In a glass case in the National Gallery of Victoria sits an exquisitely drawn album of Hindu deities. Each of the 108 images tells in bright colour something of the myth of the deity, and perhaps of the people or animals involved in that myth. On the wall nearby a digital version allows visitors to turn all 108 pages to see the full panoply of gods and goddesses an unknown South Indian artist portrayed sometime early in the 19th century.
Every page calls up a story of how these divine beings struggled with evil and intervened for good. Images like these don’t allow the viewer to be satisfied with the aesthetic; they insist that the story is worth hearing, worth finding out about.
‘So much of the art that we see in a place like the National Gallery has deep cultural and therefore religious and spiritual roots and the ability first of all to see such a variety of wonderful pieces of sculptures and paintings and drawings and the like in the gallery is a great feast for anyone of any religion,’ says Harvard professor Francis X. Clooney.
Professor Clooney took that album of Hindu deities as the subject of a talk at the NGV—he’s a scholar of Hinduism and is intrigued by the text as an example of 19th century Christian interaction with Hinduism. The album was certainly given as a gift to a Christian missionary by another, but Clooney thinks it was also commissioned by a Christian missionary who deeply respected the religious culture of South Indian Hinduism and who wanted to encourage his fellow missionaries to observe very carefully and to learn.