The Pre - Columbian art which is also known as Mayan art, or Art of Latin America is on display in National Museum, New Delhi since 1968. The donation was made by Mrs & Mr Nasli Heeramaneck of New York. This believed to be one of the rarest such collections in Asia.
The Pre-Columbian collection is particularly representative of the indigenous cultures of Mexico, Central America and the western coastal and mountain regions of Peru. The antiquarian value of this collection is quite significant. A few rare art objects from both the Mexican and northern Peruvian cultures date approximately from 1000 to 600 BC. The majority of the artefacts are examples of these cultures at the height of their development, probably from 400 AD until the Spanish conquest.
Moche portrait vessels are highly individualized and naturalistic. They are thought to represent secular and religious dignitaries from Moche community. A large number of portrait heads have been found in the graves in this region.
The protruded cheek of this figure suggests the chewing of a cocoa leaf. The figure is probably a shaman healer and is shown as being in trance. The figure is wearing a patterned belt, a tunic and an elaborate neck ornament.
This snake is sculpted in high relief and coloured with dark reddish brown and dark cream hues. As a naturalistic portrayal of the theme, the eagle is shown holding the snake in its beak and both its claws.
In this particular vessel on the right, various animals are depicted both in relief and a painted form on the reverse side of the object. The animals are incorporated together interestingly to fill up the entire surface of the vessel. The face has been portrayed in a twisted form and has an uneven reptile like scale covering it.
This is a rare Moche vessel with decorations on both sides. The front side has a depiction of a distorted face probably symbolic of a disease.
The most probable view is that this vessel would have been used as a popcorn toaster by the Mochicans. Moche people may have used this ceramic vessel to hold the kernels over the fire.
Face painting was a very common practice among Mochicans. This face portrays a calm and composed look with a downward gaze. The eyes of this seated figure appear to be gazing into the distance with the impression of a calm pre-occupation.
This object to the right depicts a captured naked warrior soon to be sacrificed. As is typical in Moche art, captives are stripped of their warrior regalia and weapons and are tied with a rope around their neck and hands. It was believed that without clothes the identity of the captive would be unknown.
The Mochicans used messengers, who often carried their messages in small leather pouches: a service which was facilitated by the splendid networks of roads covering the Mochica territory. These messengers were symbolized by the falcon, the centipede and the roe deer, while those who deciphered the messages were represented by the fox.
This vessel shows a step pattern which was a very popular motif both in textiles and pottery. Very few Mohican textiles have survived but an understanding of them can be achieved through numerous vessels depicting textile design and colour pattern. This kind of overlapping of patterns, both in textiles and ceramics was prevelant in Peruvian art.
The Moche people worshipped animals and revered cats, often portraying them in their art. This man holding a cat is probably an eminent figure, as he is shown wearing an elaborate cloak or poncho with beautiful patterns. The spiral pattern of the ear plugs and head turban also attract attention.
Graves in Peru have yielded trumpets of fired clay, such as this one, which are sometimes painted or decorated with figures. Panpipes are often decorated with supernatural zoomorphic creatures covered with a polychrome slip technique.
The bird priest or owl deity was depicted commonly as one of the chief figures in the ceremonial sacrifices that Mochicans have been linked to. Due to the large number of owls that were portrayed and buried in forms of jewellery, staffs, pottery and paintings, it is argued that the owl was an intermediary between the living and the dead and had mystical powers.
This ceramic vessel probably depicts a shaman (priest) healer. He is wearing a distinctive headdress which is decorated by a bird on each side and holding a ritualistic object.
This vessel is probably mould-made and belongs to the late Moche period. It is stylistically fashioned by creating a scale-like texture on its body.
Often imagery shown on pottery may indicate visions experienced by shaman healers. Here, the two figures carrying the palanquin are human in form. However their heads resemble animals. This object perhaps depicts such a shamanistic vision.
Birds and animals were observed closely by the Mochican people and they drew their inspiration from nature around them. This vessel portrays the bird in a natural pose.
In Moche iconography, the figure of the warrior is depicted by the presence of an anthropomorphized bird or human wearing feathered adornments and bird face masks.They carry shields, lances and triangular clubs similar to those found in burials of the Moche. In addition to the war weapons and the headgear, the warriors are always shown with their helmets, protective covering and wearing elaborate ear spools.
The pot to the left is typical of Nazca style where the base of the object is rounded unlike the flat bases of Moche ware. The worship of corn was the way of life. Maize was the staple food of most of the pre-Columbian North American, Meso-American, South American, and Caribbean cultures. In addition to growing well in these climates, maize was easily stored and could be eaten in a number of ways (in wholes or used as flour) and had many other uses (such as baskets, fuel, etc.) making it an important ingredient.
Depictions of simians are a recurring theme in the pottery of northern Peru. This vessel is modeled like a seated monkey with a serving bowl and has a spout on top. The pot, or the monkey figure, has been brilliantly painted all over. Many forms emerged from the monkey theme and were manifested as bowls, jars with a wide range of figures and spouted pots with handles.
This shallow bowl painted on the inside has figures of reptiles, repeated in alternate colours of yellow and brown on a white background. Outlines are done by fine brush work in black and dark brown enhancing the effect of the contour line depending on the colour of the ground. Naturally the figures are set off best against white ground whereas on a dark one they are blurred, giving a mysterious effect. Almost all the vessels from the classic Nazca period are polished smooth so that the slip and design portray the finest glaze.
The row of female faces is a common motif in Nazca wares. These were probably depictions of ritual masks. The whole vessel has a nice vivid polychrome finish. The technique and range of colors used on this vessel mark the peak of Nazca achievements. The number of colours used by Nazca artists is larger than that used by any other culture in America before European contact.
Script — Dr Mohan Pratap, Shubha Banerji (curator).
Photography — Rakesh Kumar.
Coordinator — Joyoti Roy.
Compilation — Vasundhra Sangwan.
References — Dr Mohan Pratap, Shubha Banerji, 2014, ' A Glimpse of Nazca and Moche Pottery of Ancient Peru', National Museum.