Alice Boner

by Rinku Jain
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“Each day my eyes are opening a little more”
Alice Boner, during her first trip to India.
From 2nd September to 30th October 2016, The National Museum, New Delhi, has a special exhibit highlighting the contribution of Alice Boner, the Swiss painter, sculptor, historian and Indologist who contributed immensely to the promotion of Indian culture across Europe in the 20th Century (1929 onwards). The exhibition aims to create an awareness of her contribution, that has so far, been largely unrecogonised.
Alice spent half her life in India, in her two storied home in Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganga. The history of this home, that now houses the Alice Boner Institute, is little known to the world.
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Life in Europe:
Alice was born on July 22, 1889, in Legnamo, Italy. She was the oldest of the three girls of a wealthy Swiss couple. In 1911 her family moved to Zurich, and lived in the Park – Villa Rieter, now a part of the Museum Rietberg, that houses the Alice Boner archive.
After going through the Italian education system, Alice studied painting at Brussels. She soon met the famous Swiss sculptor Carl Burckhardt from Basel, and became his student. He had an extremely significant influence on her work, and they were in close contact, till his death in 1923.
In 1925 she had her own studio near the University of Zurich, and her work began to feature in exhibitions and public parks all over Switzerland. Alice was fascinated by dance and created motion studies of dancers, and captured fleeting movements in her photographs, drawings and sculptures.
Alice’s tryst with India:
On April 7, 1926, Alice Boner saw a performance at Krusaal, Zurich, by the Indian dancer Uday Shankar. Alice was so intrigued by his elegant dance, she wrote in her diary “ Evening in the Krusaal. A lot of kitsch and a revelation, the Indian dancer”.
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She contacted Uday Shankar, and the two met several times. Alice invited Shankar to her studio, where he danced privately for her as she made sketches and took photographs, and later sculptures.
Two years later Boner saw another performance of Shankar, this time in Paris, where she was living at the time. Little did she know, that she would soon be organizing shows for him in Switzerland. Alice took on the role of an ambassador promoting Indian culture to the Swiss audience.
In 1929, when Uday expressed his dissatisfaction at performing and depending upon recorded music instead of live music, Alice supported him, and together they planned a trip to India, to find inspiration and artists for a troupe.
The first trip to India:
In December 1929, Alice and Uday travelled to India to find artists for their dance troupe. Uday’s influential father had connected them to Indian Maharajas for help. But because of the negative connotation of this association, in those times, they got no help, and most of the members they recruited were from the family of Uday Shankar. In the troupe, was also, the then young, Ravi Shankar.
Alice ultimately provided the finances for the troupe to travel to Europe. She supported and managed the troupe from 1930 to 1935, helping them backstage and with advertising and promotion. She visited Varanasi and was fascinated by Indian spirituality. On this trip, she also witnessed a performance of kathakali, a dance form almost forgotten, and encouraged the poet Vallathol Narayan Menor, to open a school. The school opened in November 1930 in Kerala. In 1934, she came to the school to study the language of the mudras used in this classical dance drama form.
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Uday Shankar’s troupe in Paris:
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The Uday Shankar Ballet Troupe, ca 1935-1937
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Boner
In October 1930 Alice returned to Paris with an 11-member troupe of Uday Shankar’s group, with its youngest member, 11-year-old Ravi Shankar. They lived in a large house that Alice had rented. They worked hard and fast, and had their first performance at The“ater des Champs Elye”es on the 3rd of March 1931.
After their first performance, the troupe travelled and performed successfully, across Europe, America and India. Alice and Uday worked together in harmony. Alice helped with finances and organization, while Uday was responsible for the artistic content.
Alice and Ravi Shankar:
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Alice Boner in Zurich with young Ravi Shankar.
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Ravi Shankar was a part of the troupe till 1938, after which, he left to be a disciple of Ustad Allaudin Khan. He became India’s greatest Sitar player, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and received India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999. Alice took great interest in the development of Ravi Shankar, and cared for him through various illnesses while he was a part of the troupe in Europe.  In 1999 Ravi Shankar said “ We all loved Alice very much; she had really helped my brother so much to create his troupe”
The troupe returned to India in 1935 and rehearsed in Kolkata for their new show. Alice documented their work. In her diary she wrote “… The tailors are working in a room in the back of the building, on the verandah someone is carving a Shiva headdress and in the main room, there is a full pile of instruments and masks.”
In Kolkata, Alice also met with Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan. In a letter to her father, she wrote, “This morning I was at Tagore’s place. He read from his Gitanjali and gave explanations.”
In 1936, Alice stopped working with the group actively, as she wanted to focus on her own work. In 1939, Alice had a fall out with the Uday Shankar troupe, because of a misunderstanding over her support to found a culture center. While they both went their own way, we must remember that their joint venture contributed greatly to the spread of Indian dance and culture in foreign lands.
Alice in Varanasi:
When Alice came to India, she had intended to go back. She had desired to settle down in Italy, where she had spent her earlier years growing up. But the war in Europe did not allow that. Soon after, Alice found a house in Varanasi, the “Assi Sangam”, she felt so at ease here, and she decided to stay. She wrote in her diary “…. This house is a strangely soothing and exciting matter. It encloses me with love, and opens the world for me. ……. I feel fulfilled, happy, settled, and supported, like on a gentle stream.”
Assi Sangam, now the Alice Boner Institute.
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“Assi Sangam” is located where the small river Assi joins the Ganges. Alice filled this house with life. Musicians visiting Varanasi were invited to perform on her rooftop terrace, and visitors and friends would come to enjoy the performances.
In 1932, in the audience at a performance of the Uday Shankar troupe in Germany, was Alfred Wuerfel. He was a German, fascinated by India, and overwhelmed by the performance. He saw another performance later that year in Paris, after which, he met Alice and helped to organize performances for the troupe in Germany. This laid the foundation of a lifelong friendship between Alice and him. In 1935, Alfred visited India on a scholarship. He went to Varanasi with Alice, where they both settled in the same neighborhood. Alfred studied Sanskrit at the Banaras Hindu University there, and was a regular guest at Alice’s home.
In 1935 Alice met Promoda Charan Mittra, called Montu, an unmarried Bengali lawyer, in Varanasi. He became one of her closest and most intimate friends. The Museum Rietberg has 707 letters that records their deep friendship. The letters narrate the story of their friendship spanning over forty years, and how Alice changed addressing him from “Dear Mr. Mittra” to “Montu Babu” to “Montu” and sometimes “Darling”. They travelled together to a disturbed Europe, a little before the beginning of World War II. They travelled extensively together in India, during which Alice managed to convey an understanding of Indian art to Montu. In 1946, he wrote to her “They (the sculptures ) are really my companions, when I am in Banaras, they are more or less living things for me. Sometimes I touch them with my hand and get immense joy. I am truly grateful to you for making me interested in things of art.’
Alice and Montu.
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In December 1937, the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung visited Varanasi to deliver a lecture at the Banaras Hindu University. Alice was a keen follower of Jung and read his books, especially those on religious symbolism. After the lecture, Alice lured Jung to visit Assi Sangam. They had dinner together, and according to Alice, spent an unforgettable evening together. In fact, eight years later, Jung himself recalls the evening in a letter to Alice’s sister, stating, “It reawakened my beautiful memory of India and I remembered the wonderful hours I spent at your sister’s house.”
Indian Independence activist, Sarojini Naidu had also been friends with Alice Boner. “Whenever Sarojini Naidu was is town, she visited Alice in her Assi house” (Wuerfel, 2004).
Alice’s work as an artist in Varanasi:
Once Alice was settled in Varanasi, She started to paint again. She spent more time painting and drawing, and not sculpting, as she felt that sculpting was too tedious to capture all that she wanted to. Her friend Afred Wuerfel narrates “….. the sangam was a veritable haven, a natural studio so to speak from the eyes of any artist. From morning till evening, the people who were going to the river to bathe and do puja were to her like living and moving sculptures.”
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Through her interest in performing arts Alice met many artists. She often used her camera to record the event and based on the photograph and her memory, she created sketches and drawings.
Alice travelled extensively through India, visiting cities, sights, temples, festivals and archeological sights. She went for the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 1936 and wrote “… Thousands of Sadhus were there. They lived in impoverished straw huts and gave audiences to the faithful. (…)All of them seemed somehow deformed or badly proportioned, never have I seen such abomination, which stands out doubly against the backdrop of the vivid colorful crowd. It was a wonderful sight, this sea of people”.
Right from the beginning, Alice Boner was intrigued by the Hindu goddess Kali. Starting 1940, she worked on various versions of this complex goddess. Her renowned work, ‘Prakriti’ a triptych expressing creation, consolidation and destruction themed on the goddess, took her over ten years to complete. In 1964, Alice had new thoughts on goddess Kali. She wrote “New thoughts came about Kali and I became aware that my failure in painting her correctly was not a question of form, but I had missed the correct meaning of her act of destruction…… What is nasty, filthy, cruel, ugly, depraved, and false, all these she cuts to pieces.”
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Alice felt completely at ease on the terrace of her house in Varanasi. “It sometimes seems to me as if I am being crushed by the burden of delight which reveals itself to my soul every hour here(…). Personally, my life IS as good as it can ever be.”
She was intensely interested in the cave temples of Ellora. She wrote “… In order to approach the images, I started to draw them (…) I started analyzing them in their geometrical scheme and to build up the diagrams in terms of lines of energy. From such an analysis, all of a sudden, a revealing light broke forth…”
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In 1957 Boner met Sadashiva Rath Sharma, a Sanskrit teacher, who introduced her to the Shilpa Prakasha – an architect’s manual for temple construction. Boner found in this text references to the principles she had been formulating, which for her were proof that they were accurate. She and Sharma together analysed and translated the text over the next decade. In 1962, Boner published The Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture and in 1966, she and Sharma co-authored a book.
Alice promoted many artists during her stay in India. In 1949 she started supporting the career of Shanta Rao, a twenty one year old protégé, who pursued Indian classical dance. She felt, Shanta Rao had, what Uday Shankar lacked, dedication and integrity. In August 1954, she approached Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who she had earlier met with Uday Shankar. In a long letter addressed to him, she expressed her disappointment over the decision of the government to drop Shanta Rao from a troupe touring Russia, and replace her with someone who lacked the same merit. Alice and Shanta had an enduring friendship. She even took her sister Georgette to visit Shanta in Bangalore, in one of Georgette’s may trips to Alice.
In 1969, the University of Zurich awarded her an honorary doctorate for her contributions and publications and in 1974 Alice Boner received thePadma Bhusham, for her unique understanding of Indian Art, by the then president of India, Shri V.V.Giri.
In 1978, Alice’s health was deteriorating. She went to Switzerland to treat her ill health, but a hip fracture forced her to stay back, never to return to India. She stayed with her sister in Zurich, where she died  on the 13th of April, 1981. She was cremated in Zurich and parts of her ashes were immersed in the Ganga.
 

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