The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 30, 2000

Have a heart for art

Instead of agitating about what has been taken away from India, we would conserve and cherish our unimaginable wealth of historical sites, sculptures, paintings, jewellery and costumes, says Vidya Dehejia, Associate Director of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 
Vimla Patil

RECENTLY in India to participate in a seminar on "A new Balance for Indian Museums", Vidya Dehejia, associate director of the world famous Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. regrets the fact that not even one among the many Indian universities offers a course on art history, art conservation or museology in India. "It is truly unfortunate that a nation so rich in history and artefacts should not teach its people the value of their priceless heritage," she says. Vidya is the chief curator of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, both of which house great treasures of Asian art in the US.

  To arrive at this prestigious position in an internationally-known museum and to be recognised as one of the foremost authorities on Indian art and a committed conservationist, Vidya has gone through a chequered life and career. Educated in Mumbai where she went to St. Xavier’s College, she took a degree specialising in ancient Indian culture. Then she went to Cambridge University where she did a tripos in Indian art. Later, at the same university, she took her Ph.D. with a dissertation on Buddhist caves of the era 200 BC to 200 AD then, getting a post-doctoral fellowship in art history at Sydney, Australia, she studied her subject further. She taught art history in Hong Kong for two years and then returned to India to do research in New Delhi for six years. Under the Homi Bhabha Fellowship, she wrote a researched book on the temples of Orissa and under an ICSR fellowship, she did one more book on the Yogini temples in India.

"The worship of 64 Yoginis is seen commonly between 800 and 1300 AD most of the temples dedicated to Yoginis are built in this era. The cult is influenced by Tantrik rituals and a great deal of the worship was conducted to achieve powers of black magic. The number 64, being a multiple of 8, is considered to have magical powers in the numerology of India. Devotees who performed this worship were known to conduct the Shava Chhedan ceremony — meaning the beheading of a dead body as the ultimate symbol of detachment from earthly desires. The members of this cult never harmed living beings and never conducted animal or human sacrifices. Until 1500 AD, there are references in history to the widespread following of this cult. In the eastern provinces, there are reports that Yogini worshippers would ask for corpses from poor families with a promise of a grand funeral and provide this after their Shava or corpse ritual was over. But in later centuries, out of scary nature of the rituals and because of the growing stronghold of the Bhakti movement all over India — which preached love of god as the finest path to self realisation — this cult died a slow death, and remained only in small pockets of India. Thus, today, several Yogini temples are dilapidated and neglected with even tourists scared to enter them. Such a temple exists in Khajuraho.

Vidya Dehejia"However, Yogini temples in Hirakud, Ranipur Jharial and Pheraghat near Jabalpur are in excellent condition. Several of them were not even known to archaeologists till 1953. In Yogini worship, the Tantrik symbol is a chakra with 64 spokes in the wheel. Each spoke represents one Yogini a form of Shakti. In most of the well-conserved temples, the sculptures of Yoginis are intact and none of them are erotic as in other temples. This is because this cult did not believe in sex as a path to self discovery. The book I wrote on the Yogini temples has been published by the National Museum, Delhi."

From 1979 to 1981, Vidya conducted research in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the subject "Saints of South India — Tamil Nadu." "Being a South Indian myself, I had always seen that all Shiva temples had idols of 13 Nayanmars and Vaishnav temples had 12 Alwars. These are poet saints of Shaivite or Vaishnavite literature whose writings are like a veritable Bible of Tamilian religious culture. Each of these saints produced a vast volume of poetry between the 16th and 10th centuries and each saint had his or her attitude portrayed in the work. For instance, Andal’s poetry reflects bridal mysticism and is full of suggested eroticism of a subtle kind. My research resulted in two books, by which time, I was in New York, teaching Indian art at the Columbia University from 1982."

At Columbia University, art and art history are major departments and attract a large number of students. Vidya taught Indian art here. One of her major assignments was an exhibition on the art and art books of the British era in India. Later, she also put together an exhibition titled "Edward Lear’s India" with 3000 water colours done by Lear during 1863 and 1865.

In 1994, Vidya was invited to head the Freer and Sackler Galleries and to become the associate director of the National Museum of Asian Art as well as the chief curator of that part of the Smithsonian Institution because the US wanted to highlight Indian art and create a greater awareness of Indian art in the United States. The Smithsonian Institution, which is a huge complex, is strategically placed in front of the Capitol and has 16 museum buildings in one area. The institution is 150 years old and houses some of the most priceless artefacts of the world including the Hope diamond. "It is the only museum in the world which has a cabinet rank minister at its head," says Vidya, "It is a fully government operated museum governed by specific legislation. Because of this, it cannot ever purchase any artefact without legally sound papers of ownership. The institution observes this law and nothing here is smuggled or bought in suspicious circumstances."

In 1999, Vidya organised a spectacular exhibition of Devi forms. "I sourced the material from 37 countries, including Europe, UK, and private collections world-wide. The period covered was 1st century BC to 1987. Innumerable events were organised on the occasion. The catalogue was published by Mapin Publishers in the US.

"Unfortunately, there was nothing from India in this exhibition because the procedures here are such that no one can take a clear decision, Vidya says, "By avoiding a decision, the ministry saves itself from possible criticism. So no action is better than some action. This is a major hurdle in India. People here grumble and express anger that so many artefacts, jewels and costumes have gone out of the country and demand that they be returned. But they do nothing to conserve what they have here. Until recently, I know that the Nawab of Rampur’s priceless collection of Mughal miniatures lay in dust and cobwebs in a neglected godown.

Now, luckily, the Indira Gandhi Centre has taken up this project and resurrected the paintings. Similarly, I have seen fabulous sculptures in excellent condition lying choc-a-bloc in the storage spaces of museums without anyone to care for them. Huge archaeological sites lie neglected because of political or religious controversies. Sculptures, caves, forts and even minor palaces are misused by squatters or art thieves and desecrated or sold to unscrupulous buyers. India is a country where land, sea, rivers or mountains yield antiquities aplenty. Yet, there is no education in any curriculum in schools or colleges to cope with this veritable ocean of art. I say that what has gone out is cared for, displayed well and plays a role as an ambassador of India. But what we still have left is incredible and we should look after it seriously. I feel hurt when I see so much official and public neglect of India’s art heritage."

Vidya says that museology and art are not popular among scholars because there are not that many lucrative jobs in this field. Most museum officials or archaeologists have to work in low paid, low profile government jobs. "I have many students taking courses in Indian art but only five have opted for a doctorate. I tell them to think long and hard and choose Indian art for their dissertation only if they can make it their life’s passion. Of the five students who have stuck it out, four are foreigners. Only one student is of Indian origin." Vidya lives and works in Washington DC but travels all over the world for seminars, courses, lectures and Indian art events.