Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Lord Krishna Along the Wasatch Front


In 1968, I discovered Krishna. That year, I took a spiritual journey from being a University of Texas at Austin theater student and anti-Vietnam war demonstrator to a student of the Bhagavad Gita and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra in Los Angeles. After several weeks of instruction, I was initiated as a devotee of Lord Sri Sri Krishna by my new spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The magical ceremony was held inside the incense-filled Hindu temple, converted from an old Christian church on La Cienega Boulevard, near the Santa Monica Freeway.

With a shaven head, saffron robes, and the spiritual name of Nityananda das, I lived a monk’s life chanting on the streets, the shores of Laguna Beach, and in the temple that was filled with original paintings and sculptures of many Hindu gods:

— Lord Krishna and his associate and war hero, Arjune, to whom he spoke (or sang or chanted) the Bhagavad Gita on the bloody battlefield of Kurukshetra;
— his consort and inner expansion, Sri Sri Radha;
— the half-man, half-lion, Lord Nrisimha, great protector of devotees in times of danger;
— Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Golden Avatar and incarnation of Krishna, who initiated the Hare Krishna movement over 500 years ago with his associate, Nityananda (my namesake), an incarnation of Arjune;
— and other wildly beautiful and terrifying deities and manifestations of Vishnu.

Almost 50 years later atop the Rocky Mountains—still questing—I see evidence of the bottoms of Krishna’s blue feet, etched with symbols that leave prints along the Wasatch Front. In the mountain winds I hear the breathy sound of his flute.

A temple bears his name in Spanish Fork, and another in Salt Lake City—the Sri Sri Radha Krishna temples. Salt Lake City also hosts the Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math Mission, dedicated to Bhakti Yoga and the worship of Krishna.

The Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple was recently dedicated in South Jordan, with shrines in the main sanctum devoted to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good fortune, new beginnings, and patron of arts, sciences, letters, and learning, and others to Krishna, Rama, Saraswati, Hanuman, Shiva, and to other important deities of the expansive and complex Hindu pantheon. Inside these temples are paintings, sculptures, shrines and other artifacts. Some are for sale, but most serve educational and live ritual purposes—a contemporary use for artifacts derived from ancient prototypes.

Loving Devotion: Visions of Vishnu

Not far from the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork is Brigham Young University. Thousands of students descend on the temple grounds each spring as they celebrate the traditional Holi Festival of Colors. These youth who throw colored chalk in the air and at each other at Holi, or hear about the celebration, may have their curiosity piqued about Loving Devotion: Visions of Vishnu, a new exhibition at the Museum of Art (MOA) on campus. Others may discover the exhibit through their intellectual and cultural explorations.

The museum’s curator of religious art, Ashlee Whitaker, says the exhibition of 30 objects, mostly from the Newark Museum’s Asian collection, will “bring India to campus and enlarge student perspective about world religions and Hindu culture.” This exhibit continues the museum’s strategy of exploring devotion and spirituality through a variety of culturally-themed exhibitions and programs, such as the 2012 Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture exhibition, Whitaker explains. “We have different collection and exhibition focuses, of which one is religious art. We embrace faith; this makes the museum somewhat unique in that regard.”

Loving Devotion was organized by Katherine Anne Paul, Newark Museum’s curator of the arts of Asia, as part of the 2012 “Pilgrimage of Love and Forgiveness: A Global Gathering” conference held in Assisi, Italy. Originally, Assisi was to be the only location for the exhibit. It was sponsored by the Fetzer Institute and co-hosted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The purpose was to gather world leaders and the creative community to “challenge mankind to turn away from fear and violence and foster goodness, love, compassion and caring,” according to program information. Loving Devotion complemented the conference’s theme and offered “insight into the expression of bhakti, the practice of loving devotion.”

Whitaker says the MOA was “fortunate to obtain the core of these works,” as the exhibition was initially intended just for the Global Gathering conference. “The Newark Museum knew of our interest in religious-centered exhibitions because of our work on Beauty and Belief. They approached us about the possibilities of exhibiting Loving Devotion. This iteration is exclusive to the BYU Museum of Art.” Newark, she says, provided the “canon, the main body of work. We were able to reframe the exhibition and make it our own by including eight pieces from our collection, one piece from the UMFA, and most importantly, a lot of participation from our Hindu community.”

Showing respect for these prized Hindu objects, the museum’s design and fabrication staff transformed the downstairs Jones-Boshard Gallery into an intimate space for contemplation and spiritual experience. “Our designers created a mystical installation incorporating bright colors and rich patterns,” Whitaker explains. The intention was to enhance patron understanding of bhakti and appreciation of the anonymous artisans of antiquity whose skills served Vishnu and his many manifestations, such as the divine statesman, Lord Krishna.

One of my favorite New York City art haunts is the Rubin Museum of Art. The physical installation of Loving Devotion reminded me of that museum and its mindful presentation of the Himalayan material heritage, evoking a spiritual response to the artifacts and stimulating learning and understanding.

After spending many months planning and organizing Loving Devotion, meeting with leaders in the Hindu community and on campus, consulting with scholars, and spending time with the artifacts, Whitaker says she is changed. “Working with this exhibition has deeply affected my own approach to God and the divine, and greatly enhanced the level of my sincerity in everyday devotional practice.”

As I entered the gallery, a Hindu puja ceremony soundtrack flowed from the well-endowed education gallery on the right. It instantly reminded me of the 1960s and my days in the Los Angeles Krishna Consciousness temple. Missing was the tang of incense, the chalkiness of the cracking white clay tilaka forehead marking, and the brush of my seika (ponytail) against my neck.

Once oriented in the exhibition entryway, a singular richly bejeweled mandala on the back wall drew me in. Its solitariness emphasized its uniqueness. Most mandalas with which I am familiar are from Tibetan and other Buddhist traditions, and this one from Hindu customs astonished me. Whitaker felt the same way. She says she hovered over the production team as they uncrated the 18th-19th century Nepalese Vishnu mandala.|1-2| “We all gasped because of its beauty. The jewels sparkled in the light and gave it an appropriately ethereal sense of deity.” She says the year and a half of working with high resolution photographs of the Newark pieces didn’t prepare her for the vibrancy and complexity of the actual objects. “They were alive, completely alive,” she says, “so different than in photos.”

I then entered the main gallery and was not disappointed. Every object, an expression of devotion to Vishnu or one of his manifestations, was housed in specially designed floor to ceiling altars, on well-positioned pedestals, in unobtrusive vitrines, and lit in ways that teased out each object’s inner glow. The silk-colored room evoked the exhibition’s emphasis on bhakti (loving devotion), a theme richly manifested by this deft and spiritually-minded installation.

A favorite piece was isolated in the back corner of the gallery, a small 19th-20th century ivory carving (misattributed as Krishna and Rhada, more likely Shiva and Parvati), from MOA’s collection.|3| Other objects include six 16th-19th century gouache paintings|4-6| and several small bronze sculptures, probably intended for domestic use. Other fine works, matching the quality of any in major museums around the country,  include six phyllite and sandstone exterior bas reliefs of Vishnu with avatars and other attendants, from the eighth-12thcenturies (one from the UMFA collection).|7-9|  Other items include a temple vessel and domestic shrines.|10-11|

Krishna’s flute playing cast a magical spell over Utah, as two other exhibitions about him opened at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the same time Loving Devotion opened at BYU.

Krishna: Lord of Vrindavan is a companion exhibition to Moksha: Photography by Fazal Sheikh, which explores social issues around Indian widows’ pilgrimage to Vrindavan, India.

Moksha: Photography by Fazal Sheikh

The 40 poignant and rich black and white Moksha portraits by artist and activist Fazal Sheikh address the lives of Hindu pilgrims—widows. These women rejected the tradition of being burned alive on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, have been rejected by their families, or for purely devotional or other societal reasons have decided to live in poverty and self-denial. They take refuge in Krishna’s mercy in Vrindavan, and chant his holy name the rest of their days. They hope to achieve moksha—release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—and be brought into Krishna’s presence on the spiritual planet of Goloka Vrindavana, his eternal Supreme Abode, and the highest Vaikuntha (heavenly) planet among the multitudes in the spiritual universes.|12|

Not all the women portrayed were mistreated. Suniti Chatterjee’s pilgrimage to Vrindavan is a story of her desire to “devote everything to Krishna,” according to her posted testimony. By the time she was 70, her husband had died and her children were grown and gone, so she decided to make the journey to the Holy City. She was 85 when her portrait was taken by Sheikh. “When I had a fever, Krishna comforted me…He told me he was with me and he would protect me.” Her account of Krishna intervening in her behalf during times of struggle while in Vrindavan is repeated in many of the Indian women’s statements, printed on gallery signage.|13|

In his 2006 Phot District News article about the Moksha exhibition, titled “Fazal Sheikh and the Power of the Portrait,” Edgar Allen Beem writes that “Sheikh presents beautiful, even reverential portraits of widows accompanied by their often harrowing and horrifying accounts of the circumstances that led them to Vrindavan.” Sheikh is quoted in the same article about the irony of the widows’ lives in a place that consists “of more than the moments of trauma…The very thing that is giving people solace is also, at the same time, the source of their pain. The system that put them there is the thing that gives them the ability to endure…Indian culture is very set against women.”

Krishna: Lord of Vrindavan

As Luke Kelly, associate curator of antiquities, prepared the Moksha exhibition, he thought it was a great opportunity to present works about Krishna from UMFA’s permanent collection. After all, Vrindavan is where Krishna was born over 5,000 years ago, and the city is often highlighted in the religious and popular lore of Hinduism.

Kelly, who also teaches world history, became curious about Krishna as a youngster because he liked the Beatles’ music. He especially liked George Harrison and saw him “as a genuine spiritual seeker,” he says. Kelly followed Harrison’s involvement with the Hare Krishna movement and often listened to “My Sweet Lord” and other Beatle songs of a devotional nature. Harrison had many meetings with Srila Prabhupada, even donating to him the London Bhaktivedanta Manor, the largest center for Krishna Consciousness in the UK. According to the manor’s website, the center is “a window to Vrindavan, Lord Krishna’s eternal home.”

Krishna was no stranger to Kelly, and he easily identified images of him among the several Hindu artifacts embedded within the vast museum collection of more than 19,000 objects (3,500 are from Asia). Kelly says he “wanted the objects to be viewed in a relatively small, intimate space and close to the Moksha photography exhibition” on loan from the Princeton University Art Museum. Kelly says the museum’s Emma Eccles Jones Education Gallery “proved to be the perfect location” to install the eight sacred and secular pieces dating from the 11th to the 20th centuries. The gallery also provides seating for viewing “The Forgotten Women,” a 90-minute documentary film by Dilia Mehta about the widows of Vrindavana, and a reading area for Hindu and Krishna reference materials.

Of the eight works in Krishna: Lord of Vrindavan, half are paintings. The other four are carvings of stone (e.g., 11th-12th century The God Vishnu with Lakshmi and Sarasvati) or wood (e.g., 19th-century Panels from Processional Chariot in four sections).

An unknown Rajastani artist illustrated the poem of Baramasa, or “Song of 12 months” (a story of love and longing), on wasli paper, using opaque pigments. The illustration most likely is one of 12 works by the artist that depict a beautiful girl who yearns for her lover during the months and seasons of the year. Radha and Krishna are also shown in this piece, so the work may refer to attributes of deity. The artist uses the poem as a setting “about the separation of two lovers and their great desire for union,” according to gallery labeling. “It was then very natural that many painters of the Baramasa used Radha and Krishna, India’s most well-known lovers, as their models.” This common love scene is a colorful representation of Baramasa painting, an important contribution to the museum’s collection.

The more outstanding of the two pieces shown here is by another unknown Rajastani artist working in the Bundi style of miniature painting. Krishna and Gopis Swimming in the Yamuna (the largest tributary to the Ganges),|14| a work of gouache on paper, is poetic, whereas the Baramasa painting is merely an illustration of poetry.

This painting illustrates a scene in the Harivamsa Purana poem. The Harivamsa, an important piece of Sanskrit literature consisting of over 16,000 verses, is thought by some to be a supplement to the monumental Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (220,000 lines in 18 sections). It describes various aspects and lineage of Krishna’s life, such as his birth as a Vishnu incarnation and accounts of his adventures with associates. According to gallery labeling, Harivamasa illustrations tell “the story of Krishna as a little boy and teenager in Vrindavan. Growing up, he was the consummate prankster, stealing clarified butter (ghee), among other misdeeds. As a young man, whenever he played his flute, the cowherd girls (gopis) would stop what they were doing and would rush to join him. This was not just physical seduction; the Gopis were symbolic of bhakti, the concept of a limitless spiritual devotion to Krishna.” When Krishna plays his flute, he attracts not only gopis, but all beings throughout all universes.

In this Harivamsa illustration, Krishna’s consorts are clearly celebrating as they play in the Yamuna—not just a river, but river as symbol of the “non-manifested substratum from which all manifestations derive and is considered by Hindus to be a purifier, life-giver, and destroyer of evil” (Dr. Uma Mysorekar, Hindu Temple Society of America).

 UMFA Permanent Asian Collection

The Asian collection on the museum’s second floor houses the “treasure of our Hindu objects,” Kelly said. Shiva Nataraja—Lord of the Dance—greeted me as I stepped into the gallery (see below). This 11th-12th century cast bronze sculpture is among other Hindu and Buddhist beauties on display.

The Shiva stands 27-inches high in his Nataraja manifestation, and embodies the creation and destruction of the cosmos (symbolized by the prabha-mandala, or ring of fire, in which he stands). Each of his four arms represents a cardinal direction, and he stands triumphant with his right foot atop the prostrate dwarf, Apasmara Purusha, the demon of ignorance and illusion. His left leg is raised in the air, bent at the knee, as he forcefully, yet gracefully, pivots to his right, propelling himself in a clockwise direction.

Each of Shiva Nataraja’s rotations takes hundreds of thousands of yearsHe fills his lungs with the fiery wind of his fierce spinning (ignited by the ball of flame thrown from his upper left hand), and he destroys the universe (a horrific deed by such a beautiful and graceful deity). In the next millennia-long revolution, he exhales ash from the universe he just annihilated. And, with the beating drum held in his upper right hand, its rhythm and pulsating sound of AUM from which all life and languages emerge, he gives birth to new and vast creations that feed on the extinguished inferno’s nutritious cinders—a manifestation of endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.

The King of the Cosmic Dance, with lower left arm outstretched, points his hand towards his upraised left foot as a gesture to the release, or annihilation, of material bondage and the destruction of our imperfections, bad habits, and self-defeating attachments. Once overcome, a new creation emerges, a transformed universe of beauty and wonder in which divine qualities in each person are restored and opportunities for joy, peace, knowledge, and spiritual advancement are universally available.

“Every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction. The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe, the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another. For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter…a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomenon.” (Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, pp. 241-245).

Shiva Nataraja’s dance is a poignant jig. I reflect on the significance of the just-passed 13th anniversary of 9/11 (see http://artistsofutah.org/15bytes/11sep/page8.html) and the preceding and ensuing years of war, conflict, disease, starvation, and all manner of human and natural tragedies and death. Uncounted lives are lost throughout the world as the result of human decisions and natural disasters, and despite the humanitarian generosity of people and organizations, our material and emotional resources can become strained. Are we not in the dark age of Kali Yuga? If so, it should be about time for the “rejuvenation,” or Golden Age cycle of Shiva’s cosmic reel to kick in.







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