Puppets of the past

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An ongoing exhibition of rarely seen works from India, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia explores Gods, heroes and clowns in South and Southeast Asian performance art

For centuries past, the many countries, ethnic groups, and religions of South and Southeast Asia have enjoyed rich storytelling traditions, using lavishly illustrated storyteller’s cloths to recite the great Hindu epics, and animated puppet shows to portray the exploits of local folk heroes and mythical kings. A new NGV exhibition titled Gods, Heroes and Clowns: Performance and Narrative in South and Southeast Asian Art will explore these stories, their performance, and ongoing role within contemporary society.

More than 50 rarely seen works from India, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia will be showcased, including storyteller’s cloths, ceremonial hangings, puppets, sculptures, paintings and masks, which are used in rural villages, royal courts, temples and modern urban settings. Many of the pieces form part of ceremonial and performative traditions which are still thriving today, revealing complex stories of myth, history, magic, everyday life, pathos, bravery and humour, which resonate across time and space to captivate new audiences.

Highlights include a Buddhist narrative scroll depicting the Vessantara Jataka (Pha yao Phra Wet) from Thailand. Over 30 metres long, it is one of only two in Australia and will be displayed in its entirety for the first time. Also on display is an Indian narrative cloth banner (phad) depicting the legend of Pabuji, a deified Rajasthan folk hero, in exceptional detail and vibrant colour. The cloth is considered a dwelling of the god and forms the backdrop for abhopa (storyteller and priest) and bhopi (the priest’s wife) to narrate and sing the legend of Pabuji to a village audience throughout a single night.

“Gods, Heroes and Clowns will present intricately detailed works from the 18th century through to today, demonstrating the continuing tradition of storytelling throughout South and Southeast Asia,” says Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV. “We are also pleased to present a new contemporary sculpture by Cambodian artist Svay Sareth, which has been commissioned by the NGV especially for this exhibition.”

The exhibition will include objects from a variety of theatrical presentations including live dramas, masked dance-dramas and shadow puppet theatre. Multimedia displays of video and photographs will bring to life the performance of these works, which were often accompanied by singers, musicians and dancers.

Gods, Heroes and Clowns will also present a large, elaborately painted cloth from India, Patachitra depicting scenes from the life of Krishna, which depicts more than 60 incidents from the life of Krishna, including his birth, childhood pranks, flirtations with the gopis (female cowherders), his love for Radha, the destruction of demons and the flight from Gokul to Vrindavan.

“Hindu epics such as the Ramayana have been a rich source of inspiration for more than a millennium, and continue to be so, demonstrating the universality of its themes. In recent years, popularity has extended to more modern communication methods including television, films and comic books, however the traditional methods of performance as represented in Gods, Heroes and Clowns continue to play a unique and important role in communities across South and Southeast Asia,” says Carol Cains, exhibition curator.

Gods, Heroes and Clowns will be accompanied by an online essay and series of public programs, including special shadow puppet workshops for children under four on 10 June. For further information, visit ngv.vic.gov.au.

Gods, Heroes and Clowns: Performance and Narrative in South and Southeast Asian Art will be on display in the Rio Tinto Gallery of Asian Art at NGV International till 30 August, between 10 am and 5 pm, closed on Tuesdays. Entry is free.

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