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Why 108? Art Historian Dr Alka Pande Answers for her New Series of 14 Books on Indian Art And Culture

Dr Alka Pande is an art historian who has taught Indian Arts and Aesthetics at Panjab University for over ten years. Her major interests include gender identity, sexuality, and traditional arts. She has received numerous awards, including the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, the Australian-India Council Special Award, and Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi honours to mention a few. Pande has also been involved in curating exhibitions and has been awarded the CIMA Lifetime Achievement Award 2023. She is currently the head of the Visual Art Gallery at the India Habitat CentreNew Delhi. Dr Pande also set up the Bihar Museum Biennale in 2021 and is now the chief curator for the Bihar Museum Biennale.

Recently Dr. Alka Pande released her monumental work, “108 Portraits of Indian Culture and Heritage.” This immersive collection of 14 collectable books, each exploring a distinct discipline such as art, architecture, objects, crafts, and more, showcases her dedication and expertise in the field of Indian art and aesthetics. Dr. Pande’s ability to encapsulate India’s rich cultural history, including illuminating art, architecture, and cultural landscape, while interweaving personal anecdotes, serves as a remarkable source of inspiration. Her work is not only lauded as an invaluable resource for scholars and enthusiasts but also recognised for its significant contribution to preserving and promoting India’s cultural heritage.

Nidheesh: Welcome, Dr. Pande. We will start with this humongous amount of work you are doing: 108 portraits of Indian themes including art, architecture, sculpture, and so on. I would like you to begin by talking about that first. It’s quite an ambitious endeavor, and I’m totally amazed at how somebody can even attempt and think about it, let alone bring it to fruition.

Dr. Pande: You know, this work is something very special to me. It’s very personal, more than just being part of my professional life. It’s something I’ve lived with for more than 30 years. I began teaching the history of Art at Punjab University over 30 years ago, and I’ve been deeply immersed in it ever since. This became even more profound after I received my postdoctoral fellowship from the Charles Wallace in 2000. I went to a cutting-edge place called Goldsmith’s College, University of London, to do a Post-Doc. At that time, the internet was just emerging. It’s remarkable to think about how young the internet really is – in 2000, it was just in its beginnings.

When I moved from Punjab University, where I completed my Ph.D. and was head of the Department of Fine Arts, to this university in London, it was a huge shift. Goldsmith’s College was known for its avant-garde thinking, and at that time, it was immersed in post-structuralist philosophy, particularly the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Their book “A Thousand Plateaus” was influential. I mention the internet because it highlights the stark divide between the West and the East at that time. Today, if I were to return to Goldsmiths, I’d feel much more comfortable because of the internet and access to information. But back then, I was completely lost. I even lost my voice metaphorically because I felt illiterate in the realm of Western philosophy, semiotics in art history, and the understanding of signs and signifiers. It was a whole new world for me, and I struggled initially. I contemplated returning home, but as a resilient Indian woman, I persevered. Within three months, I found my voice again, and within nine months, I returned not as an expert, but equipped with enough knowledge to understand the Western thought process.

I returned in 2000, and for the next five years, I struggled to find my place in the sun. During this time, I also worked on Documenta 11 with Okwui Enwezor and participated in a platform on Truth and Reconciliation at the Habitat Center. I thought I was making progress. Simultaneously, I was on sabbatical from Punjab University, working as a consultant at the Habitat Center, and teaching Arts and Aesthetics at the College of Art. One particularly interesting paper I taught in the fourth year was on the interrelationship between plastic and performing arts.

Traditionally, when you think of plastic arts, you think of painting, sculpture, or printmaking. Conversely, performing arts bring to mind music and dance. Bridging these two seemingly disparate worlds was a challenge for me, as my education had been predominantly Western. I attended a convent school, went to an English-speaking college, and was more familiar with Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens than with Indian cultural figures like Kalidasa or the Reeti Kalin Poetry. However, growing up in a forward-looking traditional home with a mother trained in the Gwalior Gharana of music exposed me to the sounds of riyaz every morning. Though primarily raised in Delhi, with brief stints in Kanpur and Mumbai, I also learned Bharat Natyam from Yamini Krishnamurthy.

Teaching the interplay between plastic and performing arts refined my understanding and passion for the subject. After two decades in the field of fine art and art historical practice, I decided to shift my focus. While I didn’t discard Western ideology entirely, I chose to concentrate more on Indian arts and aesthetics. It’s akin to feeling comfortable seeing Aishwarya Rai in a Galliano gown on the Cannes catwalks, versus Nandita Das or Sharmila Tagore adorned in a beautiful Indian sari.

I felt more comfortable with my own aesthetics. My grandfather was a scholar of Pali, and I used to see my grandmother crafting icons for worship rituals. Growing up more than 55 years ago, we witnessed our grandparents performing puja, having a dedicated puja room. I’m not implying that religion influences art, but rather cultural identity does. We were immersed in Puranic kathas during morning and evening rituals, and festivals like Nauchandi ka Mela in Meerut were integral parts of our summer holidays. We observed various cultural performances and enactments, such as Ramayana, in our neighbourhood. This exposure shaped our perception of culture in a distinct manner.

As we approached the turn of the 21st century, I noticed a widening gap between the East and the West due to our education system, which still largely followed the British model. However, I don’t harbour any animosity toward that system because it was reflective of the times. I received a valuable education, albeit rooted in colonialism. Yet, I believed it was time to shift the focus inward. With over 30 years of teaching experience at institutions like Punjab University, Delhi College of Art, National School of Design, DJ Academy of Art and Design, and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIIFT) Mohali, where I taught fashion design, I came to realise the significance of introspection.

Teaching a diverse range of students, I observed that many were not academically inclined but displayed immense creativity. In the arts field, there’s a natural filtering process—those who didn’t excel academically often found solace in pursuing art. However, among them were genuinely gifted individuals. Even at institutions like NIIFT, where entry was competitive, students displayed unique perspectives. Despite this creativity, the educational content largely originated from the West.

Reflecting on my original subject of the interrelationship between plastic and performing arts, I traced its roots back to the Natya Sastra. I realised that our understanding of traditional Indian art, and to a large extent modern and contemporary art as well, is deeply rooted in an unbroken tradition of artistic practice in India.

So, you cannot exclude Indian aesthetics. The understanding and appreciation of Indian aesthetics originated from the Natya Sastra, including the Rasa theory, which serves as a common tool for comprehending both plastic and performing arts. The Navarasas, for instance, stem from the Natya Sastra. Over the years, various texts like the Rasikapriya of Keshavadas further elucidated aspects of Indian art, such as the Ashtanayikas.

In India, there were specific cannons and rules for everything, including the Shad Ang Theory for figures in painting or sculpture, delineating the six limbs of art. Iconography in Indian systems of image-making also followed precise rules laid out in Shilpa Shastras. I felt it necessary to make this knowledge more accessible, not limited to Sanskrit or Hindi scholars or those studying Hindi literature.

Despite a surge in cultural nationalism, I believe the key lies in providing the right education. As an educator, my greatest joy lies in sharing knowledge. So these 14 books come out out of my 30 years of this journey which I’ve just told you and these are all on all these disciplines or all these subjects are looked through the lens of Indian arts and Aesthetics that is why I took the number 108. Why 108? 108 is a sacred number. The minute you say Ek Sau Aath you think of indic wisdom it is a branding that is why I did Ek Sau Aath.

Aksharmala (Alphabets) are Ek Sau Aath. Ek Sau Aath, 108 energy points are there in the Shree Yantra in the two inverted  triangles so 108 becomes very very Indian and looking at culture and Heritage became very important for me because I’m not just looking at the Fine Art practice of art making. I’m not looking at modern and contemporary because India is very unique in India you have folk art you have tribal art you have what is called traditional art you have uh modern and contemporary but everything is Art yeah so whether you are putting them in silos of folk art traditional art uh rock art petroglyphs whatever you doing it is all coming for me in the wide ecosystem of Contemporary Art. Because these are all Living Traditions nothing is dead in fact in the west you have eraser with the past but here we do not have any eraser with the past there is not only a continuity there are Pockets where people are living in the most organic way without industry and Technology having gotten. There so this is what is unique of India India is not just a country it’s a continent and the diversity and the plurality of the country is absolutely uh how should I say it’s mindblowing so what what you see in these books is really my own essence. I have put the Rasa of my Life in these books.

whatever I have learned whatever I have taught whatever I have seen I have put it in these 14 books so music dance objects design photography traditional art indigenous art  textiles this all comes under the umbrella of visual culture of course I don’t have theater because I don’t think I have that expertise even though I look at the Natya Sastra but I don’t know enough about what happened with Parsi theater marathi theater uh all those things so I did not attempt that I do not have a book on Indian Cinema which is another world in itself but these 14 books if you want to know anything about architecture that’s another book I’ve done so anything you know need to know from the built Heritage to the hand painted Heritage in India you get your toes wet by looking at these books

For me, culture and heritage are paramount. India’s uniqueness lies in its diverse artistic expressions, from folk and tribal art to modern and contemporary. I see all forms of art as part of a wide ecosystem of contemporary art, as India’s artistic traditions are living and evolving. This diversity and plurality are what make India a continent in itself.

My books encompass various aspects of visual culture, from music, dance, objects, design, photography, to traditional and indigenous art. Each book encapsulates my essence—the culmination of everything I’ve learned, taught, and experienced. While I didn’t delve into theatre or cinema due to my expertise, my books cover a vast array of subjects, providing insights into India’s built heritage and hand-painted traditions. They serve as a gateway to understanding India’s rich artistic legacy.

To be continued…

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