Tennessee Vaishnavites

An exhibition at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts Nashville, Tennessee (and which will be on till the end of May 2011) is Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior.

The exhibition is exemplary and novel- the first such in the US, and the gallery where it is being held is not one of the usual suspects, the Met or the Smithsonian, or any one of the usual places where Indian art is showcased. Nashville is, after all, known more for the Grand Ole Opry, and Tennessee for Elvis (or, depending on your orientation, Oak Ridge). The curatorial team, led by Joan Cummins, is remarkable. They have pulled out all the stops in putting together a spectacular exhibition.... This is one museum to travel to, and soon!

The exhibition is divided in three parts, Images of Vishnu (from which the photograph on the catalogue shown above),  The Avatars of Vishnu, and  Worshiping Vishnu. The description on the website- and regrettably, this is all that I have managed to see- educates and informs: 

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. 

 Mapin, Ahmedabad, have copublished the catalogue of the exhibition. Vishnu-one of the Hinduism’s most important and powerful deities-is the great preserver, vanquishing those who seek to destroy the balance of the universe. For his followers he is also creator and the destroyer, the cause of all existence. His many traits are embodied in his impressive physical form, the weapons he carries, the Goddesses who are his consorts, and the eagle Garuda, on whom he flies down from heaven. In Hindu legend, Vishnu descends to earth in many manifestations, known as avatars, to fight powerful demons and to save his devotees. The avatars range in form from Varaha the boar to Parashurama the Brahmin warrior, and in character from Narasimha the ferocious half man half lion, to Krishna the charismatic prince-cowherd.

The legends of Vishnu have inspired some of the greatest art, literature, and ritual traditions in India. This catalogue examines the many faces of Vishnu and the ways that the God has been represented, from antiquity to the present.

Essays by noted historians of South Asian art delve deeply into the regional and sectarian traditions of Vishnu Worship in India. Illustrations and discussions of almost 200 works of art, in a wide range of media and borrowed from collections across the North Atlantic, reveal the rich diversity of India’s art and religious culture.

In our Art section, in hardcover, 296 pages. Rs 3500, ISBN: 9788189995485