Ambassador of Indian culture

Ambassador of Indian culture

If it is true that culture is a vehicle of international understanding and those promoting it are its ambassadors, then Alice Boner, indeed, deserves to be called an Ambassador of Indian culture,” this is what Alfred Wuerfel, German photographer, said about his Swiss friend and artist in 1979.

However, there is little information available on the contributions Boner has made in promoting Indian performing and classical arts. Acknowledging that there was a need to recognise her efforts, the National Museum collaborated with Rietberg Museum and Alice Boner Institute, Varanasi and has brought to the city a two-month long exhibition ‘Alice from Switzerland: A Visionary Artist and Scholar across Two Continents’ which narrates the life story of the nonagenarian through her photographs, sculptures, drawings and sketches.

“She has left a huge and unique photographic archive. What makes it so special is its diverse and manifold content. Alice not only took or collected photographs of historic buildings and landscapes; she also took photographs of historic monuments for her research on Indian temple architecture,” curator Johannes Beltz tells Metrolife.

The Padma Bhushan recipient’s association with India began in 1926 when she met dancer Uday Shankar at one of his performances in Zurich — an encounter that resonated deeply with her. It was with him she first came here in February 1930 (for eight months) to help Shankar raise money to build his dance troupe, which they eventually did after several obstacles. The troupe that finally came into being consisted of 11 members, including Shankar’s youngest brother, Ravi Shankar, the renowned sitar player.

When she came back in 1935, she had no intention of staying here. She wanted to go back to Europe, but the looming war made that impossible. So she found a house at Assi Sangam (Varanasi) in 1936, and thus started soaking herself in the vibrant, spiritual culture of India.

She is best remembered for supporting and building Shankar’s troupe, but it’s her initiatives to investigate and revive Kathakali, at a time when the classical dance form was highly forgotten, that need to be recognised.

The exhibition illuminates this aspect through a series of photographs which she used as a tool to document the decline of the art form, . “Her photographic archive is also a kind of visual inventory of her work, social relations, and her biography,” points out Beltz.

“She used photography as a departing point for her own research — drawing on them and using them for further sketches.”

Born in Legnano, Italy, Boner grew up in an open-minded environment where her parents supported her decision to study art. Her formative education was such that she learned to look and draw art as geometrical diagrams. This characteristic of her artistic practice reflects from her early sketches, as well as, paintings of Goddess Kali from her later years. In these works, symmetrical lines have divided the canvas in equal segments, a feature quite ubiquitous to all her works.

She employed similar technique in exploring temple structures in India. The discovery that temples have certain “geometrical scheme” and can be studied in terms of “line of energy” was made at the caves of Ellora.

“Alice sensed that Ellora was to be of primary importance for any understanding of art... From then on, Alice systematically explored temple structures in India.  She drew outlines of sculptures repeatedly and realistically and reduced them to their basic form,” reads the catalogue.

“Bringing together a strict geometrical perspective into an analysis of a sculpture,” Beltz says, “Was definitely one of her major contributions in the field of art history”.

However, he is quick to add that while she is considered to be generous and one of the foremost patrons of Indian artistes and performers, there is another, even more, important detail associated with her life.

“She was one of the first scholars who studied original Sanskrit texts and used them for her studies. Together with Pandit Sharma she translated the Shilpaprakasha, a manual on temple architecture, into English. She published original sources (manuscripts) about the sun temple in Konarak and her translation of the Vastusutra Upanishad was published by Bettina Bäumer posthumously,” he says.

“This combination of geometry, field work at the archaeological sites, and philological research is definitely her major contribution to field of Indian arts,” he adds.

Alice from Switzerland: A Visionary Artist and Scholar across Two Continents can be viewed at the National Museum till October 30.

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