Pujan Gandhi, the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s new curator of South and Southeast Asian art, started work in September but didn’t truly become a Minnesotan until March, when he slipped on the ice and broke his ankle.
Luckily, not much can stop this ambitious young curator. Now he’s riding a scooter around the museum and working on his first big project: re-envisioning the Himalayan, South Asian and Southeast Asian galleries, which have mostly been untouched since the late 1990s, when they were installed on Mia’s second floor by the museum’s founding curator of Asian art, Robert Jacobsen.
Gandhi comes to Minneapolis by way of Atlanta, his hometown; London, where he did postgraduate work at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies; and Mumbai, where he has been traveling regularly since 2007 for curatorial work and research.
We caught up with him on a rainy afternoon, just as the ice was melting. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: What excites you most about Mia’s South and Southeast Asian art collection?
A: We were the second museum in the country, after the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to acquire a “Walking Shakyamuni Buddha” from Thailand. It’s sort of an iconic image of him midstride with one hand in abhaya mudra [palm upraised]. … The arm sort of sways like an elephant’s trunk. All these sort of aesthetic treatises of what the Buddha should be [are] typified in this sculpture.
When we got the [11th-century bronze] “Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance)” in 1929, it was the third to be acquired by a U.S. institution. It is another iconic manifestation, of Shiva and his cosmic dance. It became incredibly popular during this particular period in Indian art under the Chola dynasty. The casting is done so well that it was sort of revelatory. Even Rodin, for example, was looking at Chola bronzes.
Bronzes of that period, of that subject, of that scale, are hard to come by these days, so we were lucky to get this. There were little moments of great ambition. It’s 100 years later, but I think it is important to hold onto that. There are unique challenges to building a collection in the 21st century. One is just how much top-quality material is available. There are also the rules that we [now] abide by in terms of cultural property and archaeological material.
Q: You’ve only been here about six months, but I suspect you’ve already acquired some new work.
Lady Impey was the wife of the chief justice of Bengal. Upon moving to Calcutta in 1773 and discovering the new flora and fauna in their garden, they embraced the culture and the place. Lady Impey commissioned artists from Atelier Mughal, who had a very fine sense of painting that included rabbit-hair detail, a sense of naturalism, observation and a keen sense of the interaction of brilliant color, to do these natural history paintings. She also showed them prototypes from Europe, provided them with larger paper [from Europe] — it was a special moment in British and Indian history.
I have also acquired a 1997 work called “Homes I Made/A Life in Nine Lines,” by the contemporary Indian artist Zarina. She was born outside Delhi but had an itinerant existence. During the partition of colonial India in 1947, her mother went to Pakistan and her father stayed in India. That sort of set the course for this preoccupation with memory and home. She addresses her life and the issues of memory, displacement, home, with a rigorous clarity that is uncanny. Within the canon of South Asia, we have to be able to discuss the partition and the traumas that happened, and she is hugely important in that way. It is one of three key autobiographical pieces by the artist. The others are at MoMA [in New York] and the Tate [in London]. We were very lucky.
Q: Do you have any major exhibitions coming up?
A: I am treating the gallery reinstall as I would an exhibition, aiming for a reopening in the autumn. One thing that everyone needs to know is that there is a difference between South and Southeast Asia. We have three galleries: South Asia, Himalayan and Southeast Asia. Throughout those three collections we have about 1,300 objects. In comparison, the museum has about 90,000 objects. Between South and Southeast Asia, you are talking about 2 billion people. You could strive to be representative, but it is a big task.
Q: What are some ways you want to reinstall the galleries?
A: I want to create niches to house sculptures, adjust the lights and highlight the aesthetic qualities of the best work. An example is the head of Vishnu, a ninth-century gray sandstone sculpture from the Khmer Empire in Cambodia that is currently in the gallery. It has this lifelike quality; it is not remote in ways that gods are oftentimes depicted. But if you go up closely and try to see the back, you cannot. The headdress is beautifully tied and there is this wonderful detailing on the back — it is like the lining of a coat. I want to have a mirror or something to engage with the material. Sometimes when explaining these icons, it’s easy to get caught up in the iconography and miss out on the artistry.