Whose legacy?

Updated: Dec 1, 2019



Professional commitments in October and November this year took me to two historic cities in the United States: Philadelphia and San Francisco. On these separate trips I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. Here are some reflections on a stunning installation at the PMA.


The architecture of the Philadelphia museum is a work of art in itself. In it one senses the pride of a nation in 1876 (the year when the museum was founded), i.e. one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence from the British rule in America. The building is a timeless ode in stone to Art. The collections here are a dream for any art lover. However the real treat for me waited in the southern wing. At the South Asian galleries' entrance stood a reconstructed pillared temple-hall (mandapa). It belongs to the 16th century Madanagopāla Swāmī (Krishna) temple in Madurai, South India. One could then only wonder what provenance brought this masterpiece to PMA!


Curiosity led me to discover the following story of this installation:

Year 1560: Madanagopāla Swāmī (Krishna) temple is built in the town of Madurai in South India by the Pemmarāju family, the members of which were active trustees of the temple. The main temple still exists.


More than 300 years later...

1876: Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) is founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the centennial exhibition.


1912: Adeline Pepper Gibson, an American collector, visits Madurai. At this time parts of the mandapa are piled in a rubble in the temple compound. Gibson purchases 60 granite carvings from this pile and ships them to America.


1920: MFA Boston curator Ananda Coomaraswamy curates the installation of the mandapa at PMA. A musical costume pageant is held to welcome the "Hindu gods on the shores of America".*


1938: WPA (Government Depression Relief) workmen install the hall in the new Fairmount building.

1940: The "Oriental Galleries”* of PMA including the temple hall open in the new Fairmount building with much fanfare.


1954: Stella Kramrisch (an important historian of India, formerly an Austrian ballerina, and much admired by Rabindranath Tagore) becomes the Curator of Indian Art at PMA. She “dims the lighting to emphasize the hall’s supposed original dark and mysterious interior."*


2005-2008: Curator Darielle Mason travels to Madurai and confirms that the mandapa was indeed a part of the original Madanagopāla Swāmī temple. The hall's foundation is currently hidden under modern construction.


2016: The temple hall reopens with original bright and festive atmosphere.*



At first glance this is a story of an "exotic" pile of rubble tickling the fancy of a foreigner, who then proceeds to purchase it at low cost from the local authorities, has it shipped to her native country where it is reinstated in a glamorous museum gallery. The mandapa, now on display for museum visitors, is de-contexualized from its socio-religious environment, and installed as high art in a secular setting.** A few curators wrestle with the task of displaying it appropriately, experiment with the lighting and the wall-labels. It's an awesome experience of a world otherwise unknown to the uninitiated. There are several issues of concern here. For example: 'exoticising of the other', 'exertion of one's assumed rights of ownership', 'entitlement', a 'savior complex', 'romanticizing the oriental', and so on. These are all valid concerns in themselves.



The Flip Side

India is a 'motherland'. She has a long history of foreign invasions, looting, pillaging, desecration of temple architecture, of stone carvings, and of suffering violent reactions to idolatry. Nevertheless her people didn't stop creating idols to worship and palaces for their kings and queens to live in. They kept on going in an idiosyncratically imaginative way. One only has to turn a few pages in a book on Indian art to glimpse an overwhelming diversity in artistic expressions. The legacy is so immense that no singular book to date has been able to capture all the artistic traditions of India.


On August 15, 1947 the British left India a hollow mess, split in two, and economically impoverished. At that time visionaries like Rabindranath Tagore (poet, playwright and novelist from Bengal) fostered a new consciousness for independent India: one that stemmed from her cultural and artistic heritage, instead of her political problems of the time. The artists of independent India galvanized to reinstate the lost pride of a nation. Once mauled in the name of progressive education by the likes of Lord Macaulay with a singular mission: to discontinue her cultural continuity, India's cultural heritage was now the only medicine that could revive a battered nation. Modern Indian painters of the time rejected the traditions of the salons and the academies of Europe, and embraced a new aesthetic. They created a novel mix of traditional idioms, tribal motifs, folk art and classical canons from texts like the Shilpashastra. They painted figures that harked back to the Ajanta frescoes, the pillared halls of the medieval temples and courtly paintings of Kangra. A revivalist reclamation of that which was forgotten was on its way. Classical musicians and dancers performed at all night events across the country. Veritable rock stars of yore! The Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute in Mumbai (then Bombay) and Tagore's Shantiniketan in Bengal were synergistic centers for actors, playwrights, singers and painters. They fueled the artists' passions; all in the spirit of unifying under one nation's diverse creative capital. A country stood at the doorstep of her cultural renaissance.


However the political powers of the newly independent India trusted more the promise of the European industrial revolution. Science and technology could build machinery for India's industries and manufacture pesticides for her farmlands. New large-scale factories promised jobs for millions who left their quaint villages for the burgeoning cities in search of economic prosperity. The west was flexing its nuclear muscle after two horrific World Wars, and warming up for the impending cold wars. India tried to compete to be counted in this tumultuous political climate. She strived to make a mark on the world albeit not with her cultural prowess. That power was "soft". A new wave of training Indians in science and technology took over. It was meant to salvage a nation from the detritus of her colonial past. The "arts" were once again relegated to the salon, the museum gallery, the auditorium, and the academy.


By the 1980s a small percentage of affluent Indians profited from the industrial establishments, political clout, and socio-economic ramifications of caste and class. They had their new B&W televisions to watch and automobiles to ride. Among them were the politicians and the policy makers. So what if the Sanchi stupa or the Shekhavati frescoes were disintegrating? We had greater matters of monetary worth to worry about. While art lessons in schools were withering each year, the technological boom was making us plumper by the hour.


One day we had computers to play with. We enjoyed this play so much that we gave the world its engineers. And the world obliged by draining India's technical intelligence to serve its own interests. Only when it came to representing India at international conventions were the artists summoned and paraded in front of the dignitaries. Only when culture became a cash cow for tourism did we organize music and dance festivals around temples and crumbling forts. Artists were the new trophy wives for a nation that was drunk with cable television and computer technology.




Whose legacy?

Indian artifacts grace museums all over the world today. Is that unjust? Do they belong in the land of their origin? Should they be returned to India? What would happen to them if that were the case? Who would take the responsibility to treat them with respect and the decorum that they deserve? One will never know what might have happened to the mandapa rubble of the Madanagopāla Swāmī temple if alternative stories were considered. Like individuals, nations grow immune to injustice. Add to that the human tendency to undervalue the homegrown, and one has the perfect recipe for indifference towards one's own treasures.


These musings pass judgement on neither Ms. Gibson who took interest in the 'exotic' ruins, nor on the temple authorities in Madurai who sold the ruins to her. Today even the foundation of this temple structure is obscured by modern construction in Madurai. That the temple would have not existed without the nameless stonemasons, carvers and sculptors is certain. What one cannot assess with certitude is the fate of this spellbinding mandapa had history taken a different course. Not even the sinuous, silent witnesses carved in stone on these pillars can tell the alternative story.


I, for one, am grateful to have beheld this marvel in my lifetime.


-Mesma Belsaré




*PMA wall label

** It should be noted that currently a video footage on loop in the gallery at PMA shows the daily pūjā rituals in the original temple.

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