[This post is a free translation of an earlier post originally published in French]
The Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology at Châlons-en-Champagne owns since 1872 a group of 22 granite sculptures (fig. 1) from the neighbourhood of Pondicherry and Karaikal (Karikal, Kāraikkāl). These were given by Pierre-Eugène Lamairesse, a native from Châlons, who exercised between 1860 and 1866 as chief engineer in French India (Établissements français dans l’Inde). During his fieldwork in the countryside he could acquire idols fallen into disuse from villagers.
This group of sculptures offers a rare panorama of the pantheon of village deities from Tamil country. The statues, long ago described by Marie-Thèrese de Mallmann (1955; 1956), have not been exhibited for the last 10 years. In order to expose again this heritage but also to highlight the personality of Lamairesse and set the statues in their original context, a temporary exhibition will be held in the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology at Châlons-en-Champagne from September 21, 2013 to February 28, 2014. Organised in collaboration with the Musée du Quai Branly and the Musée Guimet, its title is “Sur la route des Indes : Un ingénieur français dans le Tamil Nadu”. Along with the statues of Lamairesse other items—on loan from the Musée Guimet, the Musée du Quai Branly, the Musée des Confluences de Lyon and the École des Ponts et Chaussées at Champs-sur-Marne—are displayed.
This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see again the Indian pantheon of Châlons. While there is no real masterpiece among these statues, some—such as two images of Skanda/Murukaṉ and a Buddha, the only non-Hindu statue in the group—are finely manufactured. Other statues attest to the “caractère fruste et populaire” underscored by Mallmann (1956, p. 43). Except the Buddha (seemingly dated to the 13th c.), the sculptures can be dated to the Vijayanagara and Nāyaka periods (ca. 1350–1750).
The interest of the whole set therefore lies less in its aesthetic qualities than in its being representative of the village pantheon of the Tamil country. Besides pan-Indian deities (Gaṇeśa), others are typically South Indian, even typically Tamil, such as Jyeṣṭhā and Aiyaṉār. The pantheon of Châlons thus stands apart from other Indian art collections in France and elsewhere by its non “official” character.
The exhibition catalog is published by Somogy Editions d’Art. It contains articles by Jacques Weber (“Les comptoirs de l’Inde de Dupleix à De Gaulle (1674-1963)”), Virginia Verardi (“Pierre-Eugène Lamairesse, ou le parcours atypique d’un ingénieur passionné par les arts et les lettres”), Emmanuel Francis (“Le panthéon indien de Châlons”), Luc Piralla Heng Vong (“Les « idoles » indiennes d’Eugène Lamairesse : une collection coloniale ?”), Julien Rousseau (“Le corps des dieux. Généralités sur l’art, l’architecture et le culte hindou”), Amina Okada (“Images divines et chars de procession”) and Caroline Riberaigua (“Le cycle de vie d’une image sacrée”). The exhibited objects are described by Emmanuel Francis, Yuko Fukuroi, Dominic Goodall, Karine Ladrech, Amina Okada, Caroline Riberaigua, Julien Rousseau, Aurélie Samuel, Charlotte Schmid, and Virginia Verardi.
Many events and conferences are also organized as part of this exhibition.
Mallmann, Marie-Thérèse de (1955). “Une collection de sculptures indiennes à Châlons-sur-Marne”. Arts asiatiques 2(4), pp. 274–293.
Mallmann, Marie-Thérèse de (1956). “La collection indienne du Musée de Châlons-sur-Marne. Guide commenté”. Mémoires de la Société d’agriculture, commerce, sciences et arts du département de la Marne, Tome LXXI, 2e série – Tome XXX, pp. 1–56.