The unknown art of Indian Jainism at the V&A

About six million Indians follow this faith, but its art and beliefs are very little known to many in the west



The Indian subcontinent is a veritable melting pot of religions: two great faiths originated there, Buddhism and Hinduism, while two others from overseas, Islam and Christianity, particularly the former, have sunk deep roots. Less well known in the West is Jainism, the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (23 November to 18 February 1996). This has a 2000-year history and about six million adherents (about 1% of India's population), many of them extremely wealthy.

In some ways, the Jains epitomise much that is most admired in India by the outside world: tolerance and more importantly, non-violence ("ahimsa"); they will go to great lengths to avoid harming living creatures, even insects, and not surprisingly, therefore, are strict vegetarians. Jain beliefs provided considerable inspiration to Mahatma Gandhi's campaign against the British, with its emphasis on peaceful resistance.

Buddhism and Hinduism have already been the subject of major exhibitions in London, both held at the British Museum and centred on its collections; the former (1985) demonstrated the wide range of Buddhist related works of art and the scale of Buddhism's geographical coverage with its localised variations, while the latter was more focused on rituals and beliefs. The forthcoming exhibition, resulting from an awareness of the historical neglect of the subject on both sides of the Atlantic, is an attempt to raise the international profile of the Jain's little understood religion.

It is co-curated by John Guy of the V&A and Pratapaditya Pal (“Pratap” to those who cannot manage the syllables), one of the best known international figures in the field, who has just retired from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where he headed the South Asian Department (he now advises the Art Institute of Chicago). This is the major winter exhibition to be held at South Kensington this year, and is the fourth and last venue following a well received progress through the United States from Los Angeles via Fort Worth and New Orleans. John Guy explained that funding, typically, was a more uphill struggle on this side of the Atlantic, although Britain's Jain community has been highly supportive.

Of the 121 exhibits comprising bronze, stone and wood sculpture, manuscripts and paintings, more than half come from American museums and collections, while India and Britain provide almost equal shares of the remainder. A surprisingly small handful comes from the continent, despite the great collections of Indian art to be found there.

The aim, says Guy, is to redefine Jainism emphasising richness and diversity, and judging from the catalogue, this is successfully achieved, despite the difficulties referred to in Pal's introduction with negotiations among Indian institutions and government organisations, not all of which produced favourable outcomes.

Can one really talk of Jain art as a distinct entity? Extracting a group of objects with only a common religious theme runs the risk of satisfying neither the art historian, with his concern for style, comparative material and context, nor the anthropologist looking at ritual and beliefs. Here the objects are clearly chosen for their antiquity and artistic merit as well as for their iconography and subject matter, but a broader exposition of Jainism in its modern context is achieved by some useful essays in the first half of the catalogue (one interestingly entitled: “Are Jains really Hindus?”) and through a two-day international symposium to be held on 21 and 25 November on the art and culture of the Jains, with speakers including Professor P. Jaini of Berkeley and Dr Pal himself.

Two things quickly become clear: first there is not really any such thing as a Jain style in the sense that one can talk of an Islamic style; the unifying characteristics are mostly regional (Jainism is today particularly concentrated in Western Indian and Karnataka). Second, there is a good deal more to the content than the distinctive rows of upright nude male tirthankara figures which quickly identify a Jain sculpture: celestial figures, dancers, mother goddesses and tantric and domestic scenes also abound, as do many deities and motifs familiar to students of Buddhist and Hindu artefacts. The “richness and diversity” are there for all to see.