It was an idea with good karma. The new American appetite for things Indian -- whetted by films like "Gandhi," "A Passage to India" and TV's "The Jewel in the Crown" -- could not have been foreseen in 1982 when the late prime minister Indira Gandhi and President Reagan agreed to emphasize cultural exchange between the two countries with a yearlong, U.S.-wide "Festival of India" that opens with an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art next Sunday.

"The Sculpture of India: 3000 B.C.-1300 A.D.," which runs through Sept. 2, is the most comprehensive exhibition of Indian sculpture ever held in the United States, and will include 100 masterpieces, mostly from museum and temple collections in India. Focusing on the first 41/2 millennia of Indian sculpture, the show deals with the era before Indian art was profoundly changed by the foreign influences from Central Asia that came with the 13th century Moslem invaders.

Because so little painting survives, the ancient architecture of India is crucial to documenting one of the world's oldest continuous civilizations, from the simple moundlike structure at Sanchi to the elaborate towers of Khajuraho. And because virtually all existing Indian sculpture was used to embellish Hindu, Buddhist and Jain shrines -- or as objects of worship inside -- the sculpture is dominated by such religious motifs as nature goddesses, the Buddha and the Hindu gods Vishnu and Siva. The show examines various styles, from the flowing lines of the third century B.C. sandstone "Goddess Holding a Flywhisk" to the angular gilded bronze 12th century bodhisattva.

Because this is temple art, Washington photographer Robert Lautman, under the guidance of scholar Daniel Ehnbom, was sent to India by the National Gallery to photograph the sites from which many of the objects came. Several of his images will be transformed into large photomurals as exhibit backdrops to establish context and mood. Guest curator of the show was Harvard professor Pramod Chandra. Ehnbom was its educational coordinator.