Across the Threshold of India: Art, Women, and Culture

Written by Martha A. Strawn, with introductions by Kapila Vatsyayan and Mark H. Sloan, a historical essay by William K. Mahony, and drawings by Jack Colling.
Published by GFT Publishing in association with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (2016).
Hardcover with jacket.
320 pages.
ISBN 9781938086175
$75 + shipping and handling.

In the Hindu world-view, threshold is a profoundly important concept that represents a passage between one space and place and another, creating a visual bridge between the secular and the sacred. Accordingly, the literal threshold a person crosses when entering and exiting a home or business symbolizes the threshold one crosses between the physical and spiritual realms of existence. Hindus have long believed it is possible to affect a person’s well-being by using diagrams to sanctify the “threshold space.” The diagrams do so by “trapping” ill will, evil, bad luck, or negative energy within their colorful and elaborate configurations, thereby cleansing those who traverse the space and sending them on their way with renewed spirit, positive energy, and good luck and fortune.

The creation of the threshold diagrams is steeped in Indian history and culture going back thousands of years. Practiced by women, it was long considered a vernacular art. But, as this pioneering book reveals, the diagrams represent highly sophisticated mathematical and cosmological underpinnings that have been handed down from one generation of women to the next. As India has modernized and rapidly become more urban, however, more Indian women have acquired more complicated lives, allowing less time to continue the practice of threshold drawing and relying, increasingly, on homogenized pattern books. And so a longstanding and critically important expression of Indian life, religion, and culture is becoming less common to the point the tradition is threatened.

Across the Threshold of India reveals, the story of the threshold drawings for the first time, history of how the threshold drawings evolved, what they have meant and represent in Indian and Hindu culture, and how the practice became a high form of vernacular art for religious and everyday life. By combining her unforgettable photographs—most of which are in the permanent collection of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the nation’s foremost research center for Indian culture and art—with the most recent scholarship on the history and art of the threshold drawings, Martha A. Strawn has given the world a unique and enduring gift. Her book is a work of visual ecology that perceptively portrays one of India’s and the world’s longest and least-known religious practices—the art of sanctifying space through the creation of threshold diagrams.

Martha A. Strawn is Professor of Art Emerita at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte who has long been recognized for combining aesthetic and scientific inquiries into the study of place that she calls visual ecology. She co-founded The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film in Charlotte and was a Fulbright Fellow to India and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in photography. Her photographs have been exhibited worldwide, including the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Princeton Art Museum, National Geographic Society Museum, Mint Museum of Art, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History. She is the author of Alligators, Prehistoric Presence in the American Landscape (1997) and, with Yi-Fu Tuan, Religion: From Place to Placelessness (2009).

This publication is not included in the Member complimentary publication program.