The exotic spiritualism of the current exhibit of "Hindu Art in South and Southeast Asia" at Cal State Fullerton is hard to ignore. The show, after all, is a collection of ritualistic objects documenting both the beauty and strangeness of a Far Eastern religion.
But curator James Santucci hopes visitors will put aside notions of arcane gods with their tangle of arms and extravagant costumes. Less fascination with mysticism and more appreciation of craftsmanship is what he's after.
That's asking a lot, Santucci acknowledges. The exhibit, running through June 3 in the library gallery, will probably attract people more curious about Hinduism's assorted myths and deities than its art, he says.
"I know it is terribly difficult to separate religion from this program, especially since the mystery of Hindu beliefs carries such a strong pull and has intrigued people for so long," said Santucci, who is also a Cal State Fullerton professor of religious studies and linguistics.
"But I want people to look from an aesthetic point of view. It's the same as if someone looked at the medieval art heavily influenced by Christianity. I'd still want the aesthetic to be emphasized.
"Of course, I realize that many people will come to see the sculptures of Visnu and the other gods. I know there is appeal in that. But you can't deny the quality of the workmanship either."
Visnu, Siva and Krishna are just a few of the divinities displayed. This pantheon also includes Ganesa, the elephant-headed god; Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, and Ganga, the deity representing India's sacred Ganges River.
In all, there are nearly 70 pieces, mostly ancient stone, bronze and wood sculptures with a smaller group of 16th-Century miniature paintings and instruments used in religious ceremonies during the early 1900s. They were borrowed from private collections primarily in Orange County and Santa Barbara.
Although most of the objects originated in India--the womb of Hinduism--several came from such countries as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Santucci said this illustrates the sweeping influence of a religion that inspired followers 1,000 years before Christianity.
"It is perhaps the oldest divine tradition in the world and certainly part of one of the oldest cultures in the world," he said. "I think you get a feel for the depth of that tradition (through the exhibit) and learn of the culture's sophistication."
The sculptures, some as old as the 4th Century, evoke the reverence associated with icons but also flaunt a sensuality that is uncommon in Western spiritual art. The many depictions of Visnu, for example, show a delicate-featured man-god with a ripe androgynous figure. The layers of jewelry decorating his four arms and a conical headdress make him a voluptuous deity indeed.
The statues are relatively small (the tallest is about 21 inches) and, for the most part, are nicely detailed. A carving of Siva in reddish sandstone shows the deity emerging from the block playfully holding a serpent. The effect is not unlike Auguste Rodin's sculptures where the figures appear to be struggling free of the stone. In his exhibit notes, Santucci explains that Siva's face is meant to "portray beauty and mirth."
Not all the pieces are as refined. A few of the older ones look weathered and primitive. The elephant-headed Ganesa is depicted in a stone carving that requires a patient eye to discern the curving trunk and full belly and legs.
Still, it's an intriguing object, especially when set against the exhibit notes that tell of Ganesa's fate. The deity, according to mythology, angered the vengeful Siva, who ordered his underlings to bring back the head of the first animal they found. They stumbled upon an elephant, and Ganesa was crowned with a new look.
Despite all his troubles, or maybe because of them, Ganesa is considered the god of wisdom, Santucci added.
"On the whole, I'd say some of the pieces are exquisite; six or seven are really first-rate in form and execution," he said. "But there is definitely a (quality) range. Some of the others are difficult to judge. I may be biased, but as testaments (to the Hindu culture) they are quite good."
The paintings, like the sculptures, fulfill religious art's main duty--to give earthly form to what is heaven-bound. Thus, they follow the same subject matter, with the gods, primarily Visnu and Siva, in almost every canvas.
All are watercolors and show signs of age. The organization is simple with little depth perspective, and the colorful scenes often verge on surrealism as deities hold their disconnected heads in outstretched hands and mingle with worshipers, animal-like creatures and each other.
The exhibit veers from the mysterious to the practical with the collection of ritual implements, which Santucci explained are used in different types of ceremonies.
Among the objects is the arani , a rectangular wood block for kindling votive fires; the juhu , a ladle used for handling liquid offerings; the proksani , a vessel for sprinkling holy water; and the camasa , a bowl for holding juices used in some rituals. There are a total of 15 pieces displayed, all with specific rules in the complicated Hindu services.
Santucci realized that the transition from multi-limbed, beast-headed gods to peculiar ceremonial tools could be confusing, even with the exhibit notes. With this in mind, he helped organize a series of free lectures at Cal State Fullerton this month to give insight into Hinduism.
On Wednesday, Sara Schastok of UC Berkeley will lecture on "Hindu Iconography--Unscrambling the Cosmic Egg: India's Gods and Goddesses" at 2 p.m. in Library Room 117A.
On April 22, Robert Del Bonta of San Francisco's Asian Museum will give a talk on "The Iconography of the God Visnu" at 10 a.m. in Library Room 117A.
On April 30, Ingrid Aall of Cal State Long Beach will offer "Passion in Colors: Pajputg Miniature Paintings" at 10 a.m. in Room 123 of the Humanities Building.
The lectures will conclude with an exhibit walk-through.
The library gallery is open from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.