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TO MARCH 9, 2003
There’s no doubt that the 60 lithe, sinuous, and sometimes busty bronze sculptures in this exhibition are sensuous. And, though they’ve been deconsecrated, there’s considerable evidence of their history as sacred objects of devotion. But there’s one adjective missing from the show’s title: portable. Unlike the crucifixes and Madonnas that permanently oversee Christian churches, these modestly scaled statues of gods, goddesses, and other holy figures were designed to be brought out for certain festivals, draped in silks, jewelry, and flowers, and paraded to and from sacred sites. Although the sculptures—most of them made during the Chola dynasty of the 9th to 13th centuries A.D.—represent aspects of the same divinity, they depict it in many different forms: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma; the many forms of the great goddess Devi, including Uma, Durga, and Kali; as well as such supporting characters as elephant-headed Ganesha (pictured), monkey general Hanuman, and Vishnu’s eagle, Garuda. There are even Buddhist and Jain figures, understood not as competitors but as avatars of the Hindu godhead. Admirable simply for their suppleness and detail, these pieces also compellingly illustrate a view of the world as infinite in variety and yet firmly interconnected. Thus the sculptures of gods have elements of the female in them, and the renderings of ugliness incorporate beauty. The figure of Ganges, the spirit of India’s sacred river, is usually found wrapped in Shiva’s hair, and Mushalagan, who represents darkness, gazes happily up at Shiva, who stands with one foot on him, surrounded by flame. The exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (except Wednesday, Dec. 25), to Sunday, March 9, at the Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-4880. (Mark Jenkins)