The Person and the Scholar
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 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
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 (Photo 1). 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
Devangana Desai
The Person and the Scholar
Anila Verghese
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
Photo 1. Devangana as a baby with her uncle, aunt and
mother in the religious ambience of a Vaishnava home.
Art, Icon and
in South Asia
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 (Photo 2).
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 lifelong
friends (Photo 3); many of them visited
her at home where lively research discussions
took place. 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
From 1978-80, Dr. Devangana Desai had
the Homi Bhabha Fellowship for research on
Narrative Sculpture (up to 1300 CE). 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
Photo 2. Devangana with her husband at Khajuraho in
1963 when researching for her doctoral thesis.
Photo 3. With Prof. Dhaky and Dr. Doris Chatham at Ellora,
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and the
Council was typed for her by her husband,
Jayant, as she did not know typing at that
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 (Photo 4). 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. Relooking
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 (Photo 5). 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 (Photo 6).
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.
Photo 4. With Prof. Stella Kramrisch and Dr. Kapila
Vatsyayan in England.
Photo 5. At the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, Khajuraho.
Art, Icon and
in South Asia
Photo 6. Release of The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho by Dr. D.R. Sardesai, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, 1996.
Photo 7. At Khajuraho.
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and the
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. (Photo 7).
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
(Photos 8-10). 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.
Besides, the above-mentioned books,
Dr. Devangana Desai has also published nearly
a hundred research papers on a range of
topics, which include the following: Ancient
Indian Art; Motifs of Temple Art, such as
erotic sculpture, apsaras, surasundaris and
shalabhanjikas; Ancient Indian Terracottas;
Buddhist bronzes from Sopara; Narrative
Sculpture, particularly, the Ramayana
episode of Vali-vadha; Dancing Ganesha
images; Vatapatrashayi—Krishna-Vishnu on
the banyan leaf, in mythology and art; and the
symbolism of Kurma or tortoise. Dr. Desai
does most of her research writing from her
home, where she has an extensive library
(Photo 11).
Dr. Devangana Desai has participated in
many national and international seminars and
conferences. She has delivered prestigious
lectures in New Delhi, Varanasi, Vadodara,
Ahmedabad, Pune, Allahabad and Mumbai.
Photo 8. Devangana with her husband, parents,
brother and sister.
Photo 9. With her sisters, Dr. Kunjalata Shah and
Dr. Nalini Doshi, at a family function.
Photo 10. With her brothers, Hemendra and
Yogesh Kothari.
Art, Icon and
in South Asia
She was invited to participate in the Festivals
of India in UK and USA. She has lectured at the
British Museum, London; the Oxford Centre
for Hindu Studies, Oxford; and the Universities
of Chicago, of Berkeley, of Vermont,
Cleveland, USA, of Sussex at Brighton, UK, and
of Heidelberg, Germany. The Indian Council
for Cultural Relations had arranged her
lectures at the Indian Embassy at Bhutan, and
the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, the Meru
Foundation, Boston, and Mills College,
California. She has also delivered the sectional
Presidential Address, entitled “Social
Dimensions of Art in Early India”, at the
Indian History Congress (1989), and the
Presidential Address, entitled “Art and
Literature – A Dialogue”, at the Indian Art
History Congress (2013).
During the course of her long research
career, Dr. Desai spent time in the photoarchives
of the American Institute of Indian
Studies and its Library, checking the photoarchives,
reading and discussing research
subjects with Prof. M.A. Dhaky, Mr. Krishna
Deva, Dr. N.P. Joshi, the great authority on
iconography, and others (Photos 12-13). When
she visited Khajuraho for research work, on
her return she often used to stay for about a
week or more at Varanasi to read and study at
the American Institute, then at Ramnagar.
When the American Institute of Indian Studies
shifted to Gurgaon, Dr. Desai continued to visit
it there.
It is but fitting that Dr. Devangana Desai
has been felicitated and honoured for her
outstanding contribution in the field of Indian
Photo 11. In home library.
Photo 12. With Krishna Deva and M.C. Joshi at Sarnath.
Photo 13. With Dr. N.P. Joshi and Dr. Kamal Giri, 2012.
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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.
Dr. Devangana Desai is affiliated to many
prestigious institutions. She is Vice-President
of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. She is a
Trustee of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj
Vastu Sangrahalaya (Formerly Prince of Wales
Museum of Western India), Mumbai, and a
Trustee of the Sarabhai Foundation (Calico
Museum), Ahmedabad. She is an Honorary
Professor at the Ananthacharya Indological
Research Institute, affiliated to University of
Mumbai. She is also the Series Editor of the
Monumental Legacy Series on the World
Heritage Sites in India, Oxford University
Press, New Delhi.
Dr. Desai was Consultant on a Project on
the Museum Images of Khajuraho, Franco-
Indian Research, Mumbai. She was the Editor
of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of
Mumbai from 1992 to 2009. She was also the
Chairperson of the Museum Society of Bombay
for nine years from 1983 to 1992.
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 most renowned 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 (Photo 14).
Photo 14. Jayant Desai and Devangana Desai at home.