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Making room for some Hindu gods

The Norton Simon Museum, known for European and South Asian works, displays a wood wall featuring scenes of Hindu lore.

January 02, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The Norton Simon Museum is known far and wide for high-toned collections of European paintings and South Asian sculpture. It is not known for folksy, wildly colored, thickly painted wood carvings of Hindu gods -- not necessarily behaving with great dignity.

But there it is, in a mini gallery of its own at the foot of the spiral staircase: A painted wood wall, roughly 7 feet tall by 12 feet wide, that's chock-full of scenes from Hindu lore.

Thought to have been made in the 18th century for a temple in the state of Kerala in southwestern India, the unusual artwork is a gift from Southern California collectors Narendra and Rita Parson, and it's on view through April 14.

Visitors who are familiar with Hindu art and literature will recognize the cast of characters represented on the wall. But don't despair if you are baffled. A descriptive pamphlet decodes the iconography in easy-to-read, numbered text blocks that correspond to specific panels.

The Blue Lord, for example, who is distinguished by his bright blue skin, is Krishna. An incarnation of the god Vishnu, he helped carry out heroic feats but also got into some mischief. In two panels, on the far right and left, Krishna sits in a tree above four distressed naked women. As the pamphlet explains, he has followed some milkmaids to their secret bathing place on the Ganges River and has stolen their clothes, taking them to his perch, while the women swam and cooled off at the end of the day. Upon their return, he taunts them and "remains in the tree for quite a while, enjoying the view."

Other panels depict a more respectful Krishna, playing a flute for the delight of cows and milkmaids. There are also carvings of Garuda, the mythical eagle that transports Vishnu through the skies, and the evil king Ravana and his terrifying henchmen. Above a central niche, which probably held a carved image of Vishnu, is a stylized lion's head, an image that's often placed over doorways to protect the faithful. A couple of panels below the niche portray scenes from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic.

Storytelling walls such as this are a traditional aspect of temple decoration in Kerala, where wood is plentiful, but they are extremely rare in museum collections, says Christine Knoke, the Simon's curator of Asian art. A similar, somewhat taller example at the Honolulu Academy of Arts may be the only other one on public display. Because the wood walls deteriorate fairly quickly, they tend to be discarded or patched up with new sections when damaged. Individual panels find their way into the marketplace much more frequently than entire walls.

The Parsons, who frequently lend works from their collection to exhibitions and have donated pieces to other local museums, bought the wall from a London dealer in 1993, but the rest of its history is unknown, Knoke says. Some panels may have been added, and two walls may have been pieced together to create this one. It has certainly been repainted over the years, as was customary, she says. All of which makes the Simon's new piece a good candidate for further study.

The museum received the gift three years ago. But with nothing similar in the collection, the question was: What to do with it? The answer came when Knoke began turning a small exhibition space downstairs into a "focus gallery."

"It had to go in the first show there," she says. "We had to get it on view because it's so great. It does look different from other things at the museum. It's not quite as academic and it has some fun details. But I think it's a good thing for the museum to have temple architecture that's not made of stone. You can see that people tend to use material that's available. Kerala is known for these temple structures, but it is a rare treat to see something made of wood that has survived this long."


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