Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 10, 2011
Denison Museum New Darshans: Seeing Southern Asian Religiosity and Visuality Across Disciplines
Denison Museum at Denison University
Granville, OH
October 16–18, 2009
College Art Association.

The 2009 American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA) conference on “New Darshans: Seeing Southern Asian Religiosity and Visuality Across Disciplines” was wide in scope and interest: it featured thirty-five papers; covered periods from the second century B.C.E. to today; and focused on geographic areas from Rajasthan to Bengal, from Tibet and Himachal Pradesh to Tamilnad, and included Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Chattisgarh, and even areas outside the subcontinent like Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and the United States. “New darshans” were investigated through a stunning array of media: stūpa slabs; caves; temples, and their walls and pillars; relics; images; ivories; pilgrimage sites; architectural manuals; banners, murals, and lineage paintings; Sufi shrines; mosque, town, and museum architecture; cinema; comic books; calendar art; cartoons; websites; VCDs; dance; and possessed bodies.

The theme of darśan provided a useful coherence to the conference, although theoretical attention to the concept was uneven: only one-third of the presenters directly engaged it; another third could be read to engage it, even if they did not themselves draw attention to the idea; and the rest gave papers that, while insightful and interesting, were quite far afield. In this review I will survey contributions to an understanding of darśan as made by the first two groups, and then conclude with some questions and suggestions for future conferences of this thematic variety.

Darśan is typically conceived as the frontal, mutual, eye-to-eye viewing of deity and devotee that brings blessing to the devotee in a context of faith. Several conference presenters accepted this understanding but questioned, nuanced, or deepened it. Michael Rabe, in a fascinating exploration of chisel-marks that he found on the eyes of stone yakṣas from as early as the second century B.C.E. in Bundelkand, wondered whether priests might have used chisels for consecrating images and inviting life into their eyes. If so, the type of image (yakṣa rather than Viṣṇu or major deity), the means of enlivening it (chisel rather than ghee, honey, or mantras), and the earliest dates of consecration (second century B.C.E. rather than third century C.E.) would challenge normative assumptions. Robert DeCaroli, in an equally stimulating presentation, focused on the downcast, half-closed eyes of meditating Buddha images from the fourth century, early Gupta period, and proposed that perhaps these were developed both as a denial of “Hindu” darśan and as a reminder of the Buddha’s “absence” from the image and the world.

Other papers illustrated how darśan objects or contexts themselves can mirror the devotion they exhort of the devotees. Catherine Becker’s work on crouching images in front of early Buddhist stūpas, as carved on stūpa slabs, shows imagined devotees seeing stone devotees seeing the Buddha—an invitation to darśan. Likewise, Alison Mackenzie Shah, in a paper on a nineteenth-century Sufi shrine in Hyderabad, described the devotees sitting collectively in front of the saint’s tomb. If the adored tomb functions as a Hindu deity, in what Diana Eck called “the Indian grammar of devotion,” then darśan can occur without “idols”—the devotees mirroring the heavenly durbar of their post-death aspiration. Marsha Olson’s research into seventeenth- to eighteenth-century Christian ivory statues formed another example of darśan functioning in an Indic context, though not according to Hindu theological presuppositions; rather, more in accordance with a Western pietistic context, gazing at the statues of Jesus and Mary inflames devotional inspiration, even if the statues are not “enlivened” according to Hindu scriptural injunctions.

The human body, too, can be seen as a darśan-object. Katherine Hacker, in her paper on possession by Kaṅkāli Mātā among Adivasis in Chattisgarh, featured the possessed body in darshanic contexts as a sign of authenticity that the community protects against outside critiques. Katherine Zubko’s paper on the performance of the Bhagavad Gītā in Indian classical dance conveyed the choreographic challenge of communicating visually such a beloved, and primarily philosophical, text. In both cases, darśan exists when the deity inhabits bodies in possession or inspires them in art.

Turning from the object of darśan to those who have created, maintain, and protect it, what can be learned? Several conference presenters argued that the patrons of darśan gain legitimacy and authenticity from their association with the darśan process. In researching the Jain excavations at Ellora, now a World Heritage Site, Lisa Owen found that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was reluctant to label those caves as “Jain” that had no images of the Tīrthankaras, gods, or goddesses, in spite of the fact that Jain worship was being carried out therein, favoring instead those caves with carvings of devotees shown in veneration. Perhaps, she postulated, the possibility of darśan was what rendered the caves authentic for the ASI. Three other scholars—Julie Gifford on image consecration in American Tibetan Gelugpa contexts, where ritual accessibility has been widened since 2000; Nicole Karapanagiotis on Hindu devotees’ beliefs about cyber devotion; and Ritu Gairola Khanduri on cartoon spoofs of gods in typically darshanic poses—asked questions about the legitimacy of change by the purveyors of the darśan experience (whether rimpoches, web designers, or cartoon artists). All three concluded that concerns over legitimacy arise as darśan objects, buildings, or contexts are placed in spaces, conditions, or media that are new and public.

The flexibility or malleability of darśan, as well as its ability to mirror social concerns, were explored by Philip Lutgendorf, who in his keynote address compared the characterization of Rāma’s rescue of Sītā in two different films—Chhalia (1960) and Swades (2004). In the former, Sītā stands for the abducted and repatriated women of the country after Partition; in the latter, she is the virginal, unwed Bhārat Mātā. In both, a reluctant, backward Rāma is persuaded to decide in favor of his wife during the national festival of Dushera, where Rām-līlās are being performed. Viewers of these films, therefore, have darśan of the characters in darśan, but the message is remixed and rematched to create new social commentary.

A few presenters were attentive to the juxtaposition of elite and non-elite in darśan contexts. Alka Hingorani interviewed the lower-caste artisans who make the flat, devotional images used in the Kulu Valley and discovered that, while in the process of creating the images, the artisan is treated on a par with his upper-caste clients. The ability to provide a darśan object elevates status, if briefly. In an illuminating paper about the eighteenth century-Bengali Kṛṣṇarāya Temple in Bishnupur, Pika Ghosh conjectured that the small eastern back entrance to the temple, which gives access to a separate room behind the central Rādhā/Kṛṣṇa image, may have provided a space for private, ascetic, elite yogic practices that were off limits to the public area of the temple, accessed by the main southern entrance, where singing and dancing by “ordinary” practitioners occurred in front of the main temple deities.

In intriguing twists on traditional understandings of darśan, three scholars described darśan objects appearing not to want to be seen: Alexandra Green discovered that the seventeenth- to eighteenth-century Burmese murals depicting the ten great Jātaka stories, with captions, were typically hung in monastic settings that were too high to be seen. M. Whitney Kelting found that Jain “darshan” and “pilgrimage” VCDs, which have exploded in the market among Jains since 2001, are rarely watched once they are brought home. Adam Hardy, who climbed over several temples to take their various measurements for the sake of comparison with King Bhoja’s eleventh-century treatise on temple architecture, the Samarangaṇa Sūtradhara, found such disjunctions between the architectural texts and the dimensions of actual temples that he questioned whether the external structure for darśan really “works” as the manuals seem to exhort.

A final, curious twist is the expanding notion of what darśan does for the deity. Richard Davis documented the stages of Mīṇāksī’s emergence from her temple into the public arena of darśan in Madurai, and demonstrated that darśan is an extended experience for the viewer, not a single oppositional point of contact. But he also showed that the goddess is given a special ārati before she leaves her temple to protect her from the dangers of darśan-seekers on the crowded streets. Sometimes darśan is threatening, even for a deity.

Two presenters made interesting, even valiant attempts to fit their material into the theme of darśan: Aditi Chandra researched British interventions into the presentation of the Qutb Minar as a landscape that “disciplined” recreational spectatorship, and she lifted up the idea of the “picturesque” as a way of understanding British attitudes toward the site. Venugopal Maddipati, in his analysis of the Bulandshahr town square as a colonial space cherished by collector Frederick Growse from 1878 to 1884, proposed that the concept of “familiar touch” be added to the more typical, visual aspect of darśan. I would have liked more audience attention to these intriguing suggestions, as a way of discussing how capacious “darśan” as a concept can or should be.

Indeed, although a thematic conference such as this is tremendously helpful for the study of South Asian visual culture, whether from Art and Art History, Architecture, Anthropology, Religion, Transnational Studies, Post-colonial Studies, or History, I would nonetheless propose three changes in the future. In an ideal world, I would want to encourage participants to monitor themselves more closely to engage directly and overtly with the theme of the conference, using their own material to question, redirect, challenge, or underscore accepted understandings. If a paper does not deal theoretically or substantively with the theme, then perhaps it should be given in a different venue. Second, although there was time for discussion allotted at the end of each session, there was not enough. I wanted to hear sustained conversation on the idea of consecration by chisel marks; or a debate on the claim that the Buddha’s downcast eyes function as a means of dissenting from darśan; or a conversation on the degree to which darśan depends on actual, rather than potential, exchange of vision; or a dialogue on the justification of considering a museum or a recreational park a site for darśan. Finally, I think it would be good for the respondent to have all papers ahead of time, so that she or he can consider the theme of the conference well in advance and highlight questions and themes—again, for sustained discussion.

Having said this, I found the experience of attending the ACSAA conference delightful. Special thanks are due to the conference organizers, Hugh Urban, John Cort, and Natalie Marsh, who provided the highest in intellectual support and stimulation, as well as welcome hospitality.

Rachel Fell McDermott
Professor, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, Barnard College