Flames of Devotion: Oil Lamps from South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. Sean Anderson. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2006. 110 pp.
Reviewed by Michael W. Meister
copper-bronze and brass lamps for home and temple ritual are the gift
of Pratapaditya Pal, the emeritus curator who built the exceptional
South Asian collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and
his wife, Chitralekha Pal. Pratapaditya Pal refers to this as a “modest
collection of lamps” (p. 13); the Director and Curator at the Fowler
Museum to “a unique and extensive collection” (p. 11); and the
catalogue’s author to “an extraordinary collection of oil lamps and
incense burners (p. 18). Perhaps they are all correct—modest in scale,
unique in an American museum, and extraordinary in its presentation in
this volume. Each object is beautifully photographed and illustrated
and the introductory essay benefits from the exceptional field
photographs of Stephen P. Huyler, whose own work has documented
devotional and village arts in India.
from widely spread regions within India and with fine examples from
Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia, this is an extraordinary study
collection for a university museum to have acquired. No distinction
between “fine” and “folk” need be applied to these instruments of
devotion. I think Pal’s sensitive collector’s essay gives a true sense
of how these instruments were integrated into their experiences of
daily life in eastern India: “As early as I can remember, lamps were a
daily part of my life” (p. 13). He beautifully evokes how their light
permeated life and literature in Bengal.
student, Sean Anderson, has done yeoman’s work in tracing early
historical and archaeological evidence for lamps, describing their
making, types, and motifs, and evoking the effect of their use in
festivals and rituals on a Western observer. His evocation, however,
does lack some of the poignancy of the collector’s sense of a distanced
but experienced world. Written in Rome, his essay misses the immediacy
and grit of fieldwork, but provides a knowledgeable and passionate
Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon (Foulis, 1913), Stella Kramrisch’s Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village
(Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1968), and Stephen P. Huyler’s multiple
works provide further reference for this subject. Carol Bolon’s recent
work on the large inscribed temple lamps of Kerala could have been
cited as could the Newark Museum’s catalog Cooking for the Gods: The Art of Home Ritual in Bengal (1999) (authored by Pika Ghosh, Edward C Dimock, and Michael W. Meister), with its ethnographic emphasis.
W. Meister is the W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asia Studies in
the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
He is a specialist in the art of India and Pakistan and is curator of
Indian art in the Asian section of the University Museum of
Archaeology. His research focuses on temple architecture, the
morphology of meaning, and other aspects of the art of the Indian
sub-continent. Among his many works is the multivolume Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1991).