The Art They Left Behind

<i> Pratapaditya Pal is senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at L</i> .<i> A</i> .<i> County's Museum of Art. </i>

. . . On one side China

and on the other

side Persia and


To the south the great seas

and the bay of


The flowing literatures,

tremendous epics,

religions, castes,

Old occult Brahma

interminably far

back, the tender

and junior

Buddha . . .

--Walt Whitman

“Passage to India”

When Walt Whitman wrote those lines in 1868, in admiration of the ancient mythologies and religions of India, he’d probably had no direct experience of Indian art, the visual embodiment of the country’s spiritual ideas.

He wasn’t the first American to be influenced by India’s civilization, by the way; others included his elder contemporary and admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Henry David Thoreau. The title of Whitman’s poem would be borrowed by E. M. Forster for his 1923 novel and find fame again as the title of the 1984 movie. I’ve wondered how Whitman and his contemporaries would react today, when a person can walk into almost any major museum in the country and see “old occult Brahma” and “the tender and junior Buddha”--the ancient Hindu god and the younger prophet who founded a new religion--jostling each other in perfect harmony.

One hundred and one years after Whitman wrote “Passage to India,” the 4-year-old Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired an immense collection of Indian art, including art from Nepal and Tibet. It was regarded by some as the most significant acquisition made by an American museum since World War II. It certainly put the infant museum on the map, because it was one of the most complete collections in existence of one of the oldest, continuously flourishing civilizations in the world.


Indian sculptures were made not for a few moments of aesthetic delectation but for deeper religious purposes. The sculpture’s primary function was to guide the beholder on the path of his or her spiritual quest. As a visible embodiment of the deity, the images used ritually in a shrine are literally bathed, fed and entertained daily, as though the divine personage were physically residing in the image. My mother, for example, has a small shrine in her home and dresses her statuettes each morning, places meals before them and puts them to bed each night. The bed even has mosquito netting. In Western museums, the cult images of India and Southeast Asia stand naked, dramatically lighted, on lofty pedestals; an image in an Indian temple or a domestic shrine, even if clothed in the carving, is clothed again with real garments.

This ancient art reminds us of a simple truth. We tend to forget that few traditional cultures have shared our obsession with aesthetics, or have believed that art was created for art’s sake. Among the Asians, only the Chinese and the Japanese developed an aesthetic consciousness similar to that which is the sine qua non of modern Western civilization. Most other Asians--probably most non-Westerners--are constantly surprised by the voracious appetite of the Western world to acquire art and to pay such astronomical prices in the process. When I decided to study art history 30 years ago, everyone took me to be a fool; in India, only doctors, engineers or lawyers land good wives. Ten years later, before I joined an American museum, I still had no idea that art could be as good an investment as any blue-chip stock. Today, when I return home to India for a visit, I’m often shown the family bric-a-brac with great expectations. Money has become the common ground where East and West meet.

A museum, by definition, is an artificial environment--to some extent even a sterile one. The countless unknown artists of the pre-museum era are probably turning in their graves as we set up their creations totally removed from their original context. I’m not suggesting that all these sculptures need to be clothed, but graphic aids, such as enlarged photomurals of temple interiors or monastic altars, would help explain to the viewer the intent behind an object’s creation.

In eating, one man’s delicacy may be unpalatable to a second, and so it is with art: What elicits appreciation in one culture may be meaningless to another. The responsibility of the modern museum goes beyond teaching the public how to view and appreciate different aesthetics. The museum curator can bridge cultures. He can educate the public about other cultures, other ways of thinking and perceiving. The best way to get to know one another is to communicate directly; the second best is to communicate through the arts. We cannot go back into history and meet the ancient Egyptian or Indian, but we can get to know those people and their descendants a bit better through the art they have left behind.