raja rao annual award 2003

Citation presented to Dr. V. Dehejia, recipient of the Raja Rao Award 2003 for outstanding contribution to the culture of the Indian diaspora:

Dr. Dehejia has been, for over a quarter century, a prominent member of the Indian community in Ottawa, and is well known, not only as a medical practitiioner, but more importantly as the host and producer of a weekly radio broadcast of Indian music, as an art lover and collector, and as a popular lecturer in the department of religious studies at Carleton University, where he is an adjunct professor. By his manifold activities in the community and by his steadfast effort to project the image of India in literate circles, he has served as a cultural ambassador of the country of his birth.

Dr. Dehejia's academic contributions consist of a number of publications on the general subject of In dian art and culture. The Flute and the Lotus: Romantic Moments in Indian Poetry and Painting and Parvati: Goddess of Love are art books of the popular variety, but with a difference. They are not only distinguished by their art-historical and explanatory material, and in-depth analyses of the art works; they also attempt an interpretation of them in light of the ancient Indian metaphysical assumptions. Three other books, The Advaita of Art, Parvati Darpana, and Despair and Modernity: Reflections from Modern Indian Painting (which he coauthored with Prem Shankar Jha and Ranjit Hoskote) are theoretical essays--the first two being his most ambitious attempt to advance a general theory of art and art experience in terms of Kashmir Shaiva epistemology. In addition to these, Dr. Dehejia has also been writing for popular magazines and other outlets about Indian art. In his radio broadcasts of Indian music, he finds room for interspersing his own comentary on the cultural history and artistic and intellectual traditions of India, delivered in a smooth, seductive tone, evoking a sober, contemplative mood.

Dr. Dehejia's passion for Indian art, and for the culture it represents, is such that he has practically "lived" with his collection of miniatures and other artifacts, and gazed at them long and hard. They are, in fact, the very centre of his being. One is led to believe that his whole intellectual effort has been inspired by his love of this art and by his desire to understand it in some of its foundational premises--the thought patterns and value systems, the myths and legends, metaphors and symbols, in short, the whole mentality, mystique, and modes of comprehending that went behind its creation. This is no doubt a well-trodden path since Havell, Coomaraswamy, Kramrisch, and more recently, Kapila Vatsyayan, and Dr. Dehejia follows in their footsteps. But he also adds an interesting new note or emphasis, once again drawing upon the work of recent exponents of Indian aesthetics, like K.C. Pandey. An ardent espouser of Kashmir Shaivism, he has sought in the tenets of that system--in its epistemology, particularly--a framework for a general philosophy of art.

It is not, however, in analytical thinking that Dr. Dehejia's forte lies. His arguments tend to be driven more by the sweep of generalizations and the flow of rhetoric than by close reasoning and subtleties of distinction. His gifts are altogether lyrical. His strength lies in his deeply felt, perceptive response to the values embedded in art works, in this case, mainly Rajasthani, Moghul, and Kangra miniatures. He brings to his appreciation of them a poet's sensibility and a nostalgia for the beauty and tenderness of a strain in our culture whose sources stretch back into the hoary past. It is in this world of paintings that Dr. Dehejia would seem to have found his real habitat. His art books contain some admirable descriptions, where his imaginative powers come into full play. In his readings of the painted scenes and portraits, he not only provides a thematic focus to them in the light of their narrative backgrounds, but he also exhibits a keen eye for detail. Whether it is a painting of Radha and Krishna looking together into a mirror that he is commenting on, or one in which they are exchanging their lovers' roles, or one in which Shiva is looking affectionately at Parvati in locked gaze, he shows a remarkably observant eye, such that he can seize on every significant element in the picture--even the subtlest nuances of expression, his imagination invariably filling in the "unspoken" meanings. The Flute and the Lotus is a fascinating book on the theme of romantic love, in which the poetic passages and their translations into the pictorial medium mutually illuminate one another so as to bring out the truth of the dictum that poetry is speaking picture, or painting visual poetry.

In his treatment of Indian aesthetics, Dr. Dehejia no doubt dwells largely on one particular rasa, namely, "Sringara" to the exclusion of all others. But that, for him, is the primal rasa and one to which he is instinctively drawn and which also fits into the metaphysical mould of Kashmir Shaivism. In the legends of the loves of Krishna, in the biune togetherness of Shiva and Parvati, in the image of Shiva as androgyn (Ardhanarisvara), and in "Parvati darpana" (where Parvati is seen holding up the mirror to Shiva, so he may see himself in it), he finds the perfect paradigm for Kashmir Shaivite epistemology, as well as an ideal depiction of the Sringara Rasa.

Dehejia's appreciation of Indian art works reveals not only a sure understanding of their iconology and their mythological and cultural underpinnings, but also a felt inwardness and rapport with the depicted themes. The visual image (in paint, metal, or stone) is what he dwells on primarily and what engages his interest. And this he takes as his paradigm of art and art experience. One may question the wisdom of mounting a general philosophy of art on the basis of a single art form, pradigm, or explanatory model. Especially, one may question his attempt to project Kashmir Shaivite epistemology as the one golden key to all aesthetic understanding, or for that matter, even to the understanding of the Indian artistic tradition as a whole. Surely, there is so much more of Indian art than what may be fitted neatly into the "Parvati darpana"--his preferred epistemic model. And even for explaining aesthetic experience, other philosophical models too may be seen to work just as well. But whatever the limitations, there is an undeniable charm in his finely articulated descriptions of the art works that he has chosen for his attention.

I see Dr. Dehejia's contributions primarily as those of an aficionado of Indian art and commentator. His works are valuable for their loving and sensitive presentation of Indian artifacts, if not so much for their theoretical excursions.. By his personal enthusiasm, by his writings and talks on ancient Indian subjects--their embedded myths and symbols, motifs and sentiments--by his own enterprising spirit, and, above all, by his espousal of traditional values in a world of fast-changing mores, he has been trying to convey to the Indian community at large a sense of the wonder that was India. Dehejia's intellectual quest may, in fact, be viewed as a personal odyssey to rediscover the spirit of India, to go back to his cultural roots. But in doing so, one hopes that he has prompted many others too of the Indian diaspora to set out on similar journeys and to reaffirm, each to himself or herself, their own cultural identity and realize what a glorious tradition they are born heirs to. It is only fitting, then, that Samvad India Foundation has chosen him for the 2003 Raja Rao Award.

V.K. Chari
Chairman, Jury of the Raja Rao Award 2003