Monday, March 16, 2009
Tales of the toddy-tappers
John Henry Rice, Dr. Joseph M. Dye, and Dr. Shantaram
Talegaonkar examine VMFA’s new South Indian painted scroll.
(Photo by Travis Fullerton, © 2009 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
Before Curator Dr. Joseph M. Dye III published “The Arts of India” in 2001, only a handful of people knew that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is home to a world-class collection of South Asian art. The secret is now out, and even the most reclusive will hear about us when we open our spectacular new South Asian and Himalayan galleries next year. One of the collection’s particularly strong areas is the art of South India, a region where I have worked extensively and which is very dear to my heart. I was thrilled, then, when I learned that our first major acquisition since my arrival here last summer was to be an incomparable South Indian painting.
Not your typical “Indian miniature painting,” this 48-foot-long painted narrative scroll was gradually unrolled for an audience by professional storytellers. It tells the legendary history the Hindu social caste that makes and sells toddy, an alcoholic drink concocted from the fermented sap of the palmyra tree. In addition to toddy-tapping, production, and distribution, its lively scenes show mythological tales, epic battles, and enthroned deities. Similar legend scrolls, made in northern Andhra Pradesh, can be found in other museums’ collections, but none is as large or as sumptuous as VMFA’s, which makes extensive use of gold. This beautiful scroll will be one of several stunning new additions to our upcoming galleries, and I cannot wait to travel back to South India to ask contemporary storytellers what they might know about some of its imagery.
John Henry Rice
VMFA Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art