Alice in her Land

An exhibition in Delhi documents the work of Swiss artist and Indologist Alice Boner and her role as a cultural ambassador.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published: September 15, 2016 12:15 am
 delhi exhibition, delhi art exhibition, swiss art exhibition, alice boner, alice boner exhibition, National Museum, National Museum exhibition, janpath exhibition, indian express talk Alice Boner in Varanasi in 1935.

Bordering the holy city of Varanasi at its south, at the revered juncture where the narrow rivulet Assi joins the majestic Ganga, stands a nondescript building with the name Alice Boner embossed on the nameplate. Frequented by artists and academicians, it’s still an oasis of calm surrounded by the crowded neighbouring ghats. It has seen busier decades and more glorious years, when it was home to Boner — Swiss artist and Indologist who worked from the address from 1936 to 1978. Ill health forced her to return to Zurich, where she stayed until her death at the age of 91 in 1981. Thirty-five years later, National Museum in collaboration with Museum Rietberg, Zurich, is hosting an exhibition, which, according to curator Johannes Beltz, “aims to show how Alice Boner promoted cultural knowledge and understanding between the East and the West”. He adds, “It is the forgotten and fascinating story of this woman in India doing extraordinary things for the time”. The exhibition is titled “Alice: From Switzerland”.

Having spent most of her working years in India, Boner was from both sides of the globe, as is evident from the wall works at the National Museum in Delhi. The visual biography, which includes paintings, prints, photographs, letters and diaries, documents her dynamic life from the formative years as a sculptor, to her romance with India. She never intended to stay here for long when she first occupied the Varanasi quarters, but the war in Europe compelled her to. Gradually, she started believing “in the benedictory power of mother Ganga” and began to respond to the bustle and colour of India.

Her introduction to India, in the early ’30s, was through dancer Uday Shankar. His performance in Zurich in 1926 had “resonated deeply with her”. She also, perhaps, found it attractive because of her own interest in the human body during the early years of her career in Switzerland — also showcased in the exhibition through her portraits and full body studies. “She studies dance form extensively… In her drawings and sculptures she attempted to isolate fleeting movements,” says Belz.

When she travelled with Shankar through India in 1930, it was to recruit members for the Uday Shankar Hindu Dance and Music Troupe, of which Boner became co-director. A fallout with him in 1939 led to her exit from the troupe but by then India was home to Boner.

While she supported numerous Indian artists, musicians and dancers, including Ustad Allauddin Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Zohra Sehgal and Shanta Rao, Boner’s art too was inspired by Indian philosophy and tradition. She conceptualised a series of paintings containing cosmological ideas and was one of the first Europeans to investigate Kathakali — an almost forgotten dance form at that time. In the exhibition, we see her studies of the dancers, and also sketches of Goddess Kali, a recurring subject in her work. An archivist, we see her sketches and photographs of archaeological sites across India, including the Ellora caves. Though photography was almost always a means of documentation for her, in the exhibition it emerges as a valuable archive, as do details of her formidable art collection, including miniatures, stone and terracotta sculptures, bronzes and musical instruments, most of which were donated to the Bharat Kala Bhavan in Varanasi and Museum Rietberg in Zurich.

There are also glimpses into her personal life — photographs with her parents, the diary entries where she speaks of her first love, Japanese artist Minori Yasuda, and her correspondence with her close friend and Bengali lawyer Promoda Charan Mittra or “Montu” as she came to call him.

It is the Ganga, though, that remained her constant companion in India. She writes in one of her diary entries, “I feel the way she (Ganga) benevolently flows through me.”

The exhibition is on at National Museum, Janpath, till October 30

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  1. Johannes Beltz
    Sep 15, 2016 at 7:56 am
    Now the review by the Indian Express!
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      Pali reen
      Sep 15, 2016 at 9:41 am
      I came across the work of Alice Boner by chance, while explaining the difference of composition between the western and Indian art to my photography cl in a design insute. It was in my search for explanation of art from the Indian context that I stumbled on to Alice Boner's wonderfully lucid book, 'Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture, Cave Temple Period'. I was disappointed on two points. First, the insute did not have any instructions on the Indian composition of art. Second, it was once again a Swiss and not a native Indian, who broke through the code of composition in Indian sculptures. Today, I am disappointed again that it is Switzerland who has honoured her and not India. The same exhibition would have been an eye-opener for our art students here particularly those who could not travel abroad.
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