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An exhibition that highlights Jainism and its ethics

LifestyleAn exhibition that highlights Jainism and its ethics

A very unique exhibition on Jainism which was recently on display at the Rietberg Museum in Zürich left a mark highlighting Jainism and connecting its ethics for the first time to a very contemporary set of questions which are shared globally by the younger generations. In addition, the exhibition facilitated collaboration among scholars of different institutions and perspectives—from the Museum Rietberg and the realm of art history to the CERES University Centre for Religious Studies in Bochum and the contribution from a long-time collaborator, an Indian film-maker and curator.
In this interview, Johannes Beltz, Deputy Director, Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Reitberg Museum, talks about the larger vision behind organizing the exhibition, its impact, the significance of collaboration, and major artworks showcased in the exhibition, among other things.
Q: Tell us about the larger vision behind organizing the exhibition ‘Being Jain’ at the Rietberg Museum?
A: The Museum Rietberg is the largest museum of non-Western art in Switzerland. Founded in 1952, it houses major collections of African, Asian and American art. As a result of its outstanding and innovative exhibitions and its collaborative research, the Museum Rietberg enjoys international repute. Among its collections, Jain art is of great significance. The founding donator of the Museum Rietberg, Eduard von der Heydt (1882-1964), had acquired important Jain art works in the 1920s. Over the decades, the collection was systematically complemented. The first Rietberg exhibition on Jainism goes back to 1974. With the exhibition “Being Jain: Art and Culture of an Indian Religion,” the Museum attempted to go new ways: It presented not only exceptional artworks but invited visitors to actively engage with diverse topics related to sustainability. Few religions formulate ethical values as rigorously as Jainism. Until today, absolute non-violence, renunciation of possessions and universal tolerance are the guiding principles of this religion. The exhibition not only provided insights into Jainism but also encouraged visitors, through numerous interviews and films, to change their own perspectives and explore new paths.
Q: How do you think the exhibition has contributed to raising awareness about Jainism among a global audience, especially given it’s relatively a lesser known religion in the Western world?
A: Jainism is a religion which is largely unknown outside of India. The general audience in Switzerland had hardly ever heard about this religion before. This lack of knowledge was the biggest challenge in promoting this exhibition in Switzerland. However, we contributed to a change in public awareness: we attracted a significant number of visitors and diverse print and online media reviewed our show in detail and very positively. We experimented with new formats like podcasts to reach out to new audiences. The exhibition shone a light on the Jain community living in Switzerland. In public tours and discussions, we explored together with local Jaina guests questions of day-to-day ethics. By asking “What does this have to do with me?” we addressed issues of non-violence, consumerism, wealth, sustainability, and vegetarianism.
Q: Collaboration among scholars from various institutions and perspectives played a crucial role in the exhibition’s success. Could you discuss the significance of this collaboration and its impact on the exhibition’s content?
A: Indeed, the overwhelming international support we received for the exhibition was critical to its success. It was backed by the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at the Ruhr University in Bochum, the Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, the Arihanta Academy in Los Angeles, and Fable Vision Studios in Boston. The exhibition was generously funded by the Parrotia Foundation and Max Kohler Foundation in Switzerland, by the Swiss and Indian corporates Swiss Re and Star Worldwide, by the Arham Foundation in India and the City of Zurich. On a diplomatic level, we received tremendous support from the Indian Embassy in Bern and the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi. I am grateful to all the partners who made this exhibition a success. It is a significant contribution to the ongoing celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Swiss-Indian Friendship Treaty.
Q: How did the involvement of an Indian filmmaker and curator enhance the exhibition’s narrative and presentation?
A: In addition to the artworks, five short films by Harsha Vinay had a central, if not critical, role. They dealt with the ritual practices of the Jains, the production of manuscripts and their use, temples, pilgrimages, and the everyday life of Jain ascetics in India. Portraits and interviews allow insights into very personal life stories. These films gave the audiences a glimpse of how Jains in India practice their religion today, blending the past and the present. Many visitors were moved by the film on Sallekhana (fasting to death), which had a powerful impact. I particularly remember one visitor who was still moved to tears when she congratulated me for what she felt was an extraordinary experience. Some visitors came several times to see the films. We still receive demands for public screenings.
Q: What were some of the key artworks or artifacts showcased in the exhibition that provided insights into Jain philosophy and practice?
A: About 200 masterpieces of Jain art were on display; from sculptures, ritual objects, large-scale textile paintings, precious illustrated manuscripts, and sacred texts to utilitarian objects used by monks. The artworks came mostly from the collection of the Museum Rietberg but also from important Indian museums and private collections. Personally, I was truly moved to see the artworks from Mathura, such as the Ayagapatta from the State Museum in Lucknow. Being dated to the 1st century, this relief represented one of the most ancient artworks in the entire exhibition. We had a testimony from the beginning of Jain art in India! Outstanding were the two amazing black sculptures of Jinas from the Manjusha Museum in Dharmasthala. A major highlight was the entry to a beautifully carved wooden shrine from Gujarat dated to the 17th century, which the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai lent to us. Other beautiful objects came from the National Museum in New Delhi, the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art in Hyderabad, and the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bangalore. The presence of these Indian loans made this exhibition so special. The monumental white, red and black sculptures of Jinas and the magnificent bronzes created a unique atmosphere. They had an intense aura, which let our audiences stand still, admire and contemplate. To see these rare and outstanding artworks from India in Zurich was a true privilege and a strong symbol of the friendship between our two countries.
Q: As the Deputy Director and Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, how does the exhibition fit into the larger narrative and mission of the Rietberg Museum?
A: I see here clearly three points. First, this exhibition was a major event in the history of our exhibitions. It informed our Swiss audiences about a new topic, something unknown and unseen before. This exhibition is the first major and broad show on Jainism in Europe for a long time. Previous exhibitions focused on art history or single aspects of this religion. The new and fresh approach to looking beyond the object and understanding its significance its relevance in our today’s world is a major achievement for our museum. Second, this exhibition is an expression of Rietberg’s commitment to collaborate with its many partners. We are convinced that museums, research institutions, scholars, artists, designers, conservators and donors need to work more closely together, across borders and continents. We all need to join hands to produce, protect and share knowledge. In this sense, the exhibition “Being Jain” embodied our mission well. Third, this exhibition goes beyond a classical art exhibition. In addition to the presentation and contextualisation of artworks, we asked how do they inspire us to face the challenges of our time. Do Jain concepts such as tolerance and non-violence offer answers to our questions? “And You? The Game of Questions” gave the opportunity to approach these questions in a playful way. It combined analogue on-site game elements with a web-based app allowing visitors to ask their own questions. To involve audiences in our work is a new and irreversible step towards a more participatory museum.

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