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Lokvani Talks To Dr. Woodman Taylor, Assistant Curator At The MFA

Nirmala Garimella

Art is nothing tangible. We cannot call a painting 'art' as the words 'artifact' and 'artificial' imply. The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made. (Ananda Coomaraswamy)

Standing amidst the sculptures at the Indian Art gallery at the MFA on a recent afternoon, I was struck by how gracious Dr Woodman Taylor is as he spoke of his role at the MFAand his long association with India with enthusiasm and ease.As the new Assistant Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the MFA, he is bursting with ideas and programs for the Museum. “I’m delighted to be joining the MFA’s distinguished staff. I look forward to working with the Museum’s outstanding collections, including the preeminent collection of Indian painting and sculpture built by Coomaraswamy––arguably some of the best outside of India,” said Woodman Taylor “It will also be wonderful to begin working with Boston’s vibrant and extremely supportive South Asian community.”

And Dr Taylor would know. He lived the first 18 years of his life in India, and frequents India when he can. He is fluent in Hindi and it is delightful to have a conversation with him interspersed in two languages. As we took a tour of some of the sculptures and the exhibits in the gallery, it was obvious that he was very much at home with local customs and cultures exclusive to India. “There is a genuine treasure trove of art here at the MFA,"Dr Taylor explains, “Artists at some point or another find themselves drawn to ancient art. They view it as part of a rich heritage and the ‘vismaya’ that is evokes is truly inspiring. Appreciating some of them today is easier than before thanks to collectors and connoisseurs of Art” 

According to Taylor, MFA's South Asian Art collection includes more than 5000 objects. Among the most prominent is the Denman Waldo Ross collection of art that includes the sensuous Yakshi figure from the gateway of Sanchi, one of the most important monuments for Buddhists in India and the private collection of Ananda K Coomaraswamy, who as the museum’s early curator brought the interpretation of Indian Art to the West in the most befitting manner. Says Taylor “One of the plans that I have is to have an exhibition of the man and his collections as a tribute.  There are some rare pieces that he brought from India such as those found outside of the caves at Ajanta. Then there are some of Tagore’s paintings that have enriched the museum's collection. They have not been displayed to the public because of lack of space, but we hope to remedy that soon by trying to use the gallery  in a more effective way. We will also continue to build upon the department’s collections, specifically in two distinct areas on the paintings of the Shantineketan–Bengal school, as well as contemporary South Asian art”

What is however on top of the MFA’s agenda and a highlight is a major exhibition in the fall, ‘Domains of Wonder’, which is being organized by the leading historian Dr. B. N. Goswamy. Organized by the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA), this nationally touring exhibition will features 125 of the finest examples from SDMA’s Edwin Binney 3rd Collection––one of the largest and most important concentrations of South Asian painting outside of India. This is the first time more than 100 master paintings from the collection have circulated as an exhibition. A recent publication of MFA is a book on 'Indian Paintings' from cave temples to the colonial period by Joan  Cummins that is  beautifully illustrated and  detailed and  is available  at the Musuem.

“It’s a great honor that in my role in the expansion of these collections and the development of related cultural programs, exhibitions such as these will contribute to the education and enrichment of Museum” Says Dr Taylor. Visitors can look forward to this exhibition as well as a Public open house of South Asian culture in the fall with performances and demonstrations of mehendi designs, Boston Bhangra and other cultural Items. There is even a free College night on September 28th for students.

Another exciting program is an Indian Film festival featuring the films of Director Muzaffar Ali in late October. Enthuses Dr Taylor “ Muzzafar Ali , the director who made the popular film Umrao Jaan starring Rekha in a lifetime role has also agreed to come here to discuss his films and it is a wonderful opportunity for people to interact . We will also have Zila Khan who will be performing for the first time in the US with Turkish musicians as part of the festival on Sufi Music”

With such an incredible collection on South Asia and the commitment of people like Taylor with support from Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director the MFA with its new focus and many programs is set to attract many visitors. Moreover for visitors who want to enhance their knowledge of Indian Art, Dr Tayor will be teaching along with Diana Eck,  Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian studies,Harvard University  a series titled ‘Art and culture of India’ in the first week of October at the Museum.

As Jennifer Standley, the media relations manager at the museum said “Our aim is to make it interesting and exciting for a visitor as well as highlight some of our programs on South Asia at the museum so that more people would come and enjoy it”.

To know more visit www.mfa.org 

Having lived in northern India until the age of eighteen, Dr. Taylor is bilingual in English and Hindi, and proficient in several other South Asian languages. He received his B.A. in Asian History and Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University and was first Cataloguer of Visual Images for the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and then Curatorial Associate in the Department of Islamic and Later Indian Art at Harvard University Art Museums from 1978 until 1986. During his time at Harvard, he organized many exhibitions of Indian art at the Fogg Museum, as well as pursued his love of Asian music and dance through a series of concerts and performances. He moved to Chicago in 1986, working first at the Art Institute of Chicago, then at the University of Chicago where he received his Ph.D. in 1997. Since 1997, Dr. Taylor has been Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois. Additionally, in 2005, he spent a semester in New Delhi as a Fulbright Visiting Professor at the newly formed School of Arts and Aesthetics of Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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Dr. Woodman Taylor with the torso of a fertility Goddess on display at the MFA (Yakshi)

Ganesha with his consorts.
Courtesy: MFA

Pechhavai with Copis, Cows, and Heavenly Beings

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