when pictures fail me…
Two hundred fifty years before the Lion King reigned on Broadway, there was Narasimha, Man-Lion—one divine manifestation of the great Hindu god Vishnu—dazzling audiences of the day. Evidence of this theatrical spectacle is currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s Encountering Vishnu: The Lion Avatar in Indian Temple Drama.
Upon entering this intimate corner of the Asian wing of the museum, I read the exhibit description to brush up my Vishnu:
“The appearance of Vishnu in many guises is most famously celebrated in his Ten Avatars (Dasavatara). These represent Vishnu’s divine interventions on earth, in which he periodically appears to save the world from evil and restore order to the world of men.”
The exhibit focuses on his man-lion avatar in the Hindu epic the Bhagavata Purana. Here Vishnu tangles with Hiranyakashipu, the Demon-King, a self-declared god who is attempting to slay his own son for his unwavering devotion to Vishnu. According to the story, Vishnu’s entrance is scene-stealing. When Hiranyakashipu points to a column, challenging his son’s claim that Vishnu is everywhere, and then smashes it—the lion-headed deity pops out. After a fierce battle, Narasimha prevails, disemboweling Hiranyakashipu as any lion worth his roar would. Restoring order to the universe can be a messy job—but what drama!
Five rare carved wooden masks and a bodysuit, once animated and colorfully festive, are at repose. They share the room with showcases of metal, stone, and terra cotta sculpture (going back as far as the 5th century). On the walls are radiant god prints depicting Vishnu and his holy cohorts in various avatars and scenes from Hindu mythology, which were available to the late 19th century masses through the new lithographic press technology.
The masks and bodysuit, recent Met acquisitions, were used to dramatize the Bhagavata Purana at religious festivals in southern India, from the early to mid-1700s. They are quite astonishing, both in stylized form and function. Imagine loading one of these up onto your head and over your shoulders (there are six articulated arms to contend with). Next, envision actually performing by the soft flicker of an oil lamp—all night long—this drama of life and death, to an audience of Hindus in a frenzy of devotional celebration.
Along with the mask depicting Vishnu/Narasimha, are Hiranyakashipu/the Demon-King, Prahlada, his son that Vishnu was protecting, and Ganesh, whose presence onstage was almost like that of a crowd-pleasing emcee, there to ensure success and engage the audience as a prelude to what was to follow. Once painted in bright polychrome, long since worn away by ritual cleansing, the masks have taken on a more subtle beauty in their natural wooden state.
The exhibit’s sculptures predate the masks and include one icon from the 12th century, used as part of the procession during temple festivals. Narasimha is seated in the pose of a meditative yogi. Still with the head of a lion (embodying valor and martial superiority), in this four-armed form he assumes his primary role of bringing peace and order to the world of men.
The Demon-King had another reason to be angry with Vishnu. He was also avenging his brother, Hiranyaksha, from earlier in the Bhagavata Purana saga. While Hiranyaksha is brutalizing Mother Earth at the time of creation, Vishnu is called upon to rescue her, in the form of his boar avatar. A scene is charmingly depicted in an opaque watercolor, painted in the same era as the masks.
I am no longer alone in the room, and hear a loud exclamation: “OOhh. These are beautiful!” An imposing man with what sounds like a Russian accent ushers his family into the room and over to one of the god prints. It is Vishnu on his Eagle Mount Garuda. This is a compelling and fantastical chromolithograph, designed by famed artist Ravi Varma and donated by avid god print collectors Mark Baron and Elise Boisanté. In it, Vishnu, “the Blue Lord,” is flanked by his two wives on the celestial mount Garuda, wings outstretched into symmetrical perfection.
With these recent god print and sculptured ceremonial temple mask acquisitions, Vishnu is making his new millennial debut here at the Met. I take one more slow lap around the room, peering closely at the detail. Because, that’s where God is. Or, in this case, Vishnu.
On view through June 5.