IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Asian Art


Reopening of the Museum of Indian Art, Berlin

After having been closed more than two-and-a-half-years for renovation, the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin reopened its galleries on 20 October 2000. The museum's collections are comprised of works of fine and applied art from India, Southeast, and Central Asia. In terms of its coverage of iconographic developments and pecularities found in images, the collection in Berlin is one of the most important to be found outside India itself.



The Museum of Indian Art in Berlin was officially founded in 1963, but its beginnings are rooted much earlier in the Indian Department of the Museum of Ethnology, which had existed since 1904. It eventually obtained the status of an independent art museum because of the importance of its collection within the realm of Indo-Asian culture set in the greater context of a global cultural heritage. The founding of the Museum of Indian Art as an institute created a centre in Germany for research to be undertaken exclusively on Indo-Asian art. Its founding director, Herbert Härtel, ran the museum until 1986.

A totally different concept for the new galleries was revealed upon the reopening of the Museum's doors in October last year. Nearly four-hundred items were selected from almost 20,000 for the display. The appearance of the former exhibition space, characterized by dark rooms with dramatic spotlights, was replaced by a brighter, more aesthetic design in which the objects ­ terracottas, sculptures, bronzes, textiles, miniature paintings, murals, etc. -- are visible in every possible detail.

Among the rich collection, the monumental sculptures, early terracottas, iconographs, unusual bronzes, applied arts, as well as miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts are worth mention; book illuminations created between the twelfth and the nineteenth centuries and, in particular, the extensive collection acquired from Rajput deserve emphasis. Works of art from the time of the Sultanates and the Moghuls is accompanied by those which emerged from the Islamic period. Examples of the art of Himalayan countries, Nepal and Tibet, are represented by depictions of various gods of late Buddhism. Art objects on display from Southeast Asia include: glazed tiles with Buddhist legends from Pagan; stone, bronze, and terracotta sculptures; as well as richly decorated vessels from various epochs. However, in addition to the above, the world famous 'Turfan Collection' (see description below) deserves special attention.

Different worlds meet

Integrated with the museum's design are the two most important symbolic elements of Indian architecture, namely the circular stupa and the square, or rectangular, temple. The quarzite used in building the museum's interior was imported directly from India with the intention of showing the relationship existing between material, object, and architecture.

The stupa is the Buddhist sacred structure par excellence. Its design is less based on formal rules than on symbolic, cultic, and cosmological principles as prescribed in the Indian architectural manuals. The structure itself represents the universe. Every faithful Buddhist worships the circular stupa, perambulating it while performing prayers in order to be released some time from the circle of reincarnations. It is in the temple, whether Buddhist or Hindu, that the deities reveal themselves. The temple is a holy place where the different worlds meet - the bridge between gods and human beings.

The display itself is spread out over two floors, and begins on the ground level with a few prehistoric finds from the Indian Subcontinent, including three seals from Mohenjodaro and some early potteries, continued with beautiful Maurya and Shunga terracottas, and then by images from Bharhut and Sanchi. The important Kushana-period schools of art - Gandhara and Mathura - are represented by several examples. The first eye-catcher is the stylized construction of a stupa with sixteen Gandhara reliefs, fixed clockwise to its outer walls, depicting the main stages of the life of Buddha, which is meant to show not only single images pulled out of their context, but to demonstrate in a clear manner the intimate connection between architecture and object.

Chronology and regions

The organization of objects in the museum progresses according to chronological sequence and regional coherence. For example, the development of art during the Gupta period is reflected in sculptural expressions in terracotta and stone. Among the terracotta figures on display are the masterpiece of the goddess Ganga and Vaishnavi and Krishna. The ideal of beauty is embodied in the figure of a curly-haired god - who retains most of his natural grace ­ from Mathura dating from the fifth century AD. A quadruple Vaishnava image is yet another example of the iconographic variety found in the Berlin collection.

During the Middle Ages, a great number of images in stone and bronze had been created, examples of which emerged from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south, from the territory of Rajasthan in the west to Orissa in the east. Bronzes like the famous three-headed, four-armed Vishnu from Northern Pakistan, the Avalokiteshvara-Padmapani from Kashmir, and the depiction of the marriage of Shiva from Bangladesh are among those masterpieces in the collection on view.

Apart from the magnificent textiles and the elaborate carvings in ivory, jade, and wood from India and Sri Lanka, it is the collection of colourful miniature paintings that visitors to the museum find fascinating. Exhibited in huge glass axial cylinders and scheduled for display on a rotational basis are miniature paintings from prominent regional schools emanating from the Rajasthan territory, as well as Pahari miniatures and other paintings created under the Mughal rule.

A flight of stairs leads up to the gallery, where the arts of Nepal and Tibet and those of Southeast Asia are on view. The Himalayan arts are represented by images of the most important deities of the Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon. In addition to depictions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, there are images of Lokapalas, Dakinis and Buddhist teachers. A superb seventeenth-century tantric bronze from Nepal exemplifies the powerful aspects of Kali and Bhairava.

The collection of Southeast Asian art has been enlarged in the last few years with the addition of several interesting Khmer bronzes, the earliest of which is a representation of the Buddha Maitreya dating from the seventh century AD. Several donations and loans from private collectors have also recently enriched the displays; among them, a magnificent image of the goddess Lakshmi, who has finally found her way to the side of her consort Vishnu.

The last space in the gallery has been reserved for a prehistoric collection donated recently to the museum. It consists of pottery from different periods in the Ban Chiang style from North Thailand, very rare terracotta rollers and stamps from the first millenium BC, as well as early ornaments made of bronze and glass.

The Turfan Collection

Leaving the gallery by way of another flight of stairs, the visitor's eye is caught by an enormous Buddhist temple from the Northern Silk Road ­ the central element of the 'Turfan Collection'. It was so named after the final destination of the first of the Royal Prussian Expeditions to Central Asia between 1902 and 1914, and is an absolute pièce de résistance among the museum's collections. Known as the 'Cave with the Ringbearing Doves', the temple had been reconstructed according to its actual measurements, with the murals which belong to it. It took a group of conservators two years to restore and conserve the murals, thus enabling visitors to experience how it feels to stand in a Buddhist sanctum. On walls surrounding the temple, murals from different Central Asian sites can be seen, together with sculptures made of clay, wood, and metal. Illuminated manuscripts and textiles from the third to the thirteenth century conclude this new display. Most of these pieces in the 'Turfan Collection' come from Buddhist cave and free-standing temples situated on the Northern Silk Road in Xinjiang. These unique relics provide vivid insight into the cultural life of Eastern Turkistan within a period of approximately one-thousand years (third to thirteenth centuries).

Space has been made for temporary special exhibitions in the hall located in the middle of the museum. A separate room for multi-media events contains computer terminals which provide visitors with a general historical and cultural survey on the Asian regions represented in the museum, as well as with more detailed information on particular aspects of the collection itself.



Most important centre

Berlin is home to the Museum of Indian Art, the Institute for Indian Philology and Art History at the Free University, the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies at Humboldt University, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and the State Library. As such, the city constitutes one of the most important centres for the study of philology and art history of South, Southeast, and Central Asia in Europe. The library of the museum itself contains some 8,000 volumes, periodicals, and journals. Research on the collection, its documentation, and publication was in the past and will in the future be a most important task for the scholarly staff. Thirteen volumes of the Monographien zur indischen Archäologie, Kunst und Philologie (Monographs on Indian Archaeology, Art and Philology) have already been published, with the financial support of the Ernst Waldschmidt Foundation (named after the renowned Indologist who was the director of the Indian Department between 1929 and 1936). Archaeological and art historical research on the Northern Silk Road in Central Asia, launched years ago, is being continued. Moreover, further work on particular parts of the museum collections is underway. However, one of the most important goals of the museum in this the third millenium is the development of a feasible method of worldwide computer supported consultations between keepers of important collections of Indo-Asian art.

For several years, the efforts of the Museum of Indian Art have been supported by a non-profit organization, the Society of Indo-Asian Art, Berlin. Founded in 1993, the society has sponsored events on a regular basis and, since its founding, has been publishing an annual professional journal on the arts of South, Southeast, and Central Asia. A comprehensive catalogue is available, together with a smaller guidebook in German and English. *d and Musician' from Kizil, Xinjiang dating from the 5th century A

Professor Marianne Yaldiz is the Director of the Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin. She is a specialist on early Buddhist and Central Asian art and does research at the Silk Road.

E-mail: mik@smb.spk-berlin.de

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Asian Arts