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Connecting with our sensual past

Art historian Vidya Dehejia, who was in the City recently, talks of how the idea of a museum as a means of linking to one's history has not sunk into the Indian psyche.

Vidya Dehejia: `We should be proud of our heritage' — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

"UNLIKE THE West, where there's mainly a painting tradition, India has long nurtured breathtaking three-dimensional sculpture. Its imagery is voluptuous, sensuous, and tactile. It's right there, in your face," states Vidya Dehejia, currently the Barbara Stoller Miller Professor of Indian Art at Columbia University, New York, and Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. "That's what Western viewers find disturbing. But Indian viewers don't know how to deal with its appeal to the senses, either."

For over 30 years, this eminent art historian has combined university teaching with curating six exhibitions between 1986-2002, often stemming from field visits to South and South-East Asia. Her 21 books to date include offshoots of her curatorial work, such as The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India, (2002), India through the Lens: Photography 1840-1911 (2000), Devi, the Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art (1999), besides a scholar's explorations on Representing the Body: Gender Issues in Indian Art (1997). She's travelled a long way from her Ph.D. from Cambridge University, where her published dissertation was on the early Buddhist caves of Western India. Conversant with both Sanskrit and Tamil scripts, she has translated into English the Tamil poetry of saint-poets such as Andal, Sambandar, and Appar in the Chola context.

In 1997, she conceptualised India: Past Forward — Purva Uttara, a heritage show televised on Star TV and Discovery, for which she hosted and narrated three segments. Apart from a professorship at the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture from 1973 to 1980, Ms. Dehejia has worked mainly overseas, including Sydney and Hong Kong universities.

While visiting her parents in Bangalore, Ms. Dehejia presented a slide show at the Alliance Francaise recently, under the aegis of Sanskriti, on the currently touring Smithsonian exhibition of Chola bronzes. A year ago, this gracious and articulate woman opted to return to teaching at Columbia. Here are excerpts from an interview in Bangalore:

Are we abashed about our sensuous sculpture because we have distanced ourselves from their original context?

Absolutely. I'm currently working on a book about the issue of the body. I've been looking at the art, the literature, and the inscriptions from 200 B.C. to about 1600 A.D., which take this sensuous, sensual quality for granted. But after the Muslim dynasties, after British rule, a different mindset emerged from the 500 years we were submerged. So, the previous 1,700 years receded far into the background.

Does this apply equally to the Chola bronzes?

Yes, both the exquisite male and female figures cast by the lost wax process are extremely sensuous. None were intended for presentation within a museum context. Each Tamil temple has at least one major festival every month, lasting from three to 10 days, besides weekly and daily rituals. Even small temples have at least 25 bronzes, which are carried outdoors for festivals, because the stone images in the sanctum sanctorum cannot be transported. Think of the Nataraja that is part of a Chennai beach festival even today.

I've tried to present exhibitions within their contexts. At the Chola exhibition, for which we borrowed from 30 Western museums, we had a Ganesha on a pedestal, against the backdrop of a blown-up photograph of a similar figure adorned in silk, flowers, and jewellery, so you can barely see the bronze at all. These figures have an equal validity as art objects and objects of worship.

Why are Indian museums, even those with superb collections, in such disarray?

The idea that the museum is a tool of communication doesn't exist in India. Perhaps we think of it as a repository, but what use is that? I remember watching visitors to Delhi's National Museum. Apart from the local sophisticates and overseas tourists, there were Rajasthani villagers. They ran through the museum without a clue to it. All they want to know is: `What is this grand building? Why are its exhibits arranged like this? What has this to do with me?' You have to explain that their forefathers created this heritage. But who has the time to communicate? We don't have labels or text panels; we leave huge gaps...

Why did you opt to be an art historian?

Perhaps it has to do with my parents and upbringing. My father was a government servant in the old Bombay State, which covered Maharashtra, Gujarat, Nagpur, Vidharba, and so on. During holidays, we would choose one district and drive through it, stopping to look at monuments or ruins on the way, whether Hindu, Muslim, British, Buddhist, whatever... So, I could have grown up either totally in love with the subject, which is what happened, or hating it and never wanting to hear of it again.

Were there any Indian women artists in ancient times, to your knowledge?

That's a very hot question, but a problematic one. The names of artists very rarely crop up in our material. Only the patrons' names show up. He receives the punya for commissioning the work. But various plays suggest painted portraiture as a women's speciality. For instance, a king sees the portrait of a woman, falls in love with it, and says: `The lines are so fine. It must have been painted by a woman.' That's how we make these assumptions. But it probably was a man's world.

Are your twin passions as a curator and a professor complementary?

Connoisseurship is the main issue in a museum, such as being able to recognise and date a fine bronze because you have to buy and sell, put together a collection. Contextual and theoretical issues matter more at the university, such as asking why, what, and how. My eight years at the Smithsonian will enrich my teaching.

If somebody wants to do a Ph.D. in Western Art, it often means working on lesser-known artists. But in Indian art, so many areas are unstudied, such as Kerala or Andhra temples. When young Ph.D. students come to me, I feel I have to warn them that they can only teach or work in a museum, if they're planning to give up their lives to this field. They keep me on my toes. If I'd remained in a museum, I wouldn't have been conversant with feminist studies or post-colonialism...

Would you have worked in India, if conditions had been more positive?

All my books have been about Indian art. But I've watched my fellow professors here struggle. In the U.S., people admire you if you're a professor at a prestigious university. Here, you could be the dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University, but society looks down on you. It's a sad state of affairs. Throughout my career, only the material has drawn me back every year.

Have you ever wanted to write fiction, based on your extensive research?

I've done a draft. The story happens partly in the ancient context, partly today. In today's context, I want to spend more time in the area where I want to place it. One day, it'll come to me, but right now, it's at the back of my mind.


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