Art It’s good to know there is a permanent exhibition of art from India in The Hermitage museum in Russia, but the effort could be bolstered with diplomatic efforts.

Way up north in Russia, in one of the largest museums of the world, The Hermitage, a small permanent exhibition on Art of India wakes up every morning. The Hermitage is housed in the winter palace of the tsars and this is perhaps one place where the interiors of the museum are as much objects of interest and historical significance as the external exhibits procured and displayed.

The grandeur and lavishness of a royal residence combined with the state of the art maintenance of the Russian government transport you to a world of beauty. The museum is very large (more than 450 rooms) and among the different categories made for the viewer’s benefit are sections titled Art from Germany, Art from Italy and so on. On the second floor in newly renovated rooms are the exhibitions Art of India and Art of Japan.

The Art of India is a permanent exhibition and was launched in 2004. The subtitle of the exhibition reads …from the 1st century B.C to the 19th century and literature says the Museum houses more than 2000 objects of Indian origin. Naturally then the climb up the two floors of this sprawling and high-ceiling palace becomes less strenuous and more excited.

The entrance has an assorted collection of textiles and craft items that do not look too rare or ancient. The one exhibit that catches one’s attention is Tipu Sultan’s saddle. The beautiful silver and gold gilded saddle from the collection of Tsarskoe Selo (the tsar’s palace) immediately harks back to the finesse and motifs of Indian art.

The other eye-catcher is a piece of the stone fence from Bodh Gaya. Dated 1st century B.C, the panel shows animals running…maybe cows and deer? The body language is beautiful. Another one of similar antiquity shows the eight-petalled lotus engraved in stone.

Dating to the 2nd-3rd century is an image of Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu. Garuda is obviously carrying his master in his wings for one can see two pairs of legs on either side. The top of the statue seems to have been stolen by time and circumstances. Meeting Vishnu, Rama, Shiva and Parvati in lands outside one’s own brings a definite sense of exhilaration. The image of Shiva and Parvati, an 11-12th century artefact, is particularly beautiful. They are looking at each other in great love and sport. The Rama idol is comparatively recent, belonging to the 18th century and from the Museum of Berlin. There are many Boddhisattvas and a few Jaina images too. One of the Jaina image is of Parsavanatha, a sitting bronze image and a yaksha and yakshini dating to the late 12th century.

Would one imagine an encounter with death in St. Petersburg? Well, Mahakala stands defiant and ready in his late 11-12th century figure and there is a handsome Yama too in attendance. It is not so often that one gets to see Yama so prominently displayed in an exhibition. But with that the exhibition ends abruptly.

While the excitement of discovering a small portion of India in St. Petersburg was great, one does feel the exhibition is not complete or explanatory. Where is the continuity in the story being told? While it is true that all over the museum one does not find many English titles nor does one find adequate information on the boards, India still being a far away and unfamiliar entity, one feels even more, the lack of adequate information to make it attractive and interesting to the visitor. Even printed material on this exhibition is not available.

If it is of any consolation, the exhibition in the adjacent room titled Art of Japan is also in a similar state of random and fragmented approach. In the exhibition titled

The Gold Room, some precious jewellery from India is exhibited. Even a glimpse of the variety and exuberance of Indian art does not emerge from this permanent exhibition in one of the world’s largest museums where Rembrandt, Michael Angelo and majestic images of Apollo and Venus vie for attention. Perhaps Indian emissaries to the country could take a look in honing the representation of India and her arts, abroad.

SUDHAMAHI REGUNATHAN