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Bringing Indian art to India

The Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, US, has two magnificent connections with India — its large collection of Indian modern art that’s unmatched in the West, and Tina Ambani, the only non-American on the museum’s 23-member board of trustees. Now the 211-year-old institution is trying to leverage both the connections and stage a show in India around the time of Barack Obama’s first visit to the country, reports Amitava Sanyal.

art and culture Updated: Jan 23, 2010 23:43 IST
Amitava Sanyal

The Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, US, has two magnificent connections with India — its large collection of Indian modern art that’s unmatched in the West, and Tina Ambani, the only non-American on the museum’s 23-member board of trustees. Now the 211-year-old institution is trying to leverage both the connections and stage a show in India around the time of Barack Obama’s first visit to the country.

While most western museums’ collection of Indian art stops at 18th-century Rajput miniatures, Peabody Essex has a formidable collection of 20th century works too — thanks in main to 1,300 artworks it acquired in 2001 from the Chester and Davida Herwitz collection.

But some of earliest pieces collected by the museum owe their ownership to a curious piece of American history. Peabody Essex dates its ancestry to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society, an organisation of seagoers who sailed east. The society’s charter included a provision for setting up a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities”, said the museum’s CEO and executive director Dan L. Monroe. The ‘cabinet’ eventually became the museum.

Helped by Tina Ambani’s Harmony Foundation, Monroe and his museum’s curator for South Asian and Korean art, Susan S. Bean, were in Mumbai and Delhi last week scouring for a “suitable” stage to showcase a selection. After checking out the National Gallery, National Museum, Lalit Kala Academy and the Indira Gandhi National Centre, Monroe, whose 2010 budget is of $23 million (more than Rs 1,000 crore), said, “Our stewardship responsibilities require that there be adequate security, climate control, lighting…. Some of the venues we saw meet out standards.”

Monroe and Bean wouldn’t confirm it, but sources close to the effort said they are trying to coincide the show with Obama’s visit, tentatively scheduled between June and November 2010. Now, that would be an Obama moment.