At the center of the Peabody Essex Museum’s recently expanded South Asian Art galleries are five large paintings from M.F. Husain’s 1971 series on the Mahabharata epic about a family divided by war. They are a powerful metaphor for the 1947 Partition that split the subcontinent into Pakistan and India and, here, Husain’s paintings underscore the break between the two sections of this inaugural installation. The first consists of 19th-century works that merchants, officers and sailors—members of the East India Marine Society of Salem—brought back as souvenirs; the second presents a lively and varied selection of mid- and late-20th-century works that Chester and Davida Herwitz collected from the 1970s through the 1990s. The aim is not to chronicle a history of South Asian art—there is no chronological order or mention of, say, the Company School or the Progressive Artists Group. Instead, Siddhartha V. Shah, the museum’s curator of South Asian art and director of education and civic engagement, wants us to experience the works from many perspectives and doesn’t hesitate to reach out and occasionally give us a little shake.
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