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July 24, 2017

Divia Patel On Taking Indian Art Onto Foreign Shores

Text by Amishi Parekh. Photograph by Phil Dunlop

“I’d like to see less pretension in the fine art world and more value given to skilled craftsmanship”

As a child, she devoured stories that she found at her local library. Divia Patel was also fascinated by the physicality of books, how they smelled and felt, as well as the typography and illustrations within them. Born in Kenya but spending most of her life in London, she studied South Asian anthropology and history and is currently senior curator in the Asian department at the V&A. In 2015, she curated The Fabric of India, a landmark show that highlighted the country’s rich handmade textile heritage and also published India: Contemporary Design: Fashion, Graphics, Interiors. While she has a few upcoming exhibitions in the works, she is deeply involved in researching modern Indian textiles and revival projects.

“Observing the beauty in making things started at home: my grandfather and his fashionable tailoring; my father and his photography studio; my mother and her homecrafts of embroidery, gardening and cooking. My first visit to an art gallery was with a school group to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I was awed by the whole experience and the quality of the works of art that I saw.”

“The most significant milestone in my career came with the publication of my first chapter for a V&A exhibition catalogue, The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms. As a junior curator I felt such a sense of pride on seeing my essay on 19th-century photography in print in such a prestigious publication. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of immersing myself in history, in researching and writing, and this gave me the confidence to continue in my role. Without that initial success my life may have turned out very differently.”

“My role as a curator in the Asian department involves research, writing, planning for new displays, providing access to reserve collections, answering enquiries, giving lectures and gallery talks — the list is long — and I have my fair share of administrative duties too. At the heart of it all is the V&A’s incredible collection and the passionate desire to engage audiences with it.”

“Each exhibition or project brings a new experience. The greatest joy comes from being able to weave a narrative about an object or group of objects that captivates people. One of the most successful parts of The Fabric of India was the story of khadi and Gandhi which I told through a few objects and a film. The exhibition had many complex narratives covering a vast time span and through all of that khadi made an emotional impact.”

India: Contemporary Design was an attempt to document the zeitgeist — a moment in time when there was a very visible rise in design activity taking place post economic liberalisation. It was a defined study of a small metropolitan sector, which I hope will prove useful for design historians of the future. The book ended with a plea to others to do more research and writing on India’s design history, particularly the post-Independence period.”

“Contemporary craft is fascinating. I have found great pleasure in meeting artisans, makers and designers in the field and observing an amazing range of skills. But I have also been depressed by the complexity of the issues surrounding craft communities, the poverty of the artisan, the devaluing of skills, the lack of appreciation of high-quality work in India. Periodic cycles of revival programmes bring new hope but there has to be a long-term, sustainable solution otherwise India will lose this incredible resource…. I’d like to see less  pretension in the fine art world and more value given to skilled craftsmanship.”

“Seeing Nefertiti’s bust in the Neues Museum in Berlin was a cultural highlight of last year and this was equalled by my visit to Mandu in Madhya Pradesh just after the monsoon. Layers of history in the monuments, lush green hilly landscape and the romance of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati all in one place! Travelling though MP threw up so many delights; the Sanchi stupa, the weaving studios of Maheshwar and the state museum in Bhopal to name just a few.”

“We live in a time when cultural heritage is being destroyed around the world and when nationalism is on the rise. This is a reminder that all great museums today, and even more so in the future, should strive to preserve and celebrate our shared heritage in spaces that are open for debate, that use evidence and research to better understand the history of civilisations across the globe.”

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