Reliving a legacy

From the home in Varanasi where Swiss painter and sculptor Alice Boner lived for 40 years

August 27, 2016 04:05 pm | Updated 04:05 pm IST

Alice Boner studying in the cave temples of Ellora, 1938.  Legacy Alice Boner

Alice Boner studying in the cave temples of Ellora, 1938. Legacy Alice Boner

It was a cold winter afternoon as we drove to Assi Ghat, and I sat in wonder, absorbing my new surroundings. People and cows sat about in idle stupor, chewing, staring, and watching cars go by. As we drove away from the airport, layers of time peeled away, and the feeling of life slowing down became tactile. We were stuck behind a cycle rickshaw, which was itself behind a row of cows. As we approached the ghat, a visible and audible cacophony of chaos welcomed me, and I entered the old house, in awe of my new dwelling.

In January 2016, I moved to Varanasi from Bengaluru, undertaking a project of reviving and running the Alice Boner home as an art residency and cultural space for artistic and academic research. I first came across Alice Boner and her work at university, in a class on temple sculpture and composition. Little did I know then that a few years later, I would live and work in the house she had inhabited over 40 years ago on the banks of the Ganga. Today, the Alice Boner Institute.

A perceptive artist, scholar, art historian, passionate photographer, collector and meticulous record-keeper through diary entries of almost every day and every experience, Alice Boner studied painting and sculpture in Brussels and Basel. Born in Italy in 1889 to Swiss parents, she began working as an independent sculptor and painter. At the age of 27 she was invited to exhibit her work at Zurich’s prestigious Kunsthaus, a museum of fine arts.

In her diaries, Boner records her arrival and discovery of this house on Assi Ghat in 1936. “It was late night. The streets were empty, only cows were sleeping everywhere… The stars array and harmony constitutes itself gradually… This house is remarkably soothing and exciting at the same time. In it I feel I have returned to myself, to my home, my domicile. It is so familiar, so welcoming, so warm… I feel fulfilled, happy, settled and supported, like on a gentle stream.”

Waking up to screaming voices, I ran out to the balcony to see what was happening. The sun was just rising through the morning mist. Suddenly, an ear-splitting growl, a pause, a chorus of growls, pause, and then manic laughter, and again in chorus. What was going on?

A little distance away was a large gathering of people, stretched out on multi-coloured mats, being guided by their teacher, who sat on a stage, to growl while he growled into a microphone. ‘Lion Yoga’ I was later told. A large banner not too far away read ‘Subah-e-Banaras: Vedic Chanting, Ganga Aarti, Morning Raga, Yoga: Every day before sunrise, District Cultural Committee, Varanasi ’.

Assi Ghat, 2016, I thought.

Boner’s fascination for dance brought her to India with Uday Shankar, where she encountered classical dance and drama traditions like Kerala’s Kathakali. Writing on her first encounter with Kathakali, she remarks, “It would take volumes to describe the impression of a single night with the Kathakalis… so completely were we fascinated and so subjugated by the intense life which emanated from the multifarious presentations of human, divine, and devilish beings and from all these strange, pathetic, fabulous, cruel, tender, humorous events.”

Her training in arts practice and exposure to performance traditions led her to see the temple sculptures in Ellora, Mahabalipuram, and Badami in a new light. In her diary entry on Ellora she writes: “Back from Ellora after a stay of almost three months… In order to approach the images I started drawing them… I started analyzing them in their geometrical scheme and to build up the diagrams in terms of lines of energy… all of a sudden, a revealing light broke forth.”

She made detailed sketches of the large relief sculptures, like the Siva Nataraja in Ellora and Mahisasuramardhini in Mahabalipuram, using a grid diagram to understand their compositions. In 1962, Boner published her seminal book Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture , which remains to this day a pioneering work of art historical scholarship. For her exhaustive research and work, Boner was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zurich in 1969 and the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 1974.

“Has Kal Bhairavji tested you?” asked a stranger on my third day in Varanasi. I was at Harmony Bookshop, my neighbour and soon-to-be-favourite haunt, flipping through Diana Eck’s Benaras: City of Light . “What test? You mean Kal Bhairav, the deity?” “Yes! All outsiders to Varanasi will be tested by Bhairav ji ,” he replied, emphasising the ‘ji’ that I had missed, “only if you pass his test, will you be truly accepted into this holy city!”

Boner appears to have passed Kal Bhairavji’s test and accepted into Varanasi. In the four decades that Boner made India her home (1936-78), she immersed herself in a range of disciplines, meeting numerous personalities like musician Ali Akbar Alauddin Khan, philosopher Sri Bhagwan Das, German Buddhist Lama Anagarika Govinda, musicologist Alain Danielou, poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, dancer Shanta Rao, art historian Stella Kramrich, Tibetologist Guiseppe Tucci, and psychologist Carl Gustav Jung to name just a few. Many of these people were guests at her home in Assi Ghat.

It rained the whole of last night, as it did many times over these last few weeks, and today Gangaji is at our doorstep. Alice’s close friend, Alfred Wuerfel’s words ring in my ear: “The Ganga herself would come to visit Alice.”

On View: ‘Alice from Switzerland:

A Visionary Artist and Scholar

Across Two Continents’ ,

National Museum,

New Delhi,

September 1 - October 30

Harsha Vinay is the director ofAlice Boner Institute, Varanasi.

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