Gods and Lovers: Highlights from the Indian and Southeast Asian Collection

The Cleveland Museum of Art's west wing galleries, featuring works from its Indian and Southeast Asian and Chinese collections, is now open. L-R: Vishnu with Shri and Bhu, 900-950. Granite. South India, Tamil Nadu, probably Pudokkatai. John L. Severance Fund. 1963.104.1-3

The Cleveland Museum of Art's Indian and Southeast Asian collection is rated as one of the leading collections in this area, both nationally and internationally. With the grand opening of the building and completion of the renovation and expansion project, the collection, along with the museum's distinguished collection of Chinese art, is on view once again.

The Indian Southeast Asian art collection comprises three broad areas: India proper, the Himalayas, and Southeast Asia. The collection covers the period of the entire artistic activity on the Indian subcontinent from the earliest (Neolithic) period until the 20th century. It consists primarily of sculpture (in stone, metal, wood, terra cotta, and ivory) and paintings (book illustrations as well as devotional paintings on cloth as seen in the Himalayan tangkas), but it also includes some decorative arts such as jewelry and armor. It is a well-balanced collection, both in its scope and breadth; the focus, however, is on the high points of artistic production during the early and medieval periods from the second century BC to the 18th century. Important to note is that the strength of the collection lies not in its quantity but in its quality. 

Just before the opening, we caught up with Sonya Quintanilla, George P. Bickford curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, to talk about some of the highlights in the new west wing galleries! She shares with us an in-depth background on four of the must-see works in the collection.

Lovers Parting, c. 1590, Northern India, Mughal court, 16th century. Opaque watercolor with gold on paper, mounted on an album leaf with inner borders of gold-sprinkled blue paper and outer plain cream borders; overall: 35.9 x 25.2 cm. Gift of an anonymous donor; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection  2013.303

The lovers have met in a remote wilderness location, away from the city shown in the distance. Their affair has run its course, however, and they decide to part ways, each walking in opposite directions through a an ominous landscape, where strange rock formations and an oversized serpent slain by foxes gnawing on its innards lend a sense of foreboding. 

As Mughal court painting developed into the last decades of the sixteenth century, artists began using increasingly muted colors and gentler shading techniques than they did in the more robust Adventures of Hamza at the left. The omission of a light source and shadows adds to a timeless, otherworldly impression to the landscape.

“This painting was acquired by the Benkaims in 1967 from a well-known collector in Bikaner, the capital of a principality in Rajasthan, in northwestern India. The Bikaner rulers readily aligned themselves with the Mughal emperors, forging marriage alliances and collecting Mughal paintings. Lovers Parting was mounted as an album page, and the preface to the album still remains on the other side of the page.”


Head of Buddha early 800s. Indonesia, Java, Borobudur. Sailendra Period, 9th Century. Volcanic stone; h: 30.6 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1942.1087

“Serenity, tranquility, and compassion are expressively conveyed in the gently modeled, highly porous black stone of the volcanic island of Java. Borobudur, the massive, multi-tiered stone structure from which it came, still stands as one of the most impressive Buddhist monuments in the world. Concentric walkways with carved pilgrimage scenes lead up to vast terraces that originally had more than 500 life-size Buddha images, many of which still remain in situ.”



Female Devoteec. early 100s. India, Mathura. Sandstone; 74.5 x 30 x 15 cm. Bequest of Jeptha H. Wade III in honor of Emily V. Wade 2012.19.

This female devotee is depicted in the process of approaching the place of worship carrying a covered wicker tray of the type that would have been filled with fresh flower garlands. From what remains of this sculpture, it is unclear whether she is a depiction of a nature goddess or of an idealized lay woman.

The sense of dynamism and power in the stance, the masterful transformation of stone into the suppleness of youthful voluptuous flesh barely interrupted by clothing, and touches of naturalism as seen in the slipping of the large bangle down the spiral cuff are all stylistic characteristics of female figures made during the early second century.

“The beauty of her body is unobscured by her garments. One can barely discern that she wears a long skirt that reaches down to her heavy anklets, made of the finest cloth that is utterly translucent. Only some pleat lines stretch between her legs, and a hem has been carved across her hips. It is held up by a marvelous belt made of five rows of flat beads and clasped in the center with a rosette and strings of pearls. The color of the pink and buff sandstone lends a warmth to this figure and all the other sculptures from Mathura shown together in one gallery, evoking the outdoor space of a Buddhist stupa site. Today we do not associate Buddhist holy sites with nearly nude women, but in early India, their figures personified life and abundance, which counterbalanced the funerary connotations of the relics in the stupa, and conveyed the idea that worship at the site would be productive.”


Vishnu Riding on Garuda500s-600s. Eastern India. Early Pala period, 7th Century. Schist; 81.3 x 47 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1961.46

In a rare and powerful work from this period, Vishnu straddles his vehicle, the man-eagle called Garuda, here shown with a human head, wings, outstretched, and tail featuhers expanding like rays of light behind the head of the god. Garuda is the enemy of serpents, and a subjugated serpent is tied around his neck. His determined expression lends confidence that he will do anything in his power to support Vishnu in his accomplishments. Tiny worshippers kneel in veneration before the imposing figures. Each of Vishnu's hands holds an implement: discus, mace, conch, and citron fruit. On his chest is an auspicious symbol called the shrivatsa, or "child" (vatsa) of Shri, the groddess of good fortune and a wife of Vishnu. 

“Art historically, this image from the seventh century depicts the Hindu god Vishnu at the early moment of the canonization of his form in northeastern India. The sculpture is a prime example of the sculptural styles of the early medieval period. Facial expressions have a quietude and introspection, and the jewelry and ornamentation are still restrained. Figural proportions are relatively squat with torsos and limbs depicted in broad flat planes that connote power and strength. Soft rubbery fingers and earlobes dragged by heavy earrings indicate that the sculpture was made before such elements become sharply delineated and hardened, as they are in sculptures from the tenth and eleventh centuries and later. The figures of devotees below are diminutive in scale when compared to Vishnu and Garuda, which indicates the relatively monumental and super-human size of the godhead.”

See these and other objects - free of charge - from the collection in the Cleveland Museum of Art's west wing galleries, now open!



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