Himalayan Art and Culture in Chelsea
Located on a side street in Chelsea, the building looks so nondescript, I nearly went right by it. The museum occupies the former Barney’s department store, famous for its 6-story steel-and-marble staircase. The core collection of Himalayan art had been amassed in the early 1980s by Donald and Shelley Rubin. Greatly expanded, it opened as the Rubin Museum in 2004.
My first visit is on a Monday morning. I walk straight into the building. No one stops me. In fact, I seem to be the only visitor here. Even the two people at the reception desk are surprised. I mention why I am here, fill out a brief form, pick up a copy of The Rubin Visitor Guide and am on my way.
Two fierce looking animal statues guard the elevators. I don’t know what to expect but, obviously, this is not the Asia Society.
I start with Gateway To Himalayan Art on the second floor. An ever moving light show on the wall outlines the Himalayan region that stretches from Mongolia in the north, down to India, via China on to Nepal and Bhutan further south, with Tibet in the middle. That show becomes my anchor. I study it on every visit, no matter how rushed I am.
Wall descriptions furnish basic information between Buddhism and Hinduism and explain the symbolism of the various sculptures and art works. A special pamphlet illustrates and explains the Figures, Postures, and Implements of the various art works.
Alongside the walls are murals that tell the tales of a Buddhist’s journey from birth to the arduous task of achieving enlightenment. Hundreds to nearly a thousand little figures are practicing yoga, which is a form of meditation, that might speed them on their way.
The actual Buddhist Shrine on the 4th floor tells another story, at least to me. It is one of wealth and accomplishment, overwhelming in its detail.
I feel more familiar with Henri-Cartier-Bresson’s special exhibit: INDIA IN FULL FRAME. His photos capture the expectation, turmoil, and dramatic consequences after India had gained independence from British colonial rule, but was split between the predominantly Muslim Pakistan and mainly Hindu India. In a way it serves as a reminder that nothing has changed. Fortunately we have the sculptures, murals, shrines and thousands of memorabilia to honor the era’s great past.
While the artistic treasures of the Rubin Museum are extraordinary, the culinary pleasures of Serai rest primarily on the relaxed atmosphere of the place, the cheerfulness of the staff, and the casual way the food is served.
I must confess, however, that I may not have done justice to the café. Around 12 noon or at 4 o’clock in the afternoon I am not particularly hungry. And, since my usually co-eater friends were either on vacation, stayed home because of the heat, or celebrated the Jewish holidays, I found myself a single, somewhat reluctant diner.
My friend and I did enjoy the steamed Chili Cheese and the Confit Duck Momos, which are typical Tibetan dumplings filled with vegetables or with meat. We also liked the Lamb Meatballs, served with spicy tomato sauce. Fortunately, the sauce wasn’t all that spicy, and had a pleasant curry aftertaste.
Pork Belly, considered a delicacy in East Asia and readily available here, didn’t appeal to me, or to my friends. It may be more of a winter dish
My special “Thali” (lunch) plate of Cherry/Tomato soup/ Chicken Tikka/Red Rice or Naan came served on a small plate. Red rice, I learned, is unhulled rice that accounts for the slightly red husk and somewhat nutty taste. Not much of a rice eater to begin with, I opted for the naan.
The biggest surprise was the Aloo Gobi: potato, cauliflower and pea stew. I could not imagine cauliflower being part of an Asian dish. Turns out that gobi means cauliflower and aloo means potato. Ever obliging, the staff agreed to serve me a small portion to try. I could well imagine that Aloo Gobi would please hungry diners in the freezing Himalayan mountain range. But, then again, I am a spoiled New York gourmand and Asian cuisine has never been my favorite.