Scholars’ Views



img_5260-1   Prof. Niharranjan Ray (in the Foreword to Erotic Sculpture of India)


dhaky-saheb      Prof. M. A. Dhaky

I was delighted when told that a Felicitatory volume for Devangana Desai is contemplated by a group of friends in the field of learning, particularly the history of Indian art. She eminently deserved it, in fact even back in the years she crossed sixties.

I have known Devangana’ben and her (late) husband Jayantbhai since long years. As I recall, she first met me in 1978 at the American Institute of Indian Studies, Varanasi. Since then our friendship progressively had grown and turned into a kinship as my wife (now late) and I had felt. As I came to know more of her, I sensed her to be a simple, sincere, and an honest soul possessing an aesthetic inclination beside an unswerving orientation toward making sustained efforts to reach the levels of profounder learning.

As for her research work, from the initial socio-historical field of studies, she eventually has shifted to the domain of art history proper where she began to contribute fruitfully, indeed from the very start. She boldly explored and interpreted an aspect in Indian sculptural art which angels of art history feared to tread. Her first work, the Erotic Sculpture of India, demonstrates how meaning-revealing, significant and fruitful her socio-historical approach proved. That book is her memorable and long lasting contribution.  By way of contrast, the papers and articles, 16 in number, that appeared in her latest collection, Art and Icon : Essays on Early Indian Art, lean more toward pure art history. Within the ambit of her scholarship is also included the study of iconography; as an instance maybe cited the identification of the ‘Sveta-dvipa devotees of Narayana’. A temple as an ordered whole one notices in her book, the Religious Imagery of Khajuraho, where her erudition now shines, now sparkles with insights.

Her scholarship shows thoroughness: it pays serious attention to accuracy, acuity, clarity, brevity and, of course, communicability and readability, the intrinsic merits a perceptive reader expects in a writing that reflects genuine caliber. The depth of scholarship of four decades has earned for her a name. The symposia, seminars and conferences, in India and abroad alike, take pride in inviting her as a participant and sometimes also ask her to chair. For the past several years, she had been associated with the Asiatic Society of Mumbai and was acclaimed for the efficient editorship of its famous Journal. She is closely associated with the Museum in Mumbai, the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, as its Trustee, and a member of its Publications Committee. Recently, she has sponsored the renovation of the Sculpture Gallery of the Museum. The time is now ripe for honouring her with a national award.

dr-sr-anila-verghese    Dr. Anila Verghese

All who have heard the name of Dr. Devangana Desai know her to be an eminent and erudite scholar and a widely quoted, much respected art historian.  Those who have interacted with her closely also know her as a wonderful human being, kind, gracious and generous, soft-spoken and warm-hearted, above petty politics, and ever willing to share of her wealth of knowledge and experience.  Petite of frame, impeccably groomed, and always elegantly turned-out, she is a true ‘devangana’, bringing to one’s mind the carved devanganas or surasundaris that adorn many an Indian temple.

Born in 1937 in Bombay (as it was then known), Devangana was the eldest child of Mathradas and Kusumben Kothari.  The devout Vaishnava ambience of her home and family had a deep impact on Devangana.  The Bhagavata Purana Saptah-katha recitals for seven days took place several times in the house during her growing years.  One of the earliest photographs of Devangana is of her as a six month old baby in the lap of her aunt, Kamalavatiben, looking wide-eyed as her uncle, Dharamdas S. Kothari, performed religious rituals while reading the Bhagavata Purana.   It was in this atmosphere that Devangana’s interest in religion, art and the Indian classical texts took shape.  At the age of nine, she read an abridged version of the Bhagavata, given to her by her uncle.  In 1953, she finished her schooling from New Era High School, passing the SSC examination.  She went on to do her BA from Elphinstone College.  Marriage in 1957 and home commitments did not stop her academic pursuits, for she continued with an MA in Sociology, which she secured from the University of Bombay in 1959.  Deeply research-oriented, Devangana never took up a job, but concentrated on research and writing.   She registered for the PhD, working on the topic “Erotic Sculpture of India in its Socio-Cultural Setting”, under the guidance of the renowned Sociologist, Dr. G. S. Ghurye, who instilled discipline in her research work. He made Devangana read Sanskrit literature for one year to understand the cultural background of art.

Devangana saw a book on Khajuraho in the library of the University of Bombay and she was drawn to study the famous temples of this site for she felt that there was a deeper significance to the erotica depicted there than was perceived.  The subject was selected to understand the context of these figures in the religious art of India, not for interest in eroticism itself.  That was the beginning of an arduous but exciting travail.  Accompanied by her encouraging and enthusiastic husband, Jayant Desai, and an architect friend, Dileep Purohit, Devangana travelled the length and breadth of India, visiting temples.  Later when, due to pressures of work, her husband could not accompany her on her field trips Devangana travelled alone, staying in ITDC hotels or State Rest Houses, and learnt to handle the camera.   During her numerous field trips during her PhD work and later, she met many scholars, some of whom became life-long friends; many of them visited her at home where lively research discussions took.  The circle of scholars of Indian art with whom Devangana Desai has interacted and those whom she has helped during the course of her research career is indeed very wide.

The PhD degree, which she was awarded in 1970, was but the beginning of Devangana’s life-long commitment to research.  In 1975 her first book, Erotic Sculpture of India – A Socio-Cultural Study, based on her PhD work, was published.  Prof. Nihar Ranjan Ray had been the external supervisor of Devangana Desai’s PhD thesis. He continued to guide her in her post-doctoral work, on Ancient Indian Terracottas.  For this research, she travelled alone to archaeological sites and places such as Patna, Banaras, Allahabad, Mathura, and so on.

From 1978-80, Dr. Devangana Desai had the Homi Bhabha Fellowship for research on Narrative Sculpture (up to CE 1300).  She travelled extensively to temples of Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and to northern Indian sites and museums.  During her travels, she received help from the staff of the Archaeological Survey of India. The Report which she submitted to the Bhabha Fellowship Council was typed for her by her husband, Jayant, as she did not know typing at that time.

The year 1980 marked a turning point in Dr. Desai’s research. Her approach to art changed from the socio-historical to the art historical point of view. That year she was invited to prepare a paper for the Symposium, ‘Discourses on Shiva’, convened by Prof. Michael Meister, in honour of Prof. Stella Kramrisch.   It was to be held at Philadelphia in 1981. The subject of the erotic sculpture of Khajuraho was assigned to Dr. Desai by Prof. Meister.  She informed him that she would rather work on the theme of ‘Ravana shaking Kailasa’. But Prof. Meister insisted on her presenting a paper on Khajuraho.  While preparing the paper, Dr. Devangana Desai revisited Khajuraho.  Re-looking at Khajuraho sculptures and their placement inspired in her a different approach to art. Earlier, she had looked at art from the socio-historical point of view.  But looking closely at the placement of images by the architects of the two most important temples at Khajuraho, gave her now a different perspective to art.  This resulted in her research into a detailed study of the religious pantheon and the placement of images of the Lakshmana and Kandariya Mahadeva temples of Khajuraho, the one dedicated to Vishnu and the other to Shiva.  She also noticed puns and double-meaning employed in the Khajuraho sculptures.  From 1985, Dr. Desai’s project on the Khajuraho temples was sponsored by Franco-Indian Research. Mr. M. Postel, of Franco-Indian, and his wife took interest in the project and photographed some of the important sculptures of the Khajuraho temples for her. Dr. Kirit Mankodi, art historian and Director, Research Studies at Franco-Indian, discussed the subject with her.  This pioneering work, resulted in Dr. Devangana Desai’s second book, The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho, published in 1996 by Franco-Indian Research.  This volume is of seminal importance in the field of Indian Iconology.  It was widely acclaimed and reviewed extensively.  The Discovery Channel, the BBC and Doordarshan interviewed Dr. Desai, giving publicity to her research on Khajuraho.

Next, Dr. Desai wrote a monograph on Khajuraho, for interested visitors, which was published in 2000 in the World Heritage Site Series, by Oxford University Press, New Delhi.  In this book she describes major temples of Khajuraho, including the Jaina temples, and their history, patronage, etc.

Dr. Desai’s fourth book, Art and Icon, Essays on Early Indian Art, published in 2013, consists of sixteen of her selected articles on early Indian art, edited by Tulsi Vatsal, and updated.  This book was dedicated by Dr. Devangana Desai to her late husband who had always been pillar of strength to her in her on-going research involvements.  Besides, the great support that Dr. Devangana Desai has received from her husband she has also been supported by her family members.  Presently, she is working on a monograph on “Vatapatrashayi, Krishna-Vishnu on the Banyan Leaf”. The monograph under preparation will take into account sculptures, bronzes, and literature on Vatapatrashayi.  Dr. Desai’s interest in this subject was sparked off by a painting from Nathdwara of Vatapatrashayi that she received from her sister, the late Malati.

During the course of her long research career, Dr. Desai spent time in the photo-archives of the American Institute of Indian Studies and its Library, checking the photo-archives, reading and discussing research subjects with Prof. M. A. Dhaky, Mr. Krishna Deva, Dr. N. P. Joshi, the veteran scholar of iconography, and others.

It is but fitting that Dr. Devangana Desai has been felicitated and honoured for her outstanding contribution in the field of Indian art.  She was awarded the Silver Medal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in 1977, the Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 1978-80, and the Dadabhai Naoroji Memorial Prize in 1983.

Recently, Dr. Devangana Desai sponsored the renovation of the Sculpture Gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) of Mumbai.  This gallery has some of the well-known and important sculptures of Western India, and also other regions. It has objects from the second century BCE onwards from the sites of Pithalkhora, Pauni and others. Three splendid ceiling panels from a seventh century temple at Aihole are in the gallery. The sponsorship of the renovation of the Sculpture Gallery was made by Dr. Devangana Desai in the memory of her husband, the late Mr. Jayant Desai, who had always encouraged her to pursue her passion for research.

indira-iyer    Dr. Indira Aiyar

It is common knowledge in academia that Dr. Devangana Desai’s name is synonymous with meticulousness and accuracy in research. It is my happy task to contribute to this fitting Felicitation Volume presenting a few glimpses of Dr. Devangana Desai viewed as a friend and a scholar.

A decision always involves a choice and the choice implies a loss. Devangana decided to devote her life to research work to the exclusion of all else including academic jobs or positions. In fact, in the recent past she has had to make choices from amongst innumerable invitations to preside over or participate in academic conferences.

She is a complex synthesis of intuition and analysis. Her total involvement and sensitive approach to the subject results in a surprising melding of pure research tinged with poesy. She realigned the iconographic past with texts on religious philosophy and sculptures, making a significant break away from the prosaic study of iconography. The year 1981 was a watershed in her research, when she realized that erotic sculptures were just a fraction of the icons in the temples of Khajuraho. Whilst viewing the sculptures for her first book, she noticed certain patterns in the placements of the icons. She decided to make that aspect the subject of her second book. She boldly changed her study of icons from the point of view of a social historian to that of an art historian, making a significant change in iconology.

She never considered herself a master in the field of her research, but always a humble student searching for deeper nuances in the hidden layers of meanings in her studies, as her focus deepened. Where one would look, she observed in silence, almost meditatively, cajoling the stones to give up their secrets. When Devangana identified the sculptures such as those of the acharya, patron or sthapati, the Nara–Narayana panel, the Shveta Dvipa panel, etc., etc., she said it gave her as much thrill and joy as one would derive from reading an Agatha Christy or a Connan Doyle mystery !

Her mien is gentle but covers a steely discipline. Her editorship of the Asiatic Society’s Journal won kudos from well–known scholars abroad for her work. As much as she expects a certain standard of accuracy from the contributors to the journals or books under her editorship, she is generous in her advice and guidance. She gives free access to her good collection of books and photographs. If perchance they veered away from her point of view, she would resign herself to their maverick views, as she did with the present writer once. She always cautions the reviewers of books not to be harsh in their assessments.

She is devoid of any hypocrisy, is above petty politics, and is wont to be often surprised by double–talk. She is at one with her surroundings be it nature or temples. Even in the busy life of Mumbai, she found beauty in a sapling of Pipal struggling to make its way between pavement stones on the road near her house. She brought it home, lovingly nurtured it back to health and would show it with great delight to her visitors.

In the recent past, she suffered a huge personal loss on the sad demise of her husband and felt the very foundation of her life shaken. She was matter of fact in her dealings with the outside world during that difficult period, but she threw herself into her work, doubly motivated, as a form maybe, of paying her tribute to the departed.

As a host or a guest, she is always thoughtfully aware of the needs of the other. She is munificent in her donations to scholarly institutions, but equally looks to the welfare of the staff and quietly makes her contribution to the needy.

Dr. Devangana Desai is innocent and humble. She is child–like in her glee when she is complimented on her work. She will laugh and repeat it with surprise and happiness. Her spiritual leanings and simple living were nurtured in her parental home, and made firm in her married life. She is eclectic in her taste and derives as much pleasure mingling in social gatherings as in addressing an august audience.

These few random thoughts will do no justice to either the brilliant scholarship or the humane qualities of Devangana Desai. It is a privilege to be close enough to her over these years to observe both these facets. It is indeed a pleasure that I am given an opportunity to air these thoughts.