Interview with Dr. Siddhartha Shah,
Curator South Asian Art and Director of Education and Civic Engagement,
Peabody Essex Museum
By Devishi Jain, ISW Youth Reporter
Siddhartha V. Shah joined the Peabody Essex Museum in 2018 after a long career as an entrepreneurial art professional with wide-ranging interests in South Asian art. Most recently, he curated the installation of the PEM’s new South Asian Galleries shedding new light on the museum’s renowned Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection of modern Indian Art. We learn more about how he embarked on his career in this fascinating interview by ISW Youth Reporter, Devishi Jain.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up?
I was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and my family is from Gujarat, I grew up going back [to India] really often. We spoke Gujarati almost exclusively at home. My mother does not wear Western clothes and they’re very, very Indian in that sense. I grew up in a very white suburb. At the time, Michael Jordan from the Chicago Bulls wanted to be a part of the country club in our town, and they would not let him in because he was black, so it was quite a white, elitist town that I grew up in.
I traveled a lot as a kid. I studied abroad my junior year of high school. I moved to a small village in Belgium when I was 16 and did part of my senior year there as well and then came back to Illinois and went to college. I traveled around a lot. I lived in Baltimore when I went to college and then I moved to California. I moved to Thailand for a little while, and then New York, London, and Salem, Massachusetts. I have lived in a bunch of places and had a crazy life in some ways and now I’m here and I’m the curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum and in August, I was appointed the Director of Education and Civic Engagement also. I have at least two jobs at the museum. Sometimes, it feels more like three or four different jobs!
Wow, you’ve lived almost all over the world! You mentioned speaking Gujarati growing up, so do you still speak Gujarati?
Yeah, so I spoke it as a child. In college, I studied Sanskrit for a year, and then did a masters in Hindu Philosophy and Psychoanalysis and then did Sanskrit for another year. At that time, I taught myself how to read and write Gujarati. I knew how to speak it but I taught myself how to read and write the language. I also studied Hindi and Urdu in grad school. Those are all the South Asian languages I have learned but I’ve been speaking Gujarati since I was a kid. Learning to read and write was- I still trip up with some of it - was hard because spoken Gujarati is so different from written Gujarati. It’s so formal and the tense in written Gujarati is really, really tricky because it’s not a tense that you would speak. And the vocabulary, also. I would ask my mom, reading a newspaper in India, “What does this mean?” and she would give me a more colloquial word for that in Gujarati, but writing uses very formal words.
Since you have lived all over the world, you have experienced many different cultures. But in America, would you say it was hard to grow up with two significantly different cultures, Indian and American, and what were some of the challenges of managing that?
I don’t know if it was as hard when I was younger as it is nowadays, but there would be moments. I would have friends over and the smell of Indian cooking would just be disorienting to them. Or that I was vegetarian. I would go to friends’ houses and their parents would say, “Oh, you’re vegetarian?” When I moved to Belgium, it was hard for them because I was in a village, and they even asked me, “How can you walk?” There are moments when you realize there’s a difference, but I don’t walk through the world realizing I’m different. You don’t look at yourself when you’re in the world, you’re just living your life. It’s when other people say things like “Are you from Saudi Arabia?” or “How old were you when you moved here?” That’s a common one, “How old were you when you moved here?” and I would just answer, “I didn’t.” I let them figure it out because I did not move here. So, those moments were harder but as a kid, it didn’t feel that hard. Growing up, it’s been harder because you start to get really frustrated - I’m almost 43 now - by people regularly reminding you that you’re not “passing” for American. A black person will “pass” for American more than I will. Or a Latinx person can “pass” as more feasible as an American identity. I’m not saying we have it harder, I’m definitely not saying that, but I’m saying we don’t pass as Americans. In fact, we become the target for whatever brown group the country is having a problem with. Just like any Asian, any East Asian, regardless of where they are from. Like now, we are upset at China because this is a “Chinese Virus.”
I was wearing a mask, just minding my own business in Salem, walking down the street, and this woman just fixated on me and said, “Are you Arabic?” and I just stared at her, not in a friendly way, and I said, “No, Arabic is a language.” That’s not even a type of person, but I don’t think they understood that.
You said it was harder for you now than it was when you were growing up, but do you have any advice for kids, especially teens, who are growing up now with two different cultures?
I think it makes sense for us, myself included, not just teenagers, to feel like we are bicultural and it is Indian and American. But our identities are not that simple. You’re not just Indian and American. You also have a religious identity, whether you are practicing that or not. You also have your particular interests, talents, and skills. The sooner young people can realize and accept that they are deeply complicated beings and be proud of how complicated you are, the better off you will be. We think it’s hard to live between two cultures, and it is, but it’s not about being multicultural or being multigenerational. It is also hard to be a teenager in an adult world. It is also hard to be a homosexual in a largely heterosexual world. It’s also hard to be left-handed in a world that’s predominantly made for right-handed people. It is hard to be from two different cultures, but we’re complicated beings and we should take pride in how complicated we are. Fortunately, or unfortunately, you are more than just two things. I have started to realize that only since like last month. I have always felt when I go to India, and I go regularly for family and for work, to [be able to] just look around and see a bunch of brown people everywhere and to actually feel like you look like people is really nice because we don’t experience that typically. Even when I’m in India, I don’t fit [in] because I am an individual. I don’t fit in anywhere I go because of the way I act, dress, think, or speak and that’s why I’m special. So, this is what makes you realize you are exceptional.
What made you choose a career in art, especially as a curator, and is art something you’ve always been passionate about?
I don’t know if art is something I’ve always been passionate about, but I have always loved beautiful things. I’m a very visual person, so I’ve always loved nice fabrics, nice colors, nice jewelry, nice paintings, nice bedsheets. In my sophomore year of high school, art history was offered as a class. I’ve never liked science and I’ve never liked math and of course, that’s what people always assume Indians are good at. My father is a doctor and my brother is a physician. I refused to dissect anything, so I never took biology. I made it through high school never taking biology. I took chemistry for a semester and I got a B+ and I was furious because I didn’t like B’s. I’m one of those people. So I dropped it and took art history instead. It changed my life! When I was 15, I felt like I just wanted to study art history. [As] I never took biology and only took one semester of chemistry, my guidance counselor said, “How are you going to get into college?” I didn’t take the “normal” route. I told her, “I’ll be fine.” I tried to be more realistic because, of course, my parents said, “You can’t just study art history, you need to do something more professional. So, I went to Johns Hopkins for my undergraduate and I went in thinking I would do International Relations. I took one semester of Political Science and it was so boring, that I ended up becoming an Art History Major. I just did it. I remember my parents saying, “What is that? What do we tell people in India?” and I said, “It’s the history of art,” and they said, “Well, why would anyone study that?”
So, I graduated from college with an Art History degree and I ended up working in an art gallery. I sold art in an art gallery for three or four years and became a gallery director. I then started my own business and was an art dealer and spent about 15 years selling art. The curator thing happened by accident. I did my Ph.D. in Indian Art and I was planning on becoming a professor when this job opened up and my advisor, who’s kind of the godmother of Indian art history, said to me, “This job has come across my desk and I think you’re the only person who could do it. Would you look at it?” I did and I applied, and I got this job as a curator. I had curated other exhibitions before, but those were selling exhibitions whereas now, in a museum, there’s no selling at all. I am curating the collection that we have.
Is there a particular reason you chose South Asian art?
That’s a really good question. I never studied it in college. I studied Ancient Greek art and 19th-century French painting because there was no offering in South Asian art. Johns Hopkins is now one of the best places to study South Asian art, but at that time there was no Indian art. The reason I think I ended up studying it was because when I was selling art, I was specializing in Nepalese art. I [would] go to Nepal regularly and focus on art of the Katmandese Valley. During the 11 years, I was studying that art, I learned a lot about and found a passion for it. I was already familiar with Hindu Mythology and Hindu Iconography but then over ten years, I really got into it. That’s why it felt like that was my profession because I was known as a dealer of Nepalese art and Indian art. So, it made sense to choose Indian art for my Ph.D.
To be continued next issue ...
Photo: Bob Packert, Peabody Essex Museum