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First Major Museum Exhibition to Focus on the Hindu Deity Vishnu Opens in Nashville
Two-Sided Stele with Vishnu (Flanked by Personified Attributes) and Durga, ca. 7th century. Sandstone, h. 43 1/4 in. Private Collection.

NASHVILLE, TN.- Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, the first major museum exhibition to focus on the Hindu deity Vishnu has been organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The exhibition opened to the public as a ticketed exhibition Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011, and remain on view in the Ingram Gallery through May 29, 2011.

This exhibition, guest curated by Joan Cummins, Ph.D., Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum, introduces one of Hinduism’s primary deities to broad audiences through more than 170 paintings, textiles, prints and sculptures created in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh between the third and twentieth centuries. The exhibition represents a variety of periods, regions and art styles and reveals the many ways that Vishnu has been portrayed and celebrated. The works of art included in the exhibition were chosen for their artistic merit and for the novel or unusual treatments of their subject matter.

Vishnu has been worshipped for more than 2,000 years throughout India, and today, his devotees, known as Vaishnavas, can be found the world over. The god and his avatars have been the inspirations for countless great works of art and literature as well as music, dance and theatrical traditions. The exhibition covers much of the history of art in India and reveals the remarkable intellectual, technical and aesthetic sophistication of ancient Indian tradition. The exhibition introduces non-Hindu audiences to the beauty and cultural meaning contained in works of art relating to the Vaishnava tradition while offering Hindu audiences the opportunity to share and celebrate the traditional expressions of their spiritual beliefs.

Hindu Home Shrines: Creating Space for Personal Contemplation, a companion exhibition organized by the Frist Center Education Department, will explore ways several Nashville Hindu families incorporate their faith into their home lives.

Because the narratives associated with Vishnu and his avatars are entertaining and appealing to all ages, the Frist Center will offer an array of special educational programs for families, as well as music and dance performances and film.

“We are honored to organize and present Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, the first major exhibition to explore the Vaishnava tradition in art,” said Frist Center Executive Director Susan H. Edwards, Ph.D. “The material is incredibly deep and rich. We hope to reach broad audiences, from armchair travelers, to local and regional South Asian communities, to those who simply enjoy cultural exploration.

“This exhibition comes at a particularly interesting time. As the influence of India grows in the global culture, we believe the exhibition will answer many questions often asked about Hinduism.

“We have been gratified at the response we have received from the Indian community in Middle Tennessee who have guided us in the planning of this exhibition and the planning of our attendant programs,” Edwards concluded.

As word of the exhibition has spread, the Indian community, worldwide, has been enthusiastic in its support. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, commented that it is “a laudable step for the Frist Center to provide opportunity to the world to further explore Hinduism and its concepts.”

Curator Joan Cummins, Ph.D., says ”The art of India is relatively little known in the U.S., which is a shame because it’s a tremendously rich tradition that gives form to thousands of years of spiritual inspiration through sophisticated craftsmanship. The diversity of Indian art and imagery is mind-boggling, and we hope to do justice to it with the selection of objects in the show. But we also hope to alleviate some of the misconceptions and confusion about Hinduism that I think a lot of Americans have. We hope that people will come away from the show wanting to know more about India and its neighboring countries. The time is right for this kind of introduction to Indian art, culture and religion.”

An Introduction to Vishnu
Hindu worship can be divided into three broad groups: those who worship Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva the Destroyer or Devi the Great Goddess. Each of these groups believes its god or goddess is responsible for creating and maintaining the cycle of life and serves as the portal to ultimate salvation.

Of the three supreme deities, Vishnu is the most multifaceted. Although he is celebrated as the great creator of the cosmos, he most often serves as its savior, descending from heaven to save the world—and lesser gods—from powerful demons and myriad threats. He assumes many shapes in his quest to maintain balance and order. Sometimes he appears in primary form, with four arms, flying on his eagle, Garuda. On other occasions, he takes a more limited, mortal body to live on earth as an animal or man. These earthly bodies, or avatars, have their own talents and personalities but share Vishnu’s blue skin tone. This feature distinguishes them from mere mortals and reflects Vishnu’s associations with the sea and sky and his cool, tranquil approach to saving the world.

The first section of the exhibition, Images of Vishnu, introduces Vishnu in his primary form with subsections dedicated to his attributes, consorts and legends. Known as Hinduism’s gentle god, Vishnu is easily recognized in paintings by his blue skin. In sculpture, he is recognized by his upright posture, which signifies his constant effort to maintain balance in the cosmos. In addition to his blue skin and straight posture, Vishnu can be identified by the four objects he holds—the discus or wheel (chakra), the lotus, the conch shell and a club-like weapon called a mace (gada). Two of the earliest works in the show, sandstone sculptures dating from the fourth and fifth centuries on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum, are examples of Vishnu in his primary form.

Subsections introduce Vishnu’s favorite weapons; Garuda the eagle, whom he rides when sweeping down from heaven; and his wives. Most Hindu gods have at least one wife or consort whose personality reflects and balances that of the god. Vishnu’s primary wife is Lakshmi, an extremely popular goddess who promotes wealth and good fortune. Several works demonstrate the intimate relationship between the god and goddess, including the painting Lakshmi Massaging the Feet of Vishnu made in the Punjab Hills region about 1765–70 and the tenth-century sculpture Lakshmi-Narayana from Rajasthan (Narayana is another name for Vishnu) .

The second section of the exhibition, The Avatars of Vishnu, is devoted to Vishnu’s avatars explored as a group as well as individually. An interesting figure in his primary form, the complexity of Vishnu’s character becomes clear when he assumes new forms in order to save the earth from myriad dangers. Although they share some of the characteristics of Vishnu, the avatars are a more limited manifestation of the god. They are less glorious, have finite bodies, sometimes display human weaknesses and are usually mortal. When Vishnu descends from the heavens in the form of an avatar, it is as if he is reaching his hand down: the hand may be fully Vishnu, but it is not the god in full.

Hindu texts differ on the number of times that Vishnu has descended to earth in avatar form, but the most standard list includes nine past avatars and one scheduled to arrive in the future. The list of ten is as follows:

Matsya the fish; Kurma the tortoise; Varaha the boar; Narasimha the half-man half-lion; Vamana the dwarf; Parashurama the Brahmin; Rama the king; Krishna the cowherd prince; Balarama the brother of Krishna (or Buddha the preacher) and Kalki the avatar of the future. The stories of all ten avatars will be recounted in the exhibition.

Those avatars more frequently celebrated in art will be more fully represented in the exhibition, with substantial subsections dedicated to Rama and Krishna, including a bronze sculpture of Rama from the Chola period on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the paintings Krishna and Radha in a Grove, ca. 1720 on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Krishna Fluting for the Gopis, ca. 1775 from a private collection.

The third section, Worshiping Vishnu, explores some of the ways the deity has been venerated throughout the centuries. It includes images that depict the people who pray to Vishnu and the places where they pray. It also examines objects used during prayer such as jewel-encrusted gold shrines for images of gods. This section includes examinations of select sectarian traditions within Vaishnavism that feature special images of Vishnu (or Krishna), most notably the icon of Shri Nathaji in Rajasthan and the icons of Jagannatha and his siblings in Orissa. Depictions of these icons, as well as other works of art made for the devotees of these sects, appear next to early examples of the chromolithographic prints that are perhaps more familiar to modern audiences. These mass-produced, full-color images of Hindu deities, produced starting in the early 20th century, can be found in many home and office shrines today and they serve as a postscript to the more than 1,600 years of Hindu artistic tradition represented in the exhibition.

Curator Joan Cummins, Ph.D, notes, “We’ve worked hard to make this complex subject as approachable and as enlightening as possible for the novice viewer. We recognize that even though the works of art are beautiful, it can be difficult to appreciate them fully without an understanding of the stories they tell and the ideals they reflect. The stories are indeed wonderful: we think it will be a great show for young audiences because Vishnu’s avatars take such a wide range of forms. They are involved in all sorts of intrigue, action and romance—and the good guys always win in the end.”

The Frist Center convened an advisory panel comprising Hindu leaders, educators and members of Middle Tennessee’s Hindu community to assist in planning educational activities, programs and community events during the exhibition.

Frist Center for the Visual Arts | Joan Cummins | Bernard Selz | Vishnu: Hinduism's Blue-Skinned Savior | Susan H. Edwards |

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