What I Find Fascinating in Indian Art is its Vibrancy, its Life-affirming Quality: Anna L Dallapiccola

Anna Dallapiccola says “Art, immaterial whether it’s the visual arts, music, poetry, literature etc. is vital, especially in times of distress, because it transports you to another plane, far away from the concerns and pains you are facing daily. Art in general gives you a moment of respite during which your spirit is energised, and you can again face all kind of challenges.”

Anna has devoted her life to the study of Indian art in its myriad forms. Born in Italy surrounded by the sacred art of her country the dharma chakra pravartan mudra of Sarnath Buddha touched her innermost core. The mudra beckoned her to India and to a life dedicated to the study of Indian art. She spent 26 years in Germany first as a student and then as a professor of Indian Art at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University. Her research on different styles of paintings in India, temple architecture, iconography and Kalamkari has inspired many.

What led you to pursue a course in Art history and more particularly in Indian art?

I was born in Florence, Italy, and thus art was all around me. Although Western art was a part and parcel of our school curriculum and I had to study it in some detail, it did not capture my imagination. Since my early teens I was fascinated by Indian art. I recall collecting photographs, newspaper articles etc. on India and its art since the mid-1950s

You have been a student, a teacher and a lifelong scholar of Indian art. What do you have to say about each of these roles and which one you find closest to your own personal quest?

After finishing my schooling there, I moved to Heidelberg, Germany to study Indology and Indian art. I enjoyed immensely my years as a student at the University where I studied under the renowned scholar Herman Goetz, one of the pioneers in this field and another distinguished professor.

At first, I found lecturing very challenging especially because I had to teach in German, eventually I got used to it. I hope that during the thirty plus years I spent as a teacher I was able to instil some enthusiasm for the art of India into my students.

Eventually in 1991 I relocated to the UK. For a time, I was teaching at the University of Edinburgh, then at De Montfort University in Leicester and occasionally I participated in courses at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. Now that I am retired, I enjoy having the time and leisure to concentrate on topics which interest me.

What is the appeal of Indian art to foreign audiences, scholars and audiences? How do they relate to Indian art?

Things have greatly improved in the past 30 years or so. Now there is a sustained interest in Indian art which was not there in the 60s. At that time, no one, apart from museum curators, a handful of scholars and art lovers was interested in this subject.

Most Western onlookers found Indian art puzzling if not unsettling. The main problems, as I could see from the reactions of my students, were too many arms and too many heads, the too vibrant colours, the sensuous figures not to speak of the intricacies of Hindu mythology. When it came to Indian miniature paintings, the lack of perspective, was one more hurdle.

What was your first encounter with Indian art? Was it at a museum or in a temple? How does the experience differ?

I have a very vivid memory of my first two encounters with Indian art: the first was a blurred, black and white photograph of the Mukteshvara Temple at Bhubaneshwar.

Mukteshvara Temple (Photo: Gitanjali Mohanty)

I had not seen anything of Indian architecture before and I had not the faintest idea of what I was looking at. Shortly after, I was 11 years old, I chanced on a tiny picture of the Sarnath Buddha seated with the hands in dharma chakra mudra. I was bowled over: I sensed that I was looking at a masterpiece.

What is the uniqueness of Indian art? Which sculpture is your favourite, which of the narrative friezes has stunned you with its conception and execution?

This is a difficult question. I believe that every art in the world has its own uniqueness. What I find fascinating in Indian art is its vibrancy and its life-affirming quality.

Every narrative frieze I studied, even the most insignificant, had something stunning in its conception, some surprising feature.

The Ramayana narrative on the walls of the principal shrine in the Hazararama Temple complex at Vijayanagara was the first among the grand friezes that I studied. I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out the sequence of the narrative, totalling 108 panels, laid out in three ascending rows. To view the complete narrative, you need to circumambulate the building three times.

I noticed that the panels were arranged according to a well-thought out order. For instance, on the opposite sides of the building, lowermost row are the two crucial episodes in which Rama strings the bow. Rama’s breaking of Shiva’s bow is on the north east corner of the building, and Rama stringing Parashurama’s bow is on the south-east corner. The wedding celebrations of the princes of the house of Ikshvaku occupy the lowermost row on the east face of the temple, thus linking the two ‘bow episodes’.

Hazararama Temple, north face east corner: Rama breaks Shiva's bow. (Photo A.L. Dallapiccola)

Another example: On the top row, at the north entrance to the temple, we find the scene in which Hanuman jumps across to Lanka and at south entrance we see the building of the causeway. There are many other instances which reveal a very careful planning, considering both the movement of the devotee around the building and the progression of the narrative.

To my mind, there is always something to discover, even in the most modest work of art. More modest friezes or individual carvings are those illustrating the sthalapurana of a temple in one panel.

For instance, a small carving on the ghats leading to the Tamraparni river to the west of the Narumpunatha Temple at Tiruppudaimarudur (Ambasamudram dst.) shows the gods paying homage to the Narumpunatha (see pict.). The linga is slanted towards the north. According to the story, a devotee wanted to worship the Lord but could not reach the temple since the Tamraparni was in a spate and he could not ford it. He closed his eyes and he cried aloud ‘Narumpunatha, will you not help me?’ It is said that when the Shiva heard the devotee’s call, he slightly bent his head towards the north bank of the river. At that point, the floods subsided, and the devotee could have darshana of the deity.

The Gods worshipping Narumpunatha Tiruppudaimarudur (Photo: C Ganesan)

Will it be correct to say that Vijayanagar project brought you to the field work aspect of Indian art? Could you please share your journey with the VPR and the commitment that each one of you shared to put Hampi on the global archaeological map?

I visited Vijayanagara for the first time in February 1971. I confess that I did not warm to it. I would never have thought that I would work there as part of the VRP from 1984 to 2001. The site started to grow on me only when I commenced documenting the sculpted friezes and the carvings on the pillars of the major temples. Furthermore, the project attracted archaeologists, Sanskrit scholars, historians, architects, anthropologists etc. Especially during the first decade of the project there was a constant and fruitful interaction among the participants both Indian and foreign. It was an extremely interesting and stimulating time which I thoroughly enjoyed. To quote Prof. J. M.Fritz ‘It was magic’. He is perfectly right!

How do we understand this shift from sculptural to paintings? You have explored the various inspirations for Indian mural art; Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagwatam, Sthalapuranas, Periyapuranam, you have dwelled deep into the literary and devotional sources. What inspired you to dig deep into the sources?

I was always interested in painting more than in sculpture. My first foray into Indian painting was my PhD on Ragamala paintings (1970). While working at Vijayanagara I had many opportunities to travel to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. By the late 80s I started thinking of researching the Tamil Nadu murals. It was a tall order: first of all, I had to locate them and then try to study them. In those days there was no internet, no satnav, and you had to rely on local informants, not always very precise. Once you reached a site - at that time transport was a major problem - you had to get to negotiate with the person in charge to obtain the permission to see the paintings. Since they are generally in the innermost of the temples, they are not easily accessible if you are a non-Hindu and on top of that, a foreigner.

A further problem was, and still is, that in most temples photography is not allowed. I kept returning to the same places repeatedly, until, eventually, I gained access to the murals and, at long last, permission to take pictures.

In order to appreciate Indian art - any art, for this matter - it is mandatory to read as many devotional/literary sources as possible, so that when you see a work of art, you can place it into its cultural context. I find this kind of research at times very challenging but deeply satisfying. One of the challenges is the dating of a work of art. While at Hampi, being a painting person at heart, I turned my attention to the Virupaksha temple paintings. Generally, they are attributed to the 16th century, however, on stylistic grounds and looking at the patterns on the uniforms of the soldiers, I felt that they date of the early 19th century. My findings were confirmed by an expert in military technology who studied the weapons depicted. It is at that point that I began to be seriously interested in textile patterns and costumes as a crucial tool to date works of art.

There is much to learn and absorb when working at sacred sites. First, it is important to get the feel of the sthala, to find out as much as possible about the sthalapurana, the rituals, festivals, etc. When studying in detail the sculpted and painted narratives, knowing, even sketchily, something about the local legends is crucial. It is, however, only after repeated visits to the same place –especially in large complexes with many shrines and halls such as Madurai or Chidambaram - that things begin to fall into place.

There are always things to be discovered, questions to be answered. Even after working for so many years at Vijayanagara, at each visit I still find something new. This is a never-ending process.

From Ragamala to Thanjavur, what drew you first into the world of Indian miniatures? What is the difference between the two styles and what is the common thread that runs through the tradition of Indian paintings?

As I mentioned above, I started my journey into Indian paintings by studying miniature paintings, Ragamala painting. I chose this topic because there was ample material available in Europe and no one at that time (I am speaking of the years 1968-70) had written on this topic. Then I turned my attention to Chitrakathi paintings, which I found much more exciting than Ragamalas. Just when I had completed the Chitrakathi paintings project and I was at a loose end, I was invited by Dr G. Michell to join the VRP. I was a bit perplexed because I had never seriously worked on sculptures. However, I took up the challenge. I am glad I did, because it opened many new avenues of research.

Ragamala paintings, and for that matter miniature paintings, are relatively small in size, and were created for being examined at ‘close quarters’ so to speak i.e. they were studied and admired by connoisseurs. They were not meant for being displayed on the contrary, they were either bound in albums, or kept loose in folders.

Thanjavur paintings are generally of a generous size, sumptuously framed, and created to be displayed on the walls of either a puja room or of a matha. Most of the Thanjavur paintings focus on deities, holy sites, and to a lesser extent on portraiture. The repertoire of miniature paintings is more varied: images of deities, illustrations to literary works such as Ramayana, Bhagavata, Devi Mahatmya, to poetry e.g. Keshava Dasa’s Rasikpriya or Biharl Lal’s Sat-sai. Further important themes are portraiture, and secular scenes.

To my mind, the common thread that runs through Indian painting north and south is the choice of themes. E.g. above all, images of deities and episodes drawn from the epics and the puranas.

Indian art tells us a lot about social and cultural norms which was best explored by your monograph on Lepakshi. The Kalamkari motifs that we notice in the murals on the ceiling and walls are the best homage to the Indian textile traditions. Why were textiles ignored by Art historians?

A number of renowned scholars both Indian and Western have done a lot of work on textiles. It is, however, true, that art historians have not looked at textiles or kalamkaris in detail, as for a long time there has been a notion that textiles were not art but rather handicrafts. To my mind, however, as I stressed before, textile patterns can be crucial for determining the date of a painting.

V&A has an amazing collection of Indian textiles. How did you get drawn into the world of Kalamkari and Chintz? Why was West so mesmerised by Indian textiles?

I wanted to study the collection of kalamkaris in the Victoria and Albert Museum because of my interest in sacred sites. Some of the kalamkaris in the Museum’s collection show the plan of important temples such as Srirangam, Tirupparankuram, Tiruchendur, etc. and since I was familiar with these themes from the murals as well as from the Thanjavur and Mysuru paintings, I was interested in studying the rendering of holy sites in kalamkaris. While working on the Museum’s collection I came across some splendid items from Coastal Andhra illustrating the Ramayana, the Krishnacharita and the lesser known Katamaraju-katha. It was a magnificent experience and a steep learning curve.

Sita and Hanuman in Ravana's garden, from the Kalamkari5457A in the V&A's collection

The beauty of Indian textiles is unique, and it is only natural that the West has been mesmerized by their variety and vibrancy since at least Roman times. Personally, I love cotton ikats, especially those from Odisha and Andhra.

How far have you been able to explore Indian mythology for yourself? What does it mean to you in simplest terms and what is its most endearing part? Do you believe in Hindu Gods and Goddesses?

In 1955 Life magazine published a series of articles on the world’s great religions (which was eventually published as a book). I am not sure how I managed to lay my hands on a copy of the issue on Hinduism. In it there was a glorious two and a half page spread with drawings of the main gods and goddesses all identified by a label. I hung it in my room and started memorizing their names, their various aspects etc. Obviously, I had still a lot to learn about them, but it was then that I first heard of the Rakshasas, Apsaras, Gandharvas, of the Dashavataras etc. What I particularly like in Hindu mythology is its inclusiveness and its extraordinary variety.

Do I believe in Hindu Gods and Goddesses? Difficult question: I spent practically my whole life reading and studying about them, looking at their images, visiting temples and holy sites, and for me Hindu deities are one of the many aspects of the Divine.

The best of the art is to be found in temples and yet many of these have been destroyed and neglected. You say the “Common aim of the visit is to worship God, not necessarily to look at art.” How can the sometimes conflicting imperatives of worship and conservation be managed?

This is a vexed question. I believe that a possible answer would be to educate the visitors to respect their heritage. This should happen at a very early age, and the schools could be instrumental in operating a change in the attitude towards the works of art. It will take time to educate the new generations to appreciate their culture, but I think it is feasible.

I just received a message from the CSMVS, Mumbai celebrating the first year of the opening of Children’s Museum and I am delighted to hear of this initiative. This is a step in the right direction.

What are you currently working on and what is one work that you wish you had undertaken?

I am working with Dr Anila Verghese on the development of the sacred sites during the Vijayanagara and Nayaka periods. This study will encompass both the religious and historical aspects as well as the way in which the sites have been depicted in painting and sculpture. The one thing I wish I had undertaken is seriously learning Tamil in order to appreciate the poetry of the Alvars and the Nayanmars.

I am reminded of A L Basham’s ‘Wonder That was India’ where he dedicates a chapter on ‘What does the world owe to India’. Has India changed you in any way?

I visit India regularly once, sometimes twice a year. This has been going on for the past 53 years. I suppose that something of India has percolated into my way of thinking. The following episode can perhaps answer your question. Many years ago, shortly before the end of the season at Vijayanagara, Drs Michell, Fritz, other members of the VRP crew and I were talking about our Indian experiences. Dr Fritz remarked: ‘Most of us go back to the West’ and then, looking straight at me: ‘But some remain here’. I was shocked as I suddenly realised, he was perfectly right: even if I am physically in the West, part of me is somewhere in India.

Studying a collection of Thanjavur painting in New Delhi.
(Photo: Raghu Dharmendra)

A part of Anna L Dallapiccola will always remain with India wandering the temples of Rayalseema or analysing the murals of Nayaka temples or pouring over the V&A collection of Indian textile art. India will not let go of her.