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Tapati Guha Thakurta

Historian, Educator, Author


During the semester I spent as a Visiting Faculty at Brown University, in the Fall of 2018, one of my greatest pleasures was visitng different large and small museums around Providence, Boston and Harvard. I. Coomaraswamy's art collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston An exciting research stint I undertook was to explore the collection of Indian sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. This is one of the earliest collections of South Asian art to be formed within an American museum - it was brought to MFA by Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy at the end of the first World War, around 1919-20, when he moved with his art collection first to New York and then to Boston. When he was employed as a curator to oversee the Indian art collections that the museum was acquring from him and through him from other dealers, he followed in the trail of the legendary Japanese scholar and collector, Kakuzo Okakura. who had brought to the same museum its first collections of Far Eastern art and served as its first Asian art curator. Okakura died in Boston in 1913, a few years before Coomaraswamy joined the museum. Thanks to the present South Asian art curator, Laura Weinstein, I availed of the wonderful opportunity (one that is so rarely available in the museums of India) of moving from the sculpture collections on display to the archival and storage rooms deep inside the museum. Here I began to look at the files and photographs and poured over Coomaraswamy's extended correspondence pertaining to the acquistion of this art collection and his own appointment. It was no small revelation to discover how hard he had to bargain with the museum authorities to find a place for himself and his art collections in the museum. All I had time for during that busy semester was to barely begin this research inside the Coomaraswamy archives at the MFA - I wonder, when, if ever, I will be able to take up this trail again... II. My favourite haunts during my semester at Brown University were the university art museums, the one inside the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in my own campus, and the ones at the campuses of Harvard and Yale. At the Harvard University Art Museum, at Cambrige, Massachussets, inside the new wing, on a freezing afternoon of November, 2018, I found myself moving from the museum's iconic collection of mid 20th century European modernist art to this small special exhibition of animal-shaped vessels from different parts of the ancient world. I remember spending more than in an hour in this exhibition, scrutinising each of these exquisitely crafted vessels, admiring the way they were paired or grouped, and learning about the ancient rituals and ceremonies they belonged to, about which I knew so little. Many of these animal shapes still linger in my mind's eye...

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