Mumbai Launch Talk- Saryu Doshi



Speech of Dr Saryu Doshi at the Mumbai launch of the book
“Invading the Sacred”
Friends, yesterday evening, Shruti called me and she asked me if I would be so kind as to speak at this function. The subject was of great interest to me because as a person who has been in academics, also as a person who has been with museums and publishing, I have encountered certain attitudes that I felt were in conformity with what I have been hearing from the two editors.

I am a trained art historian and as an art historian I have felt that the history of Indian art is greatly influences by what the West thinks of it. The Western scholars would come to India because scholarships were available in the field. They were not really very interested in the subject. They don’t generally know our culture very well, nor do they understand our languages. They have taken a course here or there, and can speak passable Hindi, or understand some Sanskrit. But when they come to India it is much too overpowering an image for them. They come here, they live here, and some of them have to just stay in certain places for some time, just because Indian art and culture is at places like Varanasi or in certain villages where they conducting their researches. When they come to Mumbai, their exclamation is: ‘Ah! Civilisation!’

There is an in-built bias that civilization is only when you come to a city like Mumbai which is a modern metropolis, with roads and tall buildings and an infrastructure which corresponds to what they are used to.

The fact that we have such an ancient civilization doesn’t really matter. They come here because they find that they have exhausted quite a lot of work in their own fields in their own countries. If they are studying European artistry, there is nothing very much left on Rembrandt to do. But when they come to India, they have this wild west mentality,”Ah! we are in the frontiers of knowledge, there are only two or three books on this subject and what we will bring out will be the authoritative version on that subject!”

It is wonderful to have someone with the excitement to come and want to do pioneering research. But the idea you get is not that they are interested, it is that money is being given to them and the cherry is right for picking!

I must say a lot of work that is being done by them has been extremely innovative. It is a new way of looking at Indian art. I am totally indebted to my American education in art history. I feel that it has equipped me to deal with the Americans or the westerners on their own ground in their own manner.

Unfortunately, our own scholars do not try to match that. Maybe our teaching institutions don’t teach it. They would cut such poor figures in the international seminars – their knowledge may be profound but they are not in a position to present it. So we already start with a disadvantage. Most Indian scholars are so thrilled or overawed by the fact that a foreigner is interested in the work they are doing that they are very very keen on giving their knowledge.

It is pathetic the way in which we behave. We are looking for little handouts for our scholars, which is sad. Why should they be in that position? You get to go on a trip abroad, and if I will be invited then I will give you this and may be you can get me to stay over for two months so.

It is so sad. I feel sorry that we in our own country are neglecting our heritage because it is not properly taught in schools.

Yesterday, I was sitting with my grandson to help him with his history. The sort of irrelevant details that the child is supposed to learn is just amazing. They don’t give an outline and present an interesting way of looking at history. They give you little things to remember which a child will mug up and forget immediately after the exams. So we ourselves are to blame at the way we have had structurized our education. We ourselves are to blame at the way that our scholars are not equipped.

Why is it not possible for us to have an academy of Indian art and culture where scholars would be taught how to present their images? We have poor slides – we never used to have good photographs in the earlier years. Today, with good digital cameras things have changed. But as a student and a scholar when I came home from my trips abroad, I wasn’t bringing things that are interesting for most people. I was bringing films and my refrigerator used to be filled with them because they were unavailable here. At the airport all I would be doing is taking 20-30 rolls of films to bring home. Then you would be so choosy with your photographs because you could not waste film!

But apart from the general scenario, the whole thing is that we ourselves show a lack of confidence. About twenty years ago, I was invited to a seminar in Greece on contemporary art. It was an international seminar, but the participants were mostly from Europe and America. There was a Persian painter who lived in Paris. There was a Kuwaiti painter who also lived in Paris. There was one Chinese scholar who couldn’t speak a word of English. And then there was me.

In the representation, when I showed our modern art, all of them started sniggering. They said: ‘Oh! It is so derivative! It has nothing inventive to say, it has nothing new to say.’ Some of the people got up and left, showing no interest. But the younger people came up to me and said that they found it very interesting. They could see that we had a different style, of painting. I said, ‘Yes. Because we are an ancient culture and it is a continuation in a different way, in a different era but it is a continuation of our own thinking.’

When Lucy Smith, the famous English critic, was chatting with me later on, she said to me, “You know, your country has not progressed beyond craft and you have a long way to go. Your country is like Greece – you have a superb ancient civilization but you have nothing as far as modernity is concerned.”

I encountered a similar experience when I sent a book to a scholar whom I met in the USA. He was very kind to me and I thought I would send as a gift a book I had written. At that time he was writing a book on ‘Ranakpur’ – one of the Jain temples. He took my book and trashed it. He said he got to understand more about Jainism from a western scholar who has written on it than from me.

I live in India and I am a practicing Jain. I know a lot since I have studied Jain art for 30 years. And I can’t write properly whereas a person who is American can write better! It is that they only understand what each other says and they do not understand anyone else. And we have to just accept it at that.

These are the sort of prejudices that one encounters in this field. But having said all this, let me tell you that I have some wonderful friends who have been extremely helpful in academic work, in doing my research, in inviting me to lecture, in having me over.

What I am suggesting to you is that not all of them are like that, but certainly there are underpinnings of such attitudes which surface every now and again. It totally shatters you because they are your friends, you respect them, you look up to them, you admire their writing, you admire the way they conduct themselves, and then you feel that they can be so petty and so
trite in certain things.

So I would just say that this is a wonderful movement that has started.

I think it is important that we bring it to their notice. Maybe they are doing it unconsciously, maybe it is a world-view which they have inherited and with which they approach everything as being that the West is the best.

Today, we Indians have become economically more powerful and we have established a presence in different parts of the world. The Diaspora has become a thing to reckon with, and therefore, today you find Indian modern art commanding a presence in all the auctions abroad. The prices are now beginning to match the prices of art abroad. And the fact that we are now interested in our own culture that we respect enough to spend large sums of money on it, is attracting western scholarship. Western scholars are coming out to India to study contemporary Indian art. Twenty years ago it was trashed as being nothing.

With our own self-confidence, with our own attitude towards ourselves, with our pride in our own culture, we will be able to counter this. We ourselves are important in getting a different point of view aroused in people.
With that, I thank you all.