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FACE-TO-FACE

Cultural crossover

LEKHA J. SHANKAR

In conversation with Vishakha Desai, the first woman to head the Asia Society in New York.



LOOKING AHEAD: Vishakha Desai. PHOTO: LEKHA J. SHANKAR

She's probably one of the best-known Indian figures in the Big Apple. As the first woman, and the first person of Asian origin, to become the President of the prestigious Asia Society in New York, Vishakha Desai is a remarkable personality.

The dynamic lady, was recently in Bangkok, to preside over the Asia Society's 15 Corporate Conference, at the Shangri-la Hotel, which was attended by many top Indian businessmen, where she spoke at length to this writer about the aims and achievements of the famous organisation she heads.

Excerpts:

TELL us about your Indian background and how you went to the United States.

I was born in Ahmedabad, to a family of freedom fighters where my father Nirubhai Desai, was an active Gandhite. My link with America started early, when I went as an exchange-student to Santa Barbara, California.

I did my Bachelor's degree from Elphinstone College Mumbai, and also trained as a Bharatanatyam dancer from Baroda.

I did my M.A. and PhD in Art History at Boston Varsity, where my thesis was on the "Rasika Priya" — theme of 17th Century Rajput paintings.

Then I worked with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which is one of the finest for Indian art. One of the curators was the great scholar, Ananda Kumara Swami. I worked here for nearly a decade, and among other things, helped with the Festival of India Exhibition, in 1985.

Since 1990, I worked with the Asia Society in various capacities, including as senior vice-president, and director of the Museum and Cultural Programs.

What is special about the Asia Society?

We are unique because most organisations are policy organisers, or business or educational institutions. We combine all of that. Our society is a distinguished brand-name. Rockfeller originally started it in 1950,to educate the Americans about Asian arts and culture. We celebrate our 50th anniversary, next year, and have planned lots of events in the U.S. and Asia. With the strong emergence of Asia, we now want to forge many Asian partnerships.

Are you proud by the emergence of India and China as strong economic powers?

Of course. Twenty years ago, people just thought of Asia as exotic, but that's all changed now. However we must remember that in India, as well as other parts of Asia, there are many issues to be solved, like poverty, infrastructure, etc. IT is just one part of the story.

Which are the Asian countries the society covers?

Nearly 30 countries, including India, China, Iran, Central Asia, as also Australia and New Zealand.

Does the society have branches outside New York?

We have regional centres all over America, from Houston to Los Angeles, and also in Melbourne and Hong Kong. Next year, we plan to start a centre in India.

Our job is not to propagate an American viewpoint, but to bring America and Asia together and I feel privileged to do this job.

You specialised in art. Do you think it's culture that binds the universe?

No, I think it's humanity that binds the universe. All our Indian leaders like Gandhi and Aurobindo, have said this. Art certainly helps in the understanding of different cultures and I'm proud that we were one of the first to bring an awareness of Asian art in America, both traditional and contemporary.

What are the Indian exhibitions you have held?

We've held traditional and contemporary shows. One of our recent contemporary shows was called "Edge of Desire", and showed the development of Indian art in the last 10 years. It had 38 artists, which included not just the urban, modern ones, but folk and rural artistes, Adivasis etc.

We've done many traditional shows of course. I myself curated a sculpture exhibition from North India, between 700 to 1200 A.D., but the we looked at them not as art objects but as fragments of temples. Our shows are planned on a scholarly basis and deal not with big names, but themes. As we have so many countries to cover, we can't just do continuous shows like a contemporary gallery, and must diversify.

Do you call yourself an Indian, an Asian or an American?

I call myself an Asian American. In today's world, none of us has fixed identities and it's important to embrace this idea of flexible identity. It's about coalitions and collaboratoral relationships. When I'm in India, I'm a Gujarati from Ahmedabad. When I'm in the U.S., I'm an American from India. To me, the best part of being American, is that one can make it on one's own, without any sense of caste or creed. What I've achieved is without family-connections or anything like that. We have problems of course, but what's "American" for me, is the cultural diversity.

What about your own personal tastes?

My home reflects my eclectic tastes, and has artefacts from all over Asia. I also wear clothes from different Asian countries. Of course I wear a sari often. As for food, I think all Asian cuisines are fantastic! One of my hobbies is reading, and here again, I enjoy reading fiction about multi-cultural experiences.

What role has your husband played in your life?

My husband's Caucasian-American , who's a China expert and travels a lot too. He was President of the Asia Society from 1981-92.We have a great partnership! Our leisure activity is hiking and we've hiked in Australia and Europe. We haven't hiked in Asia, because we always go there on work, and there's no free time at all.

What is the toughest part of your job?

To move the Society in new directions, even while raising money, administering staff, and always keeping the macro picture in line with the micro issues. To keep the bigger picture and make it happen, is the toughest part.

Future challenges?

For me personally, it's important that with Asia holding centre-stage, there's a much better understanding of the region. The Society has connections with all the senior leaders in Asia, and we now have to make links with the younger ones, for the future.

The trick in this job is to think ahead and move forward.

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