You are woman. You are man. You are the youth and the maiden, too . . . You are the dark-blue bird . . . You are the seasons and the seas. Having no beginning, you are everywhere . . . You from whom all worlds are born. -- SVETASVATARA UPANISAD, 4.3-4.
HE IS Shiva of the many arms and of the countless names. He is Shiva the creator, the preserver, the destroyer. He is terrible, immovable, musical and playful. "Manifestations of Shiva," an exhibit of his images, goes on view today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum calls it "the largest and most important exhibition of the art of India ever held in the United States." Though not wholly free of sacrilege and show biz, it is a sacred display. True, many of its 192 old and priceless treasures were stolen by colonials from the temples of the Hindus. And it is accompanied, as such shows tend to be, by perhaps excessive hoopla -- glossy publications, television specials, concerts and the rest. Yet its spirit is unlike that of most blockbuster exhibits. What sets it apart is its sincere piety. Its subject is not art, treasure or history, but a complex living god.
The figures on exhibit, carved or cast or painted with the tiniest of brushes, may appear at first glimpse too disparate, too various, to represent one god. Here are beings with four heads, or five or sometimes six. Here are large stone bulls in bliss and giant painted rats, grinning skulls and serpents and full-breasted dancing maidens torn from the stone walls of old Indian temples. Here, too, is Shiva's holy family: the beauteous Parvati, the consort of the god; and her son, Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles, whose belly is as big as that of jolly old St. Nick, but whose human body bears the head of a one-tusked elephant.And Shiva, the Abode of Bliss, is manifest in all of them.
The art of Christianity is, at least, to western eyes, vastly less perplexing. Christ may be portrayed as an infant or a victim, but he has only two arms, and when he shows up as a lamb we read that beast as a symbol. Hindu art is different. Despite its fluid grace, most Westerners regard it as multiplex, mysterious, inpenetrably alien -- because the great gods of the Hindus easily assume a variety of avatars, physical embodiments. This show of many chapters is arranged not by chronology, but by iconography. Shiva here appears as animal, as trident, as dancer ringed with fire, as the father of a family, a goddess or a saint.
His shape-shifting, his changing names, his arcane numerologies, may initially confuse, but Shiva's unifying spirit, his oneness in variety, becomes gradually apparent as one wanders through this show.
No god adored today has been worshipped longer. Some 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, Shiva was already incarnate in the lingas, the holy pillars carved by his devotees of metal, wood or stone. No image of the god is more sacred than the linga. A set of these phalluses, one carved of mottled sandstone 1,800 years ago, is included in this show.
Shiva is as wild as he is retrained. Once he spent 1,000 years making love to Parvati, yet did not spill his seed. For Shiva, the great lover, is the supreme ascetic, Yoga Daksinamurti, the Lord of the Yogis. In one kodumbalur granite here, carved in the 10th century, he sits beneath a banyan tree teaching silence to the sages. One way to the One is through Yogic discipline, and in many of the statues here the gods expand his chest, and holds his breath forever, if total self-control.
Through stillness, he is movement. We see his stillness in the linga, the stationary pillar, which is daily clothed, perfumed and anointed in the inner sanctum of countless Indian temples. Yet he dances, too. In one small sandstone panel here carved in the 8th century he dances with such verve that his face, his back and his raised foot all face towrd the viewer. Shiva, Lord of Dancers, dances all creation; he is the movement of the sun and moon, of all that is in flux.
Nowhere here is his many-ness more amusingly displayed than in one lovely 18th-century miniature from Rajasthan. Shiva manifests himself as Ardhanarisvars, the Lord Whose Half Is Woman. Nandin, the bull on which he rides, his sacred conveyance, appears as many, too. Its graceful body calls to mind the "composed heads" of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian, for its hooves are rabbit heads, its tail is a tiger's, its hump is a lion's head.
Shiva contradicts, often very playfully, all our expectations. In many of his paintings he wears precious jewels, yet in an awesome sandstone fragment from Madhya Pradesh, he is the Supreme Beggar, Bhiksatana, who wanders as a mendicant, naked and alone. The flexion of his body could not be more beautiful -- or more Indian. A symphony of curvings, of graceful sinuosities perfected through millennia, bring order to this show.
Yet the beauty of the god does not overwhelm. It is balanced by his ugliness. In one painted dancer's headpiece here -- 41 inches high and weighing perhaps 50 pounds -- he is wreathed in writhing cobras as fanged Bhairava, god of dread and terror. Often he appears well-fed, but in one startling marble, carved in the 10th century and sent here from Gujarat, he appears as a skeleton garlanded with skulls.
"Shiva is," says Stella Kramrisch, "the most human of all gods." Without Kramrisch, the Philadelphia Museum's distinguished curator of Indian art, this show would not exist. She is 85 years old, but one would never guess it. She wrote the standard text on the Hindu Temple, and is writing still. Her newest book, "The Presence of Shiva," will be published soon by the Princeton University Press. One hears in her voice the accents of old Vienna and a trace of Oxford and an almost Indian sweetness. When she speaks of Shiva, one can almost see him dance:
"If he makes you smile, do not be upset. For he is truly playful. He assumes his many guises as an actor might. He convenes the cosmic play, and is at once director, stage manager and star. He is the master of the arts. There are 64 of them, and one of them is cooking. When he first appeared, Shiva was a hunter, and he has not lost his cunning.He is the lord of the devious, of murderers and thieves. He holds out his hands so that we may grasp them. In India today, he has perhaps 250 million devotees."
Many of the objects in her exhibition have been lent by state collections in India and Nepal. They are modestly displayed. There is a hall of pictures here, and plain galleries of sculpture whose only decorations are green plants. Yet this show is far from simple. Museum exhibitions frequently appear to tear objects made for worship from their sacred contexts. But Kramisch has refused that path. These objects have not been stripped of holiness.
Here is her description of a 4th-century carving from the Ashmolean at Oxford: "Elemental power, controlled and concentrated, informs its every plane and curve. Severe and serene meditation is conveyed by half-open eyes . . . Abdicating all sensuality, the austere forehead and eyes are in command of the full-cheeked face. Compassion and detachment hover around the lips . . . This head is indwelt by Shiva's power; it is the god's true likeness." This is not the prose of a scholar only, but that of a devotee who has come to know a god.
Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Atlantic Richfield, The Pew Memorial Trust, Air India and the Indo-U.S. Subcommission on Education and Culture helped pay for the exhibit. "Manifestations of Shiva" will travel to Fort Worth, Seattle and Los Angeles after closing in Philadelphia on June 7.