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.)

Letter from an Indian corner in Oxford

“Every week, we get emails from Indian students. Every year, we sift through 150 short-listed applications for scholarships from India.”

Reshma Patil

The only trial of my life in this lovely place is that I have not time to write and tell you everything about all I see, hear and do…”_18 October, 1889. (From ‘An Indian Portia,’ Selected writings of Cornelia Sorabji 1866 to 1954, Edited by Kusoom Vadgama)

A black-and-white photograph of Cornelia Sorabji, the first Indian woman admitted to Oxford in 1889, hangs in a nook of the law library of Somerville, a former women’s college. Portraits of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher share a wall in another section of the campus on Woodstock Road. Women achievers frame every wall of its dining-hall, a place that is usually a bastion of male portraits in Oxford. And one may walk on its lawns, an activity strictly banned in bigger manicured colleges of Harry Potter fame.

Over a century since Sorabji became ‘the first woman (Indian or British) to sit the examination for the degree of bachelor of civil law at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1892,’ as Vadgama wrote, Oxford is now home to 390 Indian students among the total 23,195 students from over 140 nations.

India’s student strength in the very expensive intellectual capital of the UK is fourth-highest after the US, China and Germany. But it’s still below potential; just five more students compared to Italy.

India’s diaspora in the UK comprises nearly 1.5 million people of Indian origin _  equivalent to 1.8 per cent of the population. But barely an hour-long train ride away from London, on the leafy streets of Oxford’s grand old city-centre, one is likely to bump into more American and Chinese students: 1,573 and 1,151 respectively. The decrease in Indian enrolments in the UK since 2010 is reportedly mainly due to visa and immigration restrictions, but British diplomats have been saying that the numbers can improve again. “In numbers, this meant that in 2015/16, the number of student enrolments domiciled from India was 13,150 less than in 2011/12,’’ according to an estimate of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

“There are now more students from America studying in the UK than from India,” The Independent reported last year. “Just five years ago Indian students outnumbered their US counterparts by two to one.”

A four-year-old centre at Somerville College, established with a partnership between the Indian government and the University of Oxford, is trying to make its niche contribution to expand the Indian student community in Oxford. The Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, launched 2013, says that it aims to support ‘exceptional Indian scholars’ to study topics relating to India’s sustainable development at Oxford and ‘translate academic ideas to the ground’.

“Every week, I get emails from students in India who are eager to study here,’’ says Sara Kalim, Director of Development at the centre. “Each year, we sift through 150 short-listed applications for Master’s to DPhil courses from students who have already been accepted into Oxford. The calibre of Indian students is always outstanding.’’

Three of its new-comers are Indian women enrolled in the Cornelia Sorabji Law Programme launched here last year. The centre offers about 10 scholarships at any time and is in ‘fund-raising mode’ to launch more scholarships for example, in environmental law.

Often almost half the Indian applicants say they are unable to make it to Oxford largely due to lack of funding.

“In the short-term, we would like to double the number of Indian students on scholarships here,’’ says Kalim. “In the long-term, we would hope to build a place to house meaningful interactions between Oxford and India.’’

The centre looks for people who are seriously interested in innovative inter-disciplinary research and in returning to India to contribute to sustainable development in the teaching, academic, research and development fields. The centre’s current research activities focus on healthcare — developing inexpensive, remote technologies to monitor and treat large numbers of Parkinson’s disease patients, for example — and on sustainable nutrition issues such as mapping the rice supply chain, marine pollution and studying the sustainability of the public distribution system.

“The natural inter-disciplinary environment of Oxford lends itself well to some of the sustainable development problems of India,’’ says Kalim. “We are a centre for India, rather than about India.”

(A more detailed version of this blog was published on IndiaSpend and also reprinted on Business Standard )