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.
Interview Part II
Can you explain what being an art dealer is?
When you have an art gallery, you have someone who is a director and runs the gallery, and then you have the salespeople or the consultants. My job at a gallery would be to talk to people, get to know them, and try to sell them. Your income is based on commission. But you are also trying to just help people understand [things] because art is intimidating. It is like wine or poetry that people think is just inaccessible. My job in the art gallery was to just help people get more comfortable buying art. As a dealer, I would find artists I had good relationships with, and I would either buy work from them and sell it. Or it would be on consignment which meant if you were an artist and you had a bunch of paintings in your studio, you would allow me to take them and sell them. We [would] have an agreement about the percentage the artist got and the percentage the seller. It makes sense because it’s often hard for artists to talk about their own art and say, “Look how great this is! Look how great I am! I did such a good job!” I can do that easily by saying, “This is the artist, they’re really talented, and this is what they do.” I know how to negotiate and sell. The dealer is the person who is the intermediary between the maker and the buyer. As a Gujarati, we’re known as being businesspeople, so I felt like it was in my blood to do this. I no longer sell because it would be unethical and a conflict of interest because I work in a museum.
What kind of support did you receive from friends and family when you decided to pursue a career in art?
My parents always supported me, though they always questioned my choices. I think they supported me because they knew how incredibly stubborn I was. I was lucky that I was 15 when I felt in my body what I wanted to do. I work with high schoolers and college students and you meet people who know exactly what they’re going to do and I just think, “You don’t even know yet.” Until you get to college, you don’t know what’s out there. How many high schools have Sociology as a department? You don’t really know what these things are until you’re doing them. I was lucky that art history was what I wanted to do and that [while] my parents questioned it, they still supported me. The other kind of support I got was really the support from friends. I started my own business when I became an art dealer and I was about 25. I had friends who just helped me run events or cater so that I could have an opening. Help me set up or take things down. Or help me figure out how to do a price thing on Excel spreadsheets because I didn’t know how to do that. I had friends who really supported me in making my business possible.
I also had really good mentors. My college advisor from my freshman year of college has written every recommendation letter for me since I was 18. He has been my reference for every job. I’ll cannot tell you enough the importance of maintaining good relationships with your teachers and professors. This professor was in his first year of teaching when I came as a freshman. He then became the chair of the department, and then the dean, and then the president of the college. Right now he is the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now, as someone who also happens to work in a museum, the fact that my biggest champion is the CEO of the biggest and most important museum in the country is all because we got along when I was 18 years old. He took me under his wing and I made efforts to always check in with him over the past more than 25 years. That is my piece of advice. Maintain good relationships with your teachers and mentors because they do support you a lot.
When I was teaching at Columbia, there was an undergrad who remained in contact with me, and I wrote his recommendation letter for his MA and his Ph.D. We have a relationship now and it’s been five years. These things are important. It is important to have mentors who aren’t just your parents, because your parents have their own agenda, even if they have the best intentions.
How would you explain being a curator to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
A curator’s job is to create a story or tell some sort of story through objects. That is what a curator does. At the Peabody Essex Museum, I am responsible for and manage 12,000 objects that comprise the South Asian Collection. This is what I have, so what are the stories I can tell with these objects? That is the basic job of a curator but, in this day and age, a curator’s job is not just to tell a story but to tell a story that is relatable and accessible to as many people as possible. I don’t just make stories about South Asian Art that only South Asians would understand. It needs to be that anybody who does not understand India or South Asia can at least have something of their own personal experience reflect back at them through objects that are distinctly South Asian.
Can you elaborate a little bit on “stories?”
I can mention partition and 1947 and a lot of South Asian people will know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the moment of independence when India and Pakistan are divided. But, I could say “partition” to a rando in Salem and they would have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. The way that I tell the story about partition is to speak about a nation that’s divided. There is this moment where a nation is divided with different belief systems, different values, different identities, and the goal was that this land could come together and that people could live peacefully. But that didn’t happen. That’s still the dream. When partition happened Pakistan was supposed to be “The Islamic Dominion of Pakistan”. It was meant as an Islamic State. India was meant to be a secular and democratic nation. As a secular nation, there’s still this dream that people of all faiths can live peacefully but that dream is not happening. I speak about it in terms that an American could think, “Oh, that is sort of like us!” America is divided by race, political beliefs, and values, and certainly from an economic standpoint. So how do you tell a story in a way that people will understand?
The Mahabharata is also another example. It is the longest, most complicated epic in human history, and in the museum, we have a small section devoted to that. How do you tell the story of the Mahabharata to people who don’t know? I just say, “It’s a battle between brothers. Two factions of one family. It becomes a metaphor for the partition where Indians and Pakistanis, or Hindus and Muslims, are born of the same land but they are fighting against each other. It is a battle that nobody can win. Even the winners don’t really win.” It is how you tell the story in a way that people will understand.
How would someone prepare for being a curator? What’s the first step?
You gotta take art history! You don’t have to be a curator in an art museum. There are curators in natural history museums or many different types of museums. But if you want to work in an art history museum, you have to study art history. You have to learn to look at objects. I could show you any object and you will notice something about it, but since I have studied art history, I would say, “But there’s this aspect to it too.” There is a basic way in which people need to learn to look at objects in order to excavate new stories from them. If you don’t learn how to look, then you don’t know how to see or find these stories. We take in so much information from our eyes all the time, even more than from touching. We need to know how to process what we’re looking at. This is why learning to look is very important and art history is where you start if you want to be a curator.
Like what is a painting you know? Name anything.
Alright, the Mona Lisa.
Ok, the Mona Lisa. To actually look at that, we all have a sense of what she looks like. But to look very closely, and to see that she’s got this very transparent piece of fabric that is lightly over her head. To actually study the landscape that’s behind her. To actually look at what she’s wearing. People think about her smile. [But] what is she saying with her eyes? What do you think she’s saying with her eyes? What does it mean to paint a woman like this, not a man, but a woman? What does it mean for a woman to be painted with a whole area of land behind her? Why is she there and not inside a house or a kitchen? Or doing something that women do? You have to start asking these questions, you start to get more information, and you read about it. It is learning to look at these objects, that is really important.Then, I would say things having good mentors and trying to do an internship at a museum or get involved in some way. A lot of museums have teen counsels. I am working on starting one at the museum right now, where we are asking young people to get involved and tell us how they would do things differently, rewrite our labels, develop tours that are geared towards teenagers and what they’re interested in. That’s how you start.
Photo: Bob Packert, Peabody Essex Museum