May 13, 2011

Religious Studies Professor Curates CMA Exhibit

Kalighat painting
Courtesy of the Cleveland
Museum of Art: Kali, 1800s. India,
Calcutta. Black ink, color and
silver paint on paper; 49.9 x 28
cm (painting). Gift of William E.
Ward in memory of his wife,
Evelyn Svec Ward 2003.110.a

A Case Western Reserve University religious studies expert is taking on a new role, curating the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit, “Indian Kalighat Paintings.”

Over the past months, Deepak Sarma, associate professor of South Asian religions, worked closely with the CMA staff to organize 40 rarely seen and fragile 19th century souvenir-trade watercolors. The paintings can be seen now until Sept. 18, as part of the museum’s series of exhibits, Glimpses of Asia. Additionally, he will give a talk on the paintings May 22 at 2 p.m. in the museum’s recital hall.
“The paintings are multi-layered with political, social and religious dimensions and narratives,” Sarma said of the paintings often bought by foreign tourists and pilgrims journeying to Hindu temples.
Kalighat paintings, popular between 1815 and 1880, may be an obscure art form today, but the mass-produced watercolors offered a way for British tourists and others to take home a souvenir that exemplified the exotic nature of India’s cultures and religions.

While Sarma has studied South Asian religions and philosophies extensively, curating and exhibit is a new challenge for him. The opportunity came when Sarma began speaking with C. Griffith Mann, the curator for CMA’s recent Treasures of Heaven exhibit. Mann gave Sarma a special tour of the religious relics on display, and Sarma questioned him about the details of organizing a coherent exhibit. Shortly after that, Sarma received a call to work on the Kalighat paintings project.

Sarma said watercolors were compiled in bound books, much like ones today filled with postcards. The art offered those who could not travel a way to see this faraway land.

Rural potters did a brisk trade in these paintings at temple sites in places such as Calcutta where the new Indian middle class clerks called babus had gained wealth in India’s Industrial Revolution, which brought success to the East India Company and other new companies.

Sarma explained that the paintings incorporated British qualities into Indian art and gave rise to India’s modern art movement.
“The paintings also poked fun at the babus’ adopting British mannerism and effects,” he said.
Sarma enjoys a painting of a man, posing in a chair similar to those of Victorian photographs, sporting a Prince Albert hairstyle parted down the center, and wearing British shoes that replaced the traditional sandals Indian men wore. 

Others depicted Indian figures as angels, an image that was usually found in Indian art, he said.

According to Sarma, working on the exhibit has had a changing impact on his outlook on religious studies and has taken him in a new direction — one which he hopes to continue to explore.

Posted by: Emily Mayock, May 13, 2011 09:11 AM | News Topics:

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