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Objects of Love

Art as the Form of the Formless Divinity


When Darielle Mason, Gr’95, was six years old, she traveled with her family to Europe and explored the ruins of classical Greece. Family lore holds that she had to be carried for the remainder of the trip after falling from a platform in the Parthenon. Like Thales, the Presocratic thinker who stumbled into a well while stargazing, Mason was so struck by the columned splendor of goddess Athena’s temple that she momentarily forgot her earth-bound station. "From that point on," she says, "I wanted to be an archeologist."

A lover of ancient Greek architecture and sculpture, she took up classical studies as an undergraduate at Williams College in preparation for a career in archeology. It wasn’t until junior year, when she spent hours studying brick sizes with an archeologist in Rome, that she realized she’d made a mistake. "I was bored out of my skull," she recalls, "and I kept asking questions whose answer was always, ‘That’s not archeology, that’s art history.’"

Climbing out of the well she stumbled into 15 years earlier, she changed her major to art history, but to her delight, Mason then discovered she’d already tumbled down a rabbit hole. A year earlier, she had enrolled in the Winter Studies program for a class on Indian art, which was held in that ancient country. "I went to India completely by accident," she jokes. She had taken the course mainly to escape the "really cold" northwestern Massachusetts winter. "It was my first taste of India, and I really loved it. The temples were covered in sculptures, and they’re still being used. It’s sort of like going to Athens and seeing the Panathenaea procession coming up the Acropolis to the Parthenon."

Mason is now the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). She didn’t just stumble into the position but had worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and had already decided to become a curator before enrolling at Penn for a Ph.D. in art history. She chose Penn to study with Professor Michael Meister, the country’s leading specialist on the architecture and sculpture of the Indian temple.

She likes museum work because of the variety: curators are part administrator, part world traveler and art collector, part scholar, part teacher and resident expert, and part interior designer. But mostly what seems to attract Mason are the art works themselves. She refers to them as "objects," as though it were their sheer physicality, the heft and mass of their undeniable presence that attracts her most. "Ahhh," she sighed while showing the collection one afternoon. She was squatting in sunlight on the gallery floor to obtain an upward-looking perspective on a "Celestial Woman." The sculpture had been part of a Hindu temple, positioned along the ceiling and thus viewed from below by devotees. "Look at the grace of that form," she murmured, reaching up with her hand and tracing a slow arc in the air, as if to caress the curve of the stone thigh. The figure’s posture is something between seduction and dance. "I like working with the objects themselves and teaching through the objects instead of teaching through images of the objects."

text excerptA good portion of PMA’s Indian collection is sculpture from ancient shrines and temple buildings. By convention, museums exhibit art works individually in a gallery’s space, as though each were a discrete, isolated object. "It’s just a fragment of a piece that comes from a much larger, much more complex structure," explains Mason. "These are not arbitrary, unfathomable objects. There are stories and whole worldviews with a logic behind them. It’s important to understand that you’re looking at a fragment."

The largest fragment in the collection is a "Pillared Hall," which replicates with original pieces a single chamber in an ancient Hindu temple. The temple "fragment" is an ensemble of ruins collected by a young woman who traveled through southern India on her honeymoon in 1912. She died not long after, and the 90 blocks of carved granite were donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All the pieces, which are thought to come from three sixteenth-century temples, were later reconstructed by Dr. W. Norman Brown, Hon’63, after "intensive investigation" of temple sites in Madurai, India. Brown was curator of Indian art at PMA from 1931 to 1954 and a professor of Sanskrit who taught at Penn for over 40 years. He founded the Department of South Asia Regional Studies, the nation’s first, over 50 years ago.

The installation takes up an entire gallery, but it’s only a small part of a Hindu temple: a hall or mandapa that leads to the inner sanctum, which holds the main image of the Hindu god Vishnu. The sanctum, not part of this installation, is the most sacred space in the temple complex; it is the place where the invisible divinity becomes present on earth. Four rows of earth-tone pillars mark out a space just outside, where devotees prepare for worship. The initial effect of uniformity among the pillars gives way, upon closer inspection, to an elaborate diversity that embodies the mythology of a civilization. The columns and frieze slabs are all unique, each carved with heroes, sages, mythical animals, and divine beings related to Vishnu and his many incarnations in human and animal form.

Mason notes that curators arrange objects in an exhibit as a way of teaching, which can reveal facets of the art objects that writing or lecturing about them cannot. "In some ways," she says, "it’s like writing a book, except that it’s a three-dimensional walk through a book that you’ve presented."

The pillared hall is a case in point. She calls it a "contextual experience." The museum visitor doesn’t just read about the myriad differences among the sculpted pillars. The pillars enclose and create a sacred space. You don’t hear a lecture about the hall’s purpose; you inhabit the dim light of the silent hall. A sanctuary lamp, suspended by a chain above the brown door leading to the sanctum at one end, seems to amplify the stillness. The sacred art symbolizes some portentous truth, some ancient perception, and at the same time withholds the revelation. Visitors have told Mason that they must resist an urge to remove their shoes upon entering the palpably sacred hall.

Mason likes to point out that Hindu temples are centers of social life and hives of activity. The mandapa would have been awash with the sounds of sacred recitation, commerce, gossip, and wailing babies as well as the murmurs and movements of pilgrims discharging the rituals of worship as they approached the dwelling place of the god. She thinks a video of the temple’s everyday activities would give visitors a greater sense and understanding of the temple as a living space.

Stella Kramrisch, Hon’81, believed the invisible realm of the Indian gods is made real by art. Sometimes called "the mother of Indian art history," she taught at the University of Calcutta for over 30 years and conducted prodigious research on Indian art throughout the subcontinent. Later, she was brought to Penn by Dr. Brown and taught here from 1950 to 1969. She was also curator for Indian art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954 until her death in 1993. Mason is her successor, holding the curatorship that she endowed.

Kramrisch maintained that the Hindu temple, as a sprawling work of art, embodied the divine presence, and the rites of circumambulation brought devotees into that presence: the architecture and sculptures of human and animal forms helped worshipers to visualize and somehow sense the Formless. The objects created by the Indian artisan, she contended, link the worshiper to the unfathomable mystery of the divine. "God is the name," she wrote, "and the work of art is the body and house in which the Formless, the Beyond-Form, the goal of Release and the source of all form reveals itself. The statues and temples . . . are meant to be seen while moving from image to image, into the sanctuary, in a straight line of procession from the light of day into deepening superluminous darkness. . . . It cannot be communicated except by the artist."

The objects, even the vast temple complex itself, is but a "fragment" of the divinity. She called them "aspects of the Absolute" and went on to claim that "[t]he many gods of India, but for their counterfeits in stone and bronze, and their temples, would have no existence on earth." The Indian craftsmen’s art is a living form of bhakti or love, the urge that drives divine incarnation–the assuming of form by the Formless.

One of Mason’s favorite objects is a painting of Shiva and Parvati at rest. Kramrisch included the work in a 1986 exhibit called "Painted Delight." In her notes on the painting, Kramrisch stressed the aloofness of the god Shiva, who is seated cross-legged on a tiger skin fingering a string of human heads as though they were prayer beads. The goddess Parvati, his wife, sleeps with her head resting in the lap of the terrible god. "Parvati wears a warm dress," she wrote in the exhibit catalogue, "but the ashen white body of the Great Yogi is naked except for an ocher cloth covering his loins."

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Shiva is "the Lord of all beings," the celestial dancer, the destroyer and restorer of the cosmos. In another context, Kramrisch described him dancing the world-shattering Tandava at the end of time: "The stamping of his foot, the gyrations of his body, his flailing arms toss the mountains into the air; the ocean rises, the stars are lashed and scattered by Shiva’s matted hair. In order to save the world, Shiva in his perverse power dances the world out of existence, wildly laughing, scattering ashes from his body so that the world may be renewed."

Pillared Hall photoIn representations that include their children, Shiva and Parvati are part of "the Holy Family," and it is the human measure of this iconography that enchants Mason. She notes how, in the painting, Parvati’s hand rests sweetly on her husband’s foot, and how his arm is stretched out in a protective gesture across the goddess’s back as she sleeps upon his lap. Fierce and implacable Shiva, his face set without expression, still inclines his head toward the object of his love, betraying a fondness for the entanglements of form. Mason keeps coming back to the human scale in Indian art: the sensual curve of a female thigh, the din and bustle of a Hindu temple, the human warmth of divine domesticity. "Ohhh," she sighs. "It all just works so beautifully: the trees above wrap over the two figures, and they are wrapped together in one another’s arms." This too is a fragment of the Formless.

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