Milo Beach, former director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries, talks of his love for Rajasthani miniatures and the urgent need for their preservation
Dr. Milo Beach was awarded the Colonel James Tod award by the Maharana Mewar Foundation earlier this year. Museum director, teacher and scholar of Indian painting, he has written, lectured and organised international exhibitions on paintings from Rajasthan and the Mughal court. He headed the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution and the Freer Gallery in Washington but retired in 2001. He now devotes his time to research and lectures. Excerpts from a free-wheeling chat:
On the James Tod Award
I can't imagine getting another award that means so much to me. I've read James Tod ever since I started out in the 1950s and have always gone back to reading his work. Rajasthan is my favourite place; we come back to Rajasthan virtually every time I'm in India.
The Sackler Gallery
It was a funny situation because there was already a major museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian and it was limited by the fact that no other museum could borrow from it and neither could it borrow from another collection and showcase art within its own building. So Sackler had the mandate to be active as a museum, to do the things museums do now; in terms of loans and exhibitions. We had to build up collections, find staff, make it into an institution that would have some impact on the American public and do something for the Asian art that no other institution had done.
It has always been easier to write about Mughal paintings because you can write about it with a European art history vocabulary. Rajasthani painting has always interested me more because it's always been more difficult to deal with.
The Badshahnama exhibition
It taught me lots of new things about Mughal painting and how it operates. What I found most satisfying was to bring such a major manuscript back to India. The reception here was wonderful; an audience intensely interested in the paintings - we provided them with microscopes - they got involved in all the minutest details of what people were wearing ... The American public look at paintings and walk down the hall.
The Indian miniatures scene
With the recent opening of smaller properties as hotels, more paintings have become known. We have such an enormous amount of material to deal with than we had 10-15 years ago. The wall paintings in Bundi are the earliest and the most important in Rajasthan but no one is preserving them. They are still in private hands and in a very dangerous and precarious position. I'm observing a fast deterioration, which is shocking. All of them are evidence to historical evolution. There are a substantial number of tourists coming to India and in crude terms these paintings can generate income for India. They are a part of the country's great historical fabric. They really should be taken care of.
I want to come back to Rajasthan to study wall paintings; I'm interested in observing how they interact with each other. How Deogarh's paintings interact with other smaller schools of art. It's intriguing how people move, choose to take from somebody else's life or culture. What is astonishing about working in Bundi is how it was in touch with the world. It wasn't as big as Mewar, yet it was very cosmopolitan and very international culturally. I'm interested in having Americans understand how international these cultures are because Americans need to know more about other cultures than they do. It provides a better model for them.
Advice to students
We need to teach people why these paintings have to preserved: how we can learn from them… Sadly India needs far more art historians and architectural historians because it has so much material. I like to tell my students that if you sit for half an hour to observe a certain group of paintings, you are going to find a major discovery. You could build your entire career on that one major discovery; that's what makes it exciting for me.