60 Minutes: With Pratapaditya Pal Society

Nationalism should not ever be invoked to establish our identity’: Pratapaditya Pal

Like his predecessors Ananda Coomaraswamy and Stella Kramrisch, artist Pratapaditya Pal has connected India and the world through visual culture. A preeminent curator and scholar extraordinaire of Southeast Asian and Himalayan art, he has organised several acclaimed exhibitions in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Born in 1935 in Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, and educated in Delhi, Kolkata and Cambridge, Pal is also a prolific writer, and his latest book is Quest for Coomaraswamy: A Life in the Arts. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why did you choose to write the biography now?

It was my guru dakshina! In 2015, I turned 80 and thought of finding out more about the man whose extraordinary scholarship had brought me where I was. Coomaraswamy died in September 1947, after celebrating India’s Independence on August 15 in Boston with the Indian community; and here I was, an octogenarian in 2015, in a radically different India. Following Independence, India had adopted my favourite Bengali poet’s song ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as the national anthem, with its lofty sentiment of ‘Unity in Diversity’, which we have already abandoned in the new century.

Tagore was against aggressive nationalism and yet was steeped in this country, whether through his art, poetry, or music. How do we read history keeping this in mind?

I am not an expert on Tagore. The narrow issue of nationalism should not ever be invoked to establish our identity; nor should our religious differences contaminate our nationalism. How can anybody in today’s world, especially after COVID-19, even think of being constrained by nationalistic chains? Look how Tagore even named his university Visva Bharati.

The Hindutva brigade harps on India’s past and yet innumerable temples and monuments lie uncared for and ignorance about Indian art is widespread. How would you explain this paradox?

One of the two Christian schools I attended early in my life had the Latin motto facta, non verba, which means ‘deeds, not words’. We prefer the opposite. In any case, I don’t quite understand why I should be asked to explain the peculiar Indian attitude of not caring for our glorious past. After devoting all my life to exalting the genius of India in the visual arts, I fail to understand the attitude reflected in the so-called Hindutva ideology.

Whether Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims or Christians, all have contributed their creative genius to the mosaic of India’s intellectual and spiritual achievements.

Many Indian museums are repositories of national treasures. Yet, they are in a mess. Having succeeded Coomaraswamy as keeper of the Indian Collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and moving thereafter to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, how, in your opinion, would museums in India be best managed?

I doubt very much if even Coomaraswamy, who was both a scientist and an art historian, could manage a museum today, either in India or in the U.S. Frankly, I would not seek a career in an art museum today but would opt for a teaching career, which was my first goal anyway in 1965, when I returned home to Kolkata for a position at Calcutta University but was denied it. So, I left the country and became an expatriate.

You have written extensively on Nepalese and Tibetan art. How is this significant for Indians?

I could write a book in answer to this question. I first visited Nepal in 1956 and accidentally discovered the essence of ancient Indian culture, which was expressed by a 7th century Chinese ambassador to the country when he said that “the temples of the Hindus and the Buddhists touch one another.” I was 21 and a fresh graduate but knew little about Buddhism, or, for that matter, Jainism. Noting the co-existence and peaceful interaction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the small Kathmandu valley and visiting the three cities, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, gave me my first insight into what India was in ancient times, and later helped me appreciate the rasa of the arts and architecture of the many countries and cultures of what is called Southeast Asia. As to Tibet, after my life-long study of its arts, I have realised how all Indians should be grateful to the Tibetans for preserving an enormous volume of material in the form of artworks and manuscripts, both in Indian languages and translations, of the intellectual and spiritual heritage of the subcontinent. Tibetan monasteries are treasure troves for all who are interested in understanding not just Buddhism but also other aspects of Indic history, culture, and art. This is partly true of Nepal as well, where books and manuscripts of India’s wisdom are preserved but are unknown in India.

What do you feel would be a sensible attitude towards selling Indian antiquities abroad?

This is not an easy question to answer at a time when there is a lot of acrimony among nations about heritage and ownership. Also, much of the ancient art of India is religious and so religious sentiments become an issue. Besides, economics are also involved because of greater appreciation and demand abroad as well as the disparity between the rupee and the dollar. One would have to, as a starting point, begin with a basic blueprint of an export policy that, as you say, is sensible, and tweak it to suit Indian needs and foreign appetite. However, I would have to assure those few among my former compatriots that the golden goose in the U.S. is killed. The market for antiquities is dead.

What are the shortfalls if any in the study of art history in India today?

The study of art history in India has never been very attractive economically. Unless you have more and better educated art historians who can, at the least, tell the difference between genuine works of art and fakes, where are you? No matter how bright and intelligent you are, simply with a degree in art history, do you become an expert in the vast field of Indian art and antiquities? Don’t forget, India is not one single naturally formed nation but a federation of multiple sub-nationalities, and so the problems are many.

The interviewer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.

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