual exploration and societal experimentation is bound to have a few things to teach us. In this capacity, India has served us well. For example, India is touted as the origin of the number system, the place value system, and the decimal system. It is believed that Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus are studies which originated there as well. An Indian scientist, Aryabhatta, invented the concept of the actual "number" zero.

Additionally, India can lay claim to fame on one major accomplishment that Bill Gates would kill to slap a patent on: The invention of Sanskrit, considered the Holy Grail and great grandfather of all higher languages. Because of its precise nature, it is considered most suitable for computer software and many concepts of the language are still in use today.  

This is hardly the end all-be-all of India. If you're picturing only poverty and crowded urban life, it's time to re-think. India built the first known university, a school of medicine, wherein complex procedures including brain surgery were performed, and ancient Indians mastered the art of navigation.

Hundreds of years before the western realization of the amount of time the earth takes to revolve around the sun, Indian astronomer Bhaskaracharya predicted it, rightly, to within six hours of accuracy. (325.26 days)

While most picture India as a land of Corporate American call centers, otherwise strapped by poverty and quagmires in Eastern politics, the truth is that its open approach to new ideas, and a willingness to pursue them, led to the development of such advanced concepts as Quadratic equations and the concept of "Pi".

Amazing temples, works of art, musical compositions and philosophical doctrines were birthed from an open society that thrived, perhaps, because India did not deign to burn its most enlightened thinkers at the stake. Rather, each generation built upon the other's hard work and open thinking, creating viable scientific and philosophical doctrines that are still in use today.

In its ongoing effort to provide art for all, the Saginaw Art Museum has teamed up with dozens of sponsors and put together an unprecedented group of collaborators to feature an enlightening exhibit that embraces these thinkers and artisans, entitled "The Art & Spirit of India".            

The rich artistic styling and tremendous diversity of Eastern Indian Culture are well represented here, with textiles, sculpture, painting, and educational opportunities so captivating; one can hardly imagine its scope.

Given the great historical breadth of the undertaking, my questions to Les Reker, Executive Director, are mindful of the challenges that assembling an exhibit like this must surely present.                                          

To an educational TV geek like me, the entire concept of India's broad scope is breathtaking. But there are logistical considerations to an exhibit like this. For example, how do you cover more than 10 thousand years of art, tradition, philosophy, and accomplishment without creating informational overkill to the museum guests?      

The Art & Spirit of India exhibition is also open at these times and features hundreds of objects such as paintings, sculpture and textiles borrowed from individuals associated with the India Association of East Central Michigan.  The exhibition intertwines artistry and design with the history, religion, and philosophic traditions of the great Indian civilization. The idea for this showing was conceived in recognition of the rich cultural diversity of our mid-Michigan region and in tribute to the unique contributions of our Indian community.
Review: The exhibit is called The Art and Spirit of India. I get the "Art" part. Could you explain the "spirit" part?

Les Reker: Spirituality is an integral and inseparable part of Indian Culture, and has been for over 5000 years. It is a culture rich in and tolerant of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Jainism, and Zoroaster's. Yet, India is a secular society. Objects chosen for the exhibition reflect the integration of the spirit into the everyday life of the Indian people.

 Review: Can you list some high points of the exhibit that may not be noted on the website/press releases?

Les Reker: The exhibition is complex. It highlights four aspects of Indian Culture: Religion and Philosophy, Music and Dance, Painting, Sculpture ant Textiles, and domestic accoutrements. The exhibit also features a small theatre, where a continuous showing of Classical Indian Dance is presented on film. A reading area is also provided, where dozens of books on Indian art, religion and culture are available to read and research.

Review: What are some of your favorite aspects of the exhibit?

Les Reker: I am particularly intrigued by the craftsmanship in the creation of the many sandalwood and bronze sculptures (depicting the various Hindu deities) that we chose for the exhibit.  I am also grateful for the personal care and thoughtfulness that is evident in the selection of objects from the collections of the various donors.

Review: What key elements differentiate Indian art from other cultural artistic traditions? How are these differences celebrated in the exhibit?

Les Reker: There are many design elements that distinguish Indian Art from Western forms. Indian Classical Dance and Indian visual art share a uniquely decorative and poetic vision in their interpretation of Hindu legends and beliefs. The works are very colorful, lyrical, and, at times, playful.

Review: Is there a great deal of research involved for the staff, in assembling these pieces and bringing them to life at the museum? 

Les Reker: The Curatorial and Education staff put many hours of research into the interpretation of the objects and their display in the exhibition. We were careful to choose a range of objects which could best define the complexities of Indian traditional culture. Research took the form of reading, viewing Indian artifacts and interviewing people of Indian ancestry.

Review: Paint a picture for me, if you will, of what it is like for someone like you and members of the museum staff to see each piece come out of the crate, and tell us what steps it takes to ensure they are well represented on site. 

Les Reker: Well before objects are unpacked for an exhibit like this, the curatorial vision is brought to life through a thoughtful exhibit design. It is important that a dialogue is established (and maintained) between the curators and the visitors. This can only be accomplished by a careful selection and a logical and aesthetically pleasing presentation of the objects.

Review: Please give a verbal walk through of the exhibit.

Les Reker: The exhibition includes an introductory theatre, where reference books on Indian Art, religion and Culture may be viewed. It also contains a continuous film depicting Classical Indian dance. Beyond that, the exhibit is divided into four parts: Religion and Philosophy, Music and Dance, Painting, Sculpture and Textiles, and decorations for the home. Each section is filled with objects that illustrate that aspect of Indian culture. A wide range of beautiful Indian textiles from all parts of India is included in the exhibition. Also included are rich examples of Indian jewelry, brass and wooden sculpture, and traditional paintings.  Indian forms of brass casting are presented in a variety of utilitarian objects.

Following the Museum's newly designed mission to provide "Art For All" for all of mid-Michigan, this exhibition is one of a series devoted to presenting various and diverse aspects of traditional culture found in the region. It celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the area and is an exceptional educational resource for children and adults from both the Indian and non-Indian communities.

The Exhibition and related activities are sponsored by generous support from the Saginaw Community Foundation (from the K. Lucille and James V. Martineau Family Fund), HealthPlus of Michigan, the Michigan CardioVascular Institute, and Target. Additional sponsors are the Montague Inn, Prudential, Superior Home Healthcare, Valley Anesthesia and Valley Cardiology.

The holiday season is the perfect time to catch this amazing exhibition of India. Activities are FREE, unless noted otherwise, with a paid general Museum admission of $5.00 for non-member adults (16 and above). Children (15 and under) and members of the Saginaw Art Museum are free.  There are varying levels of membership ranging from $20 for students and seniors (65+) to $50 for a family, as well as higher levels with additional benefits.


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