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Lokvani Talks To Laura Weinstein, Curator, South Asia Art MFA

Nirmala Garimella

Laura Weinstein is Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She completed her Ph.D. in 2011 under Professor Vidya Dehejia at Columbia University, where she researched illustrated manuscripts produced in the Qutb Shahi sultanate of Golconda in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. She is the author of several articles exploring Deccani manuscripts of the Shahnama and other Persian and Urdu texts, the reception of Persian manuscripts in the Deccan, and the dynamics of cultural exchange in Indo-Persianate societies.
Since arriving at the MFA in 2009, she has curated several exhibitions of Persian and Indian paintings as well as an exhibition of Qur’an pages from the MFA’s collection. In 2011 she lead the reinstallation of the museum’s South and Southeast Asian collections. Her current exhibition, Pure Souls: The Jain Path to Perfection, displays Jain manuscript pages and related sculptures in an installation designed to present the manuscripts as objects with material, visual and spiritual dimensions, and to highlight the artistic ingenuity they embody. She is currently working on a touring exhibition of the highlights of the MFA’s Islamic collection which will return to Boston for display in 2017, and an accompanying catalog co-authored with an international team of specialists.

Give us some background of your role as Curator of the Ananda Coomarswamy collections at the MFA?

Since 2009 I have been curator of the MFA’s South Asian art collection, which means I care for a group of approximately 6000 objects from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. My job involves researching our collection, curating exhibitions on various topics, and acquiring new objects. In 2013 and 2014, for example, the MFA acquired a collection of 35 pieces of Indian colonial silver made between 1870 and 1930. This is one of the finest collections of Indians silver anywhere.

 What was your area of interest in the completion of your PhD ?
I received my PhD in 2011 from Columbia University. The topic of my dissertation was sixteenth-century illustrated manuscripts from the Deccan. For my research I lived in Hyderabad for about 6 months and also studied works of art in museums in London and Dublin. An article based on this research has just come out in the 2014 book The Visual World of Muslim India, edited by Dr. Laura E. Parodi. I hope to publish more in the future but finding time is difficult!

Share with us some of the fascinating collections of South Asian Art 
The MFA’s collection is very deep. Everyone is familiar with the world famous collection of Rajput paintings that came to the museum in 1917 with Ananda Coomaraswamy, and the Hindu and Buddhist temple sculpture. It is less well known that the MFA has the largest collection of objects from the Indus Valley Civilization outside of Indian and Pakistan. We have also developed an important collection of 19th century Indian art in recent years, acquiring Company School paintings, early Hindu god prints by the Calcutta Art Studio and Raja Ravi Varma (1890-1910) and now the collection of colonial silver.  

How has been the response from the South Asian community here as patrons?
The community of South Asians who are involved with the museum grows each year. A few years ago we began an annual Diwali celebration (this year on October 22) and each year we see at that event more and more energy around Indian art and culture. Right now we have an exhibition up called Pure Souls: The Jain Path to Perfection. I’ve found that members of the Jain community are very eager to learn and spread the word about the show, and they will be a major presence at this year’s Diwali celebration.
I am always trying to come up with new ways to bring our collections out into South Asian community or to bring the community in, and I invite suggestions!

What activities are planned to for art lovers  at MFA interested in South Asian Art? Are they any upcoming events?
We find that the South Asian community comes out for the Annual Coomaraswamy lecture, which is a talk each year by a major thinker, artist or scholar. This year we will have a talk called Exhibiting the Art of Yoga by Debra Diamond, a curator at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, who recently put together a major exhibition on yoga and Indian art. There will even be an opportunity to do yoga in the Indian gallery.

I also hope readers will come to see Pure Souls, our exhibition of Jain art (mentioned above). It’s up until November 30th and presents stunning works of Jain painting and sculpture that have rarely been seen in the hundred years since they were acquired.

Any other information you may want to share with us ?
For those who are serious art lovers, we have a group called the Friends of Asian Art. This group has 5 private events a year with great speakers as well as wine and cheese. It’s a chance to deepen your knowledge of Indian art as well as to learn about art from other parts of Asia. I go to the talks and I love meeting people there who want to get more involved in the museum.
My next exhibition will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ananda Coomaraswamy’s arrival in Boston and at the MFA. It’s in the early planning stages and I hope to make some exciting discoveries in our vaults and in Boston-area collections as I pull together material relating to this pioneering scholar’s life in New England.

To check out on the upcoming talk on Yoga click here


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