Shangri La, Islam, and the Ocean: An Interconnected World

The Playhouse at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
The Playhouse at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

As I sit, with coffee in hand, enjoying the spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean from Shangri La, I recognize that Doris Duke’s choice of venue for a house filled with Islamic art was singularly appropriate.  After all, Arabs and Persians were the great seafarers of the eighth to fifteenth centuries. Their merchants traveled to Mogadishu in modern Somalia on the east coast of Africa to Calicut in India to the port of Quanzhou on China’s southeast coast. They linked Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  Ships laden with cargoes of gold, spices, medicines, and numerous other products traversed the Indian Ocean and then on to the South China Sea.

The influence of these traders went beyond the simple exchange of goods. They introduced Islam to many regions in Asia and simultaneously exposed the Arab and Persian worlds to Chinese decorative objects. The 1998 discovery of the Belitung shipwreck, off the coast of Indonesia, of a ninth-century Arab dhow attests to the scale of the trade and to the splendid works of art that played a role in such commerce. Excavators found sixty thousand unique and high-quality Chinese ceramics and gold objects, many of which are now housed in a museum in Singapore. The Chinese ceramics that actually reached the Arab and Persian worlds would naturally have a significant influence on Islamic art.

The beauty of Shangri La and its idyllic location prompt many such reflections about art as well as about “globalization,” much before that term gained currency in the twentieth century. A spectacular museum of Islamic art in Hawai’i offers a perfect symbol of globalization.

2014.6_20140614_015About the Guest Author:

Morris Rossabi is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and Columbia University, and has taught and conducted research on Chinese, Inner Asian and Islamic culture. Author and editor of more than twenty books, including Khubilai Khan and A History of China, he has participated in exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He served as Chair of the Arts and Culture Board of the Soros Foundation also been granted fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, the Smith Richardson Foundation among other organizations. In 2015-2016 he lectured at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Rijksmuseum, Salzburg University and the University of Colorado.  He has been an advisor at Shangri La periodically since 2002 and has presented lectures here in 2012 and 2014.



A Meeting with the Mahatma

Kennedy in Mughal Suite at Shangri La, Sept. 2011

The following is a guest post by Shangri La scholar-in-residence Thalia Kennedy.

As a scholar-in-residence at Shangri La in September 2011, and thanks to the generous support of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, I have been carrying out research into the context and creation of the ‘Mughal’ architectural features that now adorn Doris Duke’s bedroom suite in Hawai‘i.  These luxurious decorative elements were ordered in 1935 during Doris Duke’s honeymoon. Following her marriage to James Cromwell in New York, the couple visited India as part of a 10-month world tour that would later take them to Hawai‘i, and to the future site of Shangri La at Black Point.  The heiress commissioned artisans in the Indian city of Agra to create inlaid marble panels and carved screens based in the artisanal and design traditions of the Mughal court of northern India.  The project was the first of a number for which Doris Duke engaged traditional artisans in India, Iran, Morocco and Pakistan, to complete decorative features at Shangri La.

Detail of marble panel with inlaid flowers crafted by artisans in Agra, India. David Franzen 2008. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

In pursuit of this research, the residency at Shangri La afforded the opportunity for close study of the bedroom suite itself, and related archival material from which to build a picture of the circumstances that spurred the enterprise.  Scrapbooks and letters that survive from the honeymoon, carefully conserved in the Shangri La Archive, document the visits and meetings the Cromwells attended on their tour, including their visit to the Taj Mahal, the known inspiration for the project.

Page from the Duke-Cromwell honeymoon scrapbook. In the upper left is a train ticket from Bombay to Wardha for the meeting with Gandhi. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

The archives also inform the broader context of the commission’s genesis and give details of its completion and transportation to Shangri La.  Amongst the photographs and newspaper clippings, I was interested to note a meeting in March 1935 between the couple and Mohandas K Gandhi at his ashram in Central India, around two weeks before the commission of the ‘Mughal’ architectural features.  Given Gandhi’s own interests in rural and crafts industry revival, I was curious as to what impact the meeting may have had on the heiress and her own patronage of artisanal crafts; and, by establishing more clearly how far Gandhi’s own philosophy of crafts revival and support had developed at the time, what his message may have been to the newlyweds.  I was also keen to find the original workshops and perhaps the families of artisans in Agra who had been involved in the project itself, and to identify and match further design prototypes for the final inlaid panels, from the Mughal buildings of Agra and Delhi.  The original location of the overseeing architects’ offices at Connaught Place in Delhi was also of interest, together with information I might gather from the National Archives.  Given these areas of research, I decided to visit India, to see what further information might be garnered in the sub-continent, and to build on my research and review of archival documents whilst resident at Shangri La.

Street scene today in Magan Wadi area, Wardha. Photo by Thalia Kennedy.

My exploration took me in early December 2011 to Delhi, and thence to the site of the meeting with Gandhi, the town of Wardha in the Indian state of Maharashtra, 78 kilometers from the major city of Nagpur.  Wardha occupies a central position in the subcontinent and, although journeys were long, in the 1930s the town was easily accessible from all regions by train.  Today, the area is just an hour’s flight from Delhi.  As I visited sites around the town, and talked with custodians and guides, it became clear that Wardha had been the central physical focus for Gandhi’s rural industry and crafts revival activities of the mid-1930s.   In the latter part of 1934, following his leadership of several movements to free India from British rule, Gandhi resigned as leader of the Congress party, with a new vow to focus on the revival of rural industries and crafts as a solution to the plight of India’s poor and lowest castes.  He moved his base to Wardha and, in the same year, inaugurated the All-India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) in the town’s district of Magan Wadi.  The site of the Association was a building and some land appropriated to Gandhi by his supporter and disciple, the industrialist Jamanalal Bajaj.  Its founding ethos was the support of villages and the promotion of craft industries as a viable means of addressing economic distress.  The site at Magan Wadi remains significant today, now home to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Rural Industrialization (MGIRI) and the Magansangrahalaya Smriti Museum, and a focus for visiting artisans and academics.  A number of further institutes and Gandhi’s later ashram outside Wardha actively continue and promote the various social initiatives and research begun at the time under his leadership.

Today’s entrance to the MGIRI, Magan Wadi, Wardha. Photo by Thalia Kennedy.

On 16th March 1935, in what is now a Library at MGIRI, Doris Duke Cromwell and James Cromwell attended an audience with Gandhi, travelling by train from Bombay for the meeting. From his own writings of February and March 1935, at the time Gandhi was actively promoting his theories of crafts education and the importance of traditional hand labor and tools, writing of the numberless village and town crafts in need of public support, to allow poor artisans to sustain themselves through engagement with “creative handicrafts”.  He was in regular attendance at crafts industry exhibitions, supported initiatives all over the sub-continent that were taking up his theories of crafts revival, and received formal political support from the Congress party under the new leadership of Jawarhalal Nehru.  The encounter in 1935 between the Cromwells and Gandhi was not long, less than an hour of discussion, before the Mahatma returned to a convention of artisans being held that day at AIVIA.

Left: Unidentified man, Doris Duke, and James Cromwell, en route to meet Gandhi. March 1935.                Right: Gandhi was meeting with the All-India Village Industries Association at Wardha when the Cromwells arrived. March 16, 1935. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Despite its brevity, the meeting had great impact on the young heiress.  She compared Gandhi to the religious visionaries and figures of history, and was deeply impressed by his commitment to the position of women.  The accompanying United Press reporter also recorded the group’s discussion of the importance of rural industry and traditional production methods in India, in contrast to the rapid industrialization and mass production taking place in the United States at the time.  Gandhi impressed on the couple the significance of traditional crafts and manual tools for economic improvement and effective sustenance of India’s masses.

From Wardha, the Cromwells returned to Bombay by train before continuing on their tour to northern India, and to the historic capital of Agra, where they visited the great Mughal monuments of the city.  Doris Duke was so overwhelmed by the Taj Mahal that she determined to have inlaid panels and screens that imitated those at the famed building made for her own bathroom suite.

The Taj Mahal from Agra Fort. Photo by Thalia Kennedy.

She visited local workshops and spoke with artisans who still practiced their traditional hand manufacture.  Given the subject of their discussion with Gandhi, was it mere coincidence that Doris Duke – inspired by the beauty of the Taj Mahal – herself then requested traditional artisans, skilled in the marble-carving and inlay industry for which Agra’s craftsmen are still famed, to complete a series of pieces?  Was her decision influenced to some degree by the meeting with Gandhi and his message?  My research and visit to Wardha did not uncover a specific recorded instruction from Gandhi to the Cromwells to carry out such an undertaking, nor is there reference to Gandhi in James Cromwell’s letters held at the Shangri La Archive.  But my visit did make it clear that the Agra commission took place against the backdrop of a wider burgeoning crafts revival movement in the sub-continent, to which Doris Duke was clearly exposed, and which formed a clear part of Gandhi’s vision for an independent and self-sustaining India. The heiress was evidently very impressed with Gandhi and may have found his visionary promotion of crafts revival and rural industry at their meeting compelling.  Newspaper reports in the United States over the next year made explicit reference to the commission as an effort to revitalize the dying crafts of India.  Even from the pages of history, it is difficult to ignore Gandhi’s fervent belief in and promotion of crafts and rural industry revival as a potential solution to rural poverty, and to enrich a sense of positive artistic and national identity.  The complex tapestry of circumstance must include some consideration of this meeting and its impact.  And although Doris Duke’s own artistic vision was one of luxury and opulence – a far cry from the poverty of rural India – the support of artisans would likely have pleased the Mahatma, who wrote as early as 1919 that the rare industrial arts and handicrafts of India “merely require due recognition and encouragement”.

The master bathroom at Shangri La, commissioned from F.B. and C.G. Blomfield in 1935.               David Franzen 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Following the Cromwells’ path, my own visit also took me then to the busy city of Agra, to discover information on the artisans and inlay workshops the couple encountered, and to explore the historic Mughal monuments they visited.  From there, I returned to Delhi, to seek out Gandhi’s own writings in the National Archives and private libraries.  And I was able to survey for a final time the opulent monuments of the emperor Shah Jahan’s great Mughal city of Shahjahanabad and identify further design prototypes for the Shangri La inlaid panels.  Yielding good results in these quests, both in Agra and Delhi, I am now completing the full write-up of a paper, presenting my findings for submission to the Shangri La Working Papers in Islamic Art Series.  The complex web of inspiration and circumstance that surrounds Doris Duke’s first commission as artisanal patron has led me from one side of the globe to another, from the tranquility of Shangri La and the Hawaiian islands, to the bustle of the cities of northern India.  A trail that for Doris Duke, too, became a familiar pilgrimage as she pursued what became a lifelong fascination with the Indian sub-continent and its cultural history.

United Kingdom, January 2012

My grateful thanks to Deborah Pope and everyone who so kindly welcomed me at Shangri La, and to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in their generous sponsorship and support of this research and residency at Shangri La.  My thanks also to Dr T Karunakaran, Mr Khushal and Miss Sushma for their kind reception at Wardha, and for showing me around the Institute and Museum buildings with such enthusiasm and generosity with their time.

About the Guest Author: Thalia Kennedy was a Scholar-in-Residence at Shangri La from September 4-27, 2011. Kennedy is the former Director of the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is a specialist in Islamic and South Asian art and architecture and has held visiting lectureships at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Institute of Ismaili Studies, and the School of Oriental & African Studies in London. While in residence at Shangri La, Kennedy conduct research on Shangri La’s Mughal Suite, commissioned in Delhi in 1935, and related collections, which will culminate in an academic paper on her findings. She also presented an illustrated public lecture The Mughal Bedroom Suite at Shangri La at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Doris Duke Theatre on September 18, 2011.