An Indian Keeper at The Ashmolean

Reshma Patil

The oldest public museum in the United Kingdom, The Ashmolean Museum in the University of Oxford, last year appointed a new curator for its India collection and as a keeper/ head of its Eastern Art Department.

Mallica Kumbera Landrus happens to be the prestigious art and archaeology museum’s first Indian to take up the two roles and the latter, she acknowledges, ‘breaks at least one glass ceiling in Oxford’.

Visitors may notice that she recently put her stamp on a near-miss corner of the palatial museum building which has the largest art and archaeology collection outside London in the UK.

The Ashmolean Museum now has a first-of-its-kind special exhibit at the museum that’s dedicated to select works of art from India and Pakistan in two decades post-1947. ‘Old Traditions, New Visions: Art in India and Pakistan after 1947’ is tucked in a little corner gallery since last September and it will remain open until March this year.

The exhibit, according to The Ashmolean website, showcases the ‘new modes of expression’ of Indian and Pakistani artists as they ‘faced a significant challenge to express the new nations’ distinctive character and visions’ and ‘engaged with modern European art movements but remained oriented towards their own traditions’.

Entry to this exhibit is free compared to the more prominent Western exhibits under the same roof that attract larger paying audiences.

In an exclusive interview, Kumbera Landrus discussed her new role at The Ashmolean. She’s also associate professor for the history of art in India at the University of Oxford.

The best-known artists on the Indian sub-continent, she argued, are still relatively anonymous in the UK. “My aim was to do a big show to mark 70 years of independence for India and Pakistan. But would it attract audiences?’’ she raised the question.

“The target when we organise bigger shows is that they attract paying audiences,’’ she said. “An exhibit that attracts 40,000 people in three months is considered a success. One wants to make changes but also keep in mind that economics is important, as ticket sales contribute towards keeping the lights on and the doors open.”

Whenever that ‘big Indian exhibit’ happens, she noted, it will be essential that there is ‘substantial interest’ in it.

“One hopes for an intellectually stimulating show, which also represents sumptuously the exceptional history of art in India. However, without the audience numbers, it would not be considered an appropriate success. For now, only a small gallery was available for a free exhibit.”

It took over a year’s planning to acquire 13 paintings for the exhibit from private collections in London. It includes works of Indian artists Vasudeo Gaitonde, M F Hussain, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, S H Raza and Francis Newton Souza and Zubeida Agha, Sadequain and Anwar Jalal Shemza from Pakistan. According to Kumbera Landrus, the exhibit seeks to ‘exemplify the merging of Indian and Western art practices on the sub-continent’.

Patrons who have viewed the collection have found it ‘unexpected,’ she observed, because they are more familiar with Indian art such as Mughal and Rajput paintings or the Hindu and Buddhist sculptures in the museum.

Putting a woman and non-British person (she’s an Indian passport-holder) in charge of a department was ‘a huge change’ for the world’s first university museum to make, she acknowledged. As an Indian who has lived in India, the US and the UK, she says she’s ‘very aware’ of the gender and identity bias in workplaces.

“Some of the most closed institutes in the world are museums,’’ she said. “Based on proven trust, that builds over a long period, usually one takes up a job at a museum when one is very young and works for a few decades before heading a department … and I’m just in my mid-40’s, so I’m the youngest head of a curatorial department as well.”

In the last five years before her current appointment, she worked as a teaching curator at the University of Oxford, and introduced innovations in the classrooms. In her lectures, she interlinks art with subjects as diverse as clinical medicine, business studies and geopolitics and often includes objects from the museum’s collection and vast storage. For many of her students, it’s their first brush with Eastern art and that too in a current context.

The Eastern Art Department has approximately 40,000 objects of art including items from China, Japan and the Middle East. Her curatorial work involves the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art. The Indian collection of 10,000-12,000 objects from the Indus Valley civilisation to the 20th century famously includes the first object from India given to any museum: a ninth-century sculpture of Vishnu that came to Oxford in 1686. It made its way to the museum from William Hedges, the first Governor of the East India Company in Bengal.

Kumbera Landrus recently came across a lesser-known find, a Ganesha sculpture small enough to fit on one’s palm, that was once owned by William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was stored in the Library because it was gifted to the University of Oxford in 1640, before the museum was founded in 1683.

“Our collection from the Indian sub-continent is comprehensive between the Indus and 1900, after which it has not really grown,’’ she said. “In the early 20th century, there was waning interest in the UK in Indian art. The great modernists of the Bengal school, for example, are not represented in the Ashmolean collection. We have several Raja Ravi Verma prints but just one oil painting gifted to the museum by the Maharajah of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III.  Modern art is also very expensive, so we do depend on gifts and some generous donors for objects to expand our collection.”

She aims to further ‘engage with audiences in Oxford’ through exhibits and ‘increase awareness of art in India’. She also hopes to raise funds to expand and care for the collection and to start fellowships to support the study, conservation and teaching of Indian art in India.

The exhibit on art from India and Pakistan will remain open in gallery 29 until March 18.

(The writer was in Oxford from October-December as a journalist fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.)

Author: reshmapatil11

Reshma Patil enjoys connecting the dots between local and global news, and India and China, after over a decade in journalism. Her years in Beijing as the first China correspondent of a leading Indian newspaper inspired her non-fiction book Strangers across the Border: Indian Encounters in Boomtown China, (HarperCollins, 2014). Narrated from Beijing to small towns, from the Myanmar border to the South China Sea coast, it was short-listed for the first book (non-fiction) prize at the 2014 Tata Literary Festival in Mumbai. She’s a fellow of the Chevening South Asia Journalism Programme (2016) and she'll spend a semester this year in Oxford on a fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.