The Peranakan World: Cross Cultural Art of Singapore and the Straits of Malacca
National Museum, New Delhi
A slice of the spectacular cross-cultural traditions of the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore and the surrounding region is on display at the National Museum in a special exhibition. Peranakan comes from the malay word anak, which means "child" and implies a person born of mixed heritage. The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of southern Chinese traders who settled in Southeast Asia and married local women. Their culture is rooted in Chinese traditions, but with strong influences from Southeast Asia and Europe. Peranakan art in this exhibition reflects these diverse influences. Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European cultures were fused into a distinctive style. The Peranakan phenomenon of blending different cultures and adapting to local situations retains its resonance today.
The exhibition showcases an assortment of art objects including gold and diamond jewellery; belt buckles; porcelain; furniture and beadwork
The Peranakans commissioned their jewellery from Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European jewellers, which led to diverse techniques and designs. Chinese and Malay decorative motifs were frequently combined. The kerosang - a heart-shaped brooch - perhaps the most iconic of Peranakan jewellery - is derived from a Portuguese form.
Jewellery for celebratory occasions such as weddings was primarily made of gold and diamonds, or occasionally semi-precious stones. During mourning periods, silver and pearls were used; pearls were thought to represent tears.
Also on display is Peranakan beadwork and intricately woven embroidery work, which bears the stamp of Malay, Chinese, and European influence in technique, design, and form. Commonly used for Peranakan weddings, the auspicious motifs selected for the designs were drawn largely from the Chinese repertoire. Popular choices include the peony, the mythical phoenix, a composite creature called the qilin, and butterflies (symbols of conjugal bliss, fertility, and good fortune). Metallic beads threaded and mounted on velvet backings were common embellishments. Certain objects associated with Malay weddings, such as a ceremonial handkerchief, were reinterpreted by Peranakans to incorporate Chinese designs.
Another fascinating component of the exhibition is batik work – drawing designs on cloth by applying molten wax and dyeing the areas covered.
The exhibition is also showcasing the Chinese porcelain specially made for Peranakan patrons. Peranakan porcelain, called "nyonyaware”, is characterized by vivid, contrasting colours. Buddhist emblems, mythical beasts, and flowers and birds, often within lobed panels, animate the surfaces.
The exhibition also displays spectacular altar clothes which were used for various altars.
Embroidered altar cloths from China were commonly used in the Straits Settlements, while batik versions were made and used in Java. Ancestor veneration is a key element of traditional Chinese culture.
A gold belt buckle, a kerosang (made of gold and diamonds), a cotton altar cloth bearing dragon motifs and inscriptions, portraits for ancestor veneration, and a flower basket wedding bed hanging are among the other art objects that will travel to India for the first time. The exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Singapore in 2015.
"This is the first time that an exhibition on the Peranakan Chinese culture is being held in India. The objects at the exhibition, most of them dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have been lent by Asian Civilisations Museum and The Peranakan Museum in Singapore," said National Museum Director General Dr. Venu Vasudevan.
"The museum is privileged to host the event which will unfold the brilliance of cultural traditions and art objects of the Peranakan Chinese settlers in Singapore for a viewing by the Indian public," he added.
Dr Alan Chong, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum in Singapore said, "We are proud to present Peranakan art and culture to audiences in India. Peranakan art is an important example of multicultural exchange. It reveals intriguing aspects of the hybrid culture of port cities like Singapore, which have been formed by centuries of trade, immigration, and colonial rule."
David Henkel, curator for the exhibition, said. "This is for the first time that Singapore has sent a substantial exhibition to India. These objects have never been shown in India before." Henkel explains, "A major component of the exhibition will be Peranakan jewellery. For Peranakans, jewellery is an important cultural marker, a treasured heirloom, and an indicator of social standing and family wealth. As in other cultures, it is often part of a bride’s dowry."
This exhibition tells the rich story of how Chinese immigrant communities forged a unique Southeast Asian culture. This exhibition is a celebration of Southeast Asian culture.