"Indian Art History: Reminiscences and Reflections"


Distinguished Guests, Chairman Choudhury, Fellow Art Historians, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Let me begin by thanking the members of this Congress, and specially its chairman Professor R.D. Choudhury, for the high honour bestowed upon me with the invitation to preside over the 18th annual session of the Indian Art History Congress. I am especially glad that the conference is being held in Banaras, not only because it is the holy city of the Hindus (I was born one), but also because this is where my professional career as an art historian began in 1966, well over four decades ago.

The reason I say the beginning was in 1966, rather than 1956 when I graduated in history and joined the Ancient History and Culture department for my M.A., is that I had absolutely no idea then that there was a discipline called “art history”. Art was too closely associated with archaeology. I do believe that fine art was a minor section of the Indian History Congress when I presented my first paper at its session in Trivandrum in the winter of 1958–59. When I attended the Centenary celebrations of the Archaeological Survey of India in New Delhi in 1961 under the brilliant chairmanship of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, I still considered myself an archaeologist, albeit an armchair one. By this time I was teaching courses on art and architecture in the newly established Archaeology department in Calcutta where the first batch of students included Dilip Chakrabarti, today one of the most eminent Indian archaeologists. For my doctoral thesis at Calcutta I chose to do research on the architecture of Nepal and my aim was to be an historian of architecture.

Choosing to study Nepal was the best decision I ever made in my career. It ensured that I was charting a virtual terra incognita. This is extremely important for graduate students to remember; always try and select an untrodden subject. You will have little competition and will be quickly recognized as an authority. From Nepal to Tibet was but a natural move and both at the time were “forbidden” lands. And yet, their importance for the history of Indian art cannot be overemphasized. They fill so many gaps in the story of Indian art. Sadly, few Indians are engaged today in looking beyond Indian borders to explore the glorious saga of the influence of Indian civilization in Asia.

A person is known not only by what he thinks of himself or herself, but also by what others think of him or her. It is tragic that there is a tendency in this country today to deny any external influence on our civilization, which is as myopic as not attempting to appreciate our enormous contribution to the intellectual history of mankind. One day we will be told that the Internet was an Indian discovery.

When I went to Cambridge in 1962 on a Commonwealth scholarship my mentor was again an Indian archaeologist, Professor Raymond Allchin, who advised me to attend the Slade lectures in art history delivered that year by none other than Sir Ernst Gombrich, author of The Story of Art, the most popular book ever written on the subject. The topic of his scintillating lectures was Leonardo da Vinci, and that, ladies and gentlemen, was my first introduction to art history. I subsequently devoured all Gombrich’s books and I shall always be grateful to Professor Allchin for his guidance. If the foundation of my education in Indian art and architecture was grounded in the teachings of Professors Jitendranath Banerjea, Sarasikumar Saraswati, and Niharranjan Ray, the edifice was raised by Raymond Allchin and Ernst Gombrich, all of whom I salute here.

Having been nurtured in this archaeological environment, it is particularly gratifying to address this congress of art historians today. My cup runneth over.

Some of you here may remember the American Academy of Banaras founded in 1965 at the Rewa Kothi at Rewa Ghat in Assi as an institution for the study of Indian art, with funding from America, under the guidance of Dr Pramod Chandra, a son of the soil. I had just returned from the University of Cambridge that summer with a second Ph.D. under my belt, but was unable to find a suitable job. I had turned down a couple of offers in Europe as I wished to return to the home country. My expectation was modest, to join the faculty of my alma mater the University of Calcutta, where there were several positions open. Unfortunately, none was offered to me. So as I twiddled my thumbs in Calcutta, I was invited to join the American Academy. As you well know, Banaras has always attracted Bengalis, though later in life rather than sooner.

Joining the American Academy in the cold January of 1966, I I spent a little over a year in Banaras before moving to the States in the spring of 1967 to succeed the great Ananda K. Coomaraswamy as the Keeper of the Indian Collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Needless to say, I still hadn’t heard from Calcutta University about my job application there.

The year in Banaras was a memorable one. Working in the beautifully restored Rewa Kothi (my first experience with restoration), helping to build the Academy’s library and photo archives, enjoying the spectacular view of the Ganga, sometimes sitting on the verandah of Alice Boner’s house and listening to my colleague José Pereira recite the Gangalahari of Pandit Jagannath, indulging daily in the delicious sweets, specially the rabri of Assi, savouring the collections of Sarnath Museum and Bharat Kala Bhavan, and meeting such luminaries as V.S. Agrawala, Mahamahopadhyaya Gopinath Kaviraj, and, of course, Rai Krishnadas are some of the memories that I shall cherish as long as I live. I particularly recall my pleasant visits to Sita Niwas, the home of Raisaheb, meeting Anandbhai as well as the next generation of the clan, who are now well entrenched at the University, the great majlis in the spacious sitting room with Raisaheb presiding, followed by delicious vegetarian meals and, of course, the invariable and inimitable Banarasi paan. Most cities don’t have even one Krishna, but Banaras is blessed with three generations of Krishnas.

Thus the very first year after my return home from three glorious years in Cambridge, I experienced both the perils and pleasures of a career in art history so to speak. The perils lay in my inability to land a job in Calcutta, and the manifold pleasures – material as well as intellectual – of an exciting year in Banaras. What is even more important is that this first year of my career also earned me spiritual merit. I acquired my punya early in life. And now Professor Choudhury has enabled me to return to this avimukta kshetra, this sacred ground of ultimate liberation, in the final years of my life (astam gamanam). Thank you, again, Dr Choudhury. Like a good Buddhist, I wish that whatever merit I have earned may be shared with you and all sentient beings present here.

Alas, the American Academy of Banaras is no more, but I would be remiss in my duty if I don’t mention the new institute of Indian art and culture, and generally of Indological research, that has been founded a short distance from here. Of course I refer to Jnana Pravaha, founded by my friend, I’m proud to say from Kolkata, Mrs Bimla Poddar. With the Suresh Neotia collection housed in its elegant premises, Jnana Pravaha is indeed the third jewel in this city’s collection of museums, the others being of course Bharat Kala Bhavan and Sarnath Museum. It is noteworthy that both Bharat Kala Bhavan and Jnana Pravaha are efforts by individual citizens, something that does not often happen in this country. I applaud both the late Rai Krishnadas and Mrs Bimla Poddar and Suresh K. Neotia for their largesse to the nation. Like the perennial Ganga, may knowledge and wisdom flow in Banaras.

Museums and Exhibits

When I joined the Boston Museum in 1967, I wasn’t really prepared for a museum career. I had little prior experience in museums, mostly as a visitor. I had not studied museology, which had just been introduced in Calcutta University in the ’60s. (Now that I have spent my entire life with museums, I must admit that in my opinion art history is better preparation for a curatorial career than museology.) My experience of museums was confined largely to the Calcutta University classes that I had to take at the Indian Museum with Professor S.K. Saraswati and Dr Kalyan Kumar Ganguly on Hindu iconography and Indian sculpture respectively, and frequent visits to the Ashutosh Museum of the University. While the experience of the Indian Museum classes every Friday was rich and rewarding, at the Ashutosh Museum Professor Devaprasad Ghosh – dear man – taught us the art of Southeast Asia alas without any objects or even slides, but using poor reproductions in books. Indeed, that’s how most other teachers taught us in most classes. So in a sense we learnt about art in the abstract. Something that was a rich and sensuous visual experience was reduced to a verbal one, completely negating the adage that “seeing comes before words”. I don’t suppose things have changed much in Indian universities today, though of course, present generations of students have enormous advantages thanks to the computer through which they can access photo archives and monuments both visually and virtually. But while that is better than our experience as students, it is still not as good as visiting the monuments and engaging directly with the objects themselves in the museums. The difference is that of reading a drama and watching it on stage, or as it is said in my native Bengali, dudher svad ghole metano, which means tasting milk by drinking buttermilk.

I think if I were given another life, and I were to study art history again, I would probably opt for a museum rather than a teaching career. But would I want to work for a museum in India? Bluntly, no. Why not? Because most Indian museums are dead institutions with little or no educational activities, either in terms of popular exhibitions or scholarly achievements.

One of the most exciting aspects of a museum job is the opportunity it affords to do exhibitions, which is an excellent learning experience both for the organizer and for visitors. Doing exhibitions of Indian art in India is neither too difficult nor as expensive as it is in the States or Europe where no single institution is rich enough in material to go it alone and, even when state funds support the museum, as in Europe, they rarely ever fund exhibitions. Thus, apart from raising funds from private sources, curators have also to borrow from different institutions over vast distances which becomes expensive. As the funding sources have dried up in the States and most museums are privately funded, major exhibitions of Indian art have diminished drastically. European museums, however, are still active and are constantly borrowing material for exhibitions from India.

Even so, in the last two years two major exhibitions of Indian art went to America – one of paintings of Nandalal Bose from the National Gallery of Modern Art and another of Jodhpur paintings from the royal collection. The Nandalal Bose exhibition was held at the NGMA, New Delhi and the Jodhpur exhibition is coming to the National Museum in the capital. But it has not occurred to anyone here that both exhibitions should be made more widely available to Indian audiences. Already crated and packed, both could easily have been sent to other Indian venues for little additional expense – certainly far less than the amount of taxpayer money that is spent to put up statues of chief ministers – but to no avail. Amazing to think that the National Gallery of Modern Art has two branches, in Mumbai and Bengaluru, and yet the Nandalal exhibit was not shown there, nor in Kolkata which had a claim to display the first major retrospective of that modern master. I can still hear Rai Krishnadas’s voice telling us about his meetings with Nandababu, as he used to call him.

Similarly, the most comprehensive exhibition of Gupta art was sent by the Indian government to Paris recently, but Indian taxpayers – whose taxes pay the salaries of the ministers and secretaries in Delhi and support most museums that lent to the show – were not given the opportunity to see this exhibit. I hear another exhibition of Indian paintings, culled from the enormous collection hoarded in the National Museum, New Delhi, is about to be sent to Paris, but it will not be available to admirers of Indian painting, even in Delhi.

I shall cite only one other example of our national myopia and lost opportunity. I recently saw a major exhibition of British views of India from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London at the old Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. It was organized jointly by the two museums. At least half of the material in the show related to Bengal, yet no serious attempt was made to take this significant and comprehensive exhibit to Kolkata, where the Victoria Memorial would have been an appropriate venue.

The irony is that, even as we are busy changing the names of our cities and museums, we still jump at the opportunity to send our treasures abroad and are indifferent to sharing them with our own people. For the last half century or more “national integration” has been a constant refrain among our politicians. What better way to integrate our nation than to share our artistic heritage, hoarded in our regional museums, among ourselves? Why should Parisians have the opportunity to see masterpieces of Mughal, Rajput, and Pahari art of northern India, and not our fellow citizens in the south? Or, why didn’t the great Chola bronzes exhibition that was organized in Delhi some years ago visit Guwahati, Bhubaneswar, Banaras, or Ahmedabad? Would that not have fostered a greater sense of national integration and better understanding of the Tamil genius, no less than the dosas and idlis that have now become popular across the nation?

Education and Scholarship

In some ways perhaps I am not qualified to stand before you as by training I am not an art historian. As I have said, I studied art as part of ancient history and archaeology. There was not, and I believe still is not, a department of art history in Calcutta University. When I went to Cambridge I was part of the Oriental Studies rather than Art History department. Though there was a department of art history in Cambridge, it did not, and as far as I know still does not, teach non-Western art. (By the way, this year the university is celebrating its 800th anniversary.) In the early ’60s of the last century one did not associate the word education with museums in India, nor even in Europe for that matter. The idea of educating with art in museums is I think a distinctive contribution of America.

It was when working in MFA in Boston that I first learned about two very different aspects of education. One was the part that we share with our colleagues in the universities – I am sure most of you present here are teachers at universities for I doubt if art history is taught here to undergraduates. Like them, we in the museums too are involved in doing research and occasionally even publishing the results. But let me explain a little bit more.

One of the primary duties of a curator in an American museum is to recommend objects for acquisition, which may be a purchase or a gift. Either way it is the curator’s duty to make certain that the object is authentic, to determine its importance for the collection, if a purchase to determine that the price is right, to do preliminary research and write a report for the director which must incorporate and evaluate a technical examination report by the conservation department, to do a provenance search to make certain it is not a stolen object or illegally removed from a monument in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, or Southeast Asia. All of this came under my curatorial jurisdiction. I might tell you that while the art of Java and Cambodia were taught in Calcutta University, I had never taken any courses in the art of Nepal, Tibet, or Sri Lanka, nor for that matter, in any area of Indian art after 1000 ce. I don’t think my university, even if I had additionally studied museology or archaeology, could have trained me for the job I was expected to do as curator.

But, if you must know, all this good preparatory work for acquisition was in fact solid research that, with a little additional analysis, could be converted into publishable articles.

All major acquisitions have to be presented by the curator concerned to the full Board of Trustees of the museum, which is the ultimate acquisition authority. This is quite a challenge as most of them do not know the difference between Indian and Chinese sculpture and yet in less than ten minutes one has to explain to this bunch of rich influential and powerful leaders of commerce and industry, mostly, why the museum should acquire the object. But that is not the end. There is still another group who must be educated and they are known as docents. These are volunteers – mostly women – who take groups of school children as well as adult visitors around the collections daily. It is the curator’s duty to teach them about the object, its context, its historical importance, its religious symbolism, etc. Finally, there is the publicity for which information must be provided to the press or media. Thus, the curator does not have the luxury of living in an ivory tower and educating, either by the spoken or written word, only fellow art historians. The curator must be able to educate the specialists as well as the general public. For this very significant mode of education, I am afraid, no potential curator is trained in any university either in India or in the West. Educating the public is a very integral and important aspect of a museum, especially in America, but it is a neglected subject in universities.

This brings me to the final topic of my address, which is communication. Scholarship alone is of no use if one cannot communicate one’s ideas to an audience or readers. I am very aware of the fact that most of our scholarly discourse must be published in English to reach the widest possible readership. But the problem is, even as India, 60+ years after the end of British rule, excels in producing superb writers in English and even though it is a preferred country for outsourcing because of the Indian graduate’s generally good command of the language, regrettably the books and articles produced by the country’s art historians leave much to be desired. If art is a thing of beauty and if beauty is a thing of joy, as the poet said, then should we not make extra efforts to make certain that both the language of our discourse as well as the reproductions of the works of art be adequate at the least? Unfortunately this is neither the case with the books that most of our publishers produce, nor with the articles printed in our journals. It is nice to see that this Congress is now involved with two publications – the annual Proceedings, and a journal called Kala. This is indeed laudable but in going through the latest issues I was sad to note a certain absence of rigour in editing and in the quality of reproductions. Let me tell you from my personal experience that it is imperative for every writer, especially when writing in a non-native language, to have the text edited. And again, a book about art should also be an artwork.


I left India reluctantly in 1967, which became a permanent banishment for me. I never received an invitation from anyone, either in the public or the private sector, to return to the country. So when in 1993 Marg invited me to take over the general editorship of its publications, I was happy to re-establish a link with the old country because my work has always involved India, its heritage and culture. Just as I was thrilled to go to the States in 1967 to sit literally on the chair Ananda K. Coomaraswamy had occupied for almost three decades, so was I happy in 1993 to occupy the seat of Mulk Raj Anand whose vision and energy – along with the support of a true Bharat Ratna, J.R.D. Tata – launched Marg in 1946, on the cusp of momentous changes in the history of the subcontinent, on the path of becoming the leading journal of Indian art and culture in the world. It is the oldest journal of art history in the country and it is sad that I do not see the names of many members of this Congress among the subscribers to the magazine. At least, I hope you read it occasionally in your libraries and do use it as a model to write your articles and to edit your journals.

Our shastras have defined Brahman as satyam (truth), shivam (auspiciousness), and sundaram (beauty). Indeed, these three expressions sum up the essence of Indian art in a nutshell, no matter what modern theoreticians, critics, and polemicists say. We must remember that no matter how intellectually exciting the study of art is, the work of art is an expression of its creator’s seeing eye, emotional experience, as well as aesthetic sensibility. From the authors of the Upanishads, through Kalidasa, the greatest of Sanskrit poets, the savant Abhinavagupta, saint-poet Tulsidas, and Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore, the central thread has been to seek and express ananda or delight through poetry. I cite one example. Ordinarily on seeing a dried up tree in front of us we would say shushko vrikshas tishtthati agre, but a poet would more lyrically put it: nirasa taruriha vilasati puratah. That is an aesthetic way of expressing a fact and at the same time it is filled with sap or rasa. What is a rasagolla without rasa? So when you are writing about art that is saturated with rasa and is a thing of beauty, please try and communicate your pleasure and your ananda, if not in poetic, at least in elegant language. If we can’t do it in English, let us do it in our native tongues.

I have always heard that the best Hindi is spoken in Banaras. I have often wondered if it is because one gets the best paan in this city. I first came to Banaras at the age of 10 with my parents on pilgrimage for darshan of Vishvanath and Annapurna. Pilgrimage was once the principal motivation for travel and is still a popular reason for visiting this ancient city. But Banaras was also a great seat of learning, where even the Buddha had come to preach his First Sermon. Now it attracts millions of visitors a year whose principal interest is sightseeing and tourism. This city of satyam, of shivam, both literally and figuratively, alas is no longer a city of sundaram. In this city today cleanliness is certainly not next to godliness. Only in pockets can one encounter beauty, such as the view of the ghats from the river, the garden around the ruins of Sarnath, in the precinct of Jnana Pravaha, and, to a lesser extent, in the campus of this university. But why can there not be beauty all over this city? Why have we forgotten that this was the subcontinent where the world’s oldest urban planning was achieved in the great cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa?

Ladies and gentlemen, it is the wonderful works of art and architecture that our forebears created over millennia and that now survive in our temples and monuments, our mosques and mausoleums, and in our museums – the core subject of our discipline – that attract millions of our compatriots and foreign visitors, and not our dams and other modern technological achievements, no matter how proud they may make us. Yet, it is remarkable and sad how indifferent we are as a nation to their grandeur and beauty and preservation. If only we could be equally proud and passionate about our cultural achievements as we are about cricket! We art historians bear a heavy burden to use our specialized knowledge of our artistic heritage to educate not only a small circle of students or colleagues but also the public at large, and thereby ensure the safety and preservation of what is, literally, our bread and butter.

There is a saying in Sanskrit: madhurena samapayet, and so to leave a sweet taste in your mouth I have put in your bag of party favours a complimentary copy of the new avatar of Marg that made its appearance in September. Regard it as a sandesh (which is a sweetmeat in Bengali but a message in Hindi) from a fellow art historian. Thank you all for your patience and indulgence. May your presentations, discourses, and your disputations here for the next three days be enjoyable and harmonious.

c.Corinne Whitaker 2010