The View to an Expanding Horizon

The following is a guest post by Shangri La artist-in-residence Dr. Anita Vallabh.

As I sat on the lanai of the Playhouse, looking at the majesty of the ocean, its constant conversations with the shoreline, I imagined the romance of their nature. Yet each assumes a role true to itself, living its purpose. Having read Kahlil Gibran and Jalaluddin Rumi, I began to visualize the ocean as the lover seemingly seeking the beloved, somehow aware through its tireless efforts that the truth and power it seeks lie in its own depths, where silence reigns.

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

In the presence of such magnificence and enchanting beauty, how can one not be conscious of being within a space whose very description captures its ethereal beauty in the words itself? How can one not be true to oneself and create the most honest work of art? How can one not hold a mirror to one’s life? How can one not put their egoist considerations aside, consider their past mistakes and seize the present opportunity to rectify them? How far can the tears be, given the wonders and blessings of our lives? And of the many hardships and pains that taught us the most valuable lessons? How can we not infuse movements that transform everyday gestures and familiar behavior with aesthetic delight?

Going back and forth between art and life…like the resounding waves holding within their depths the silence of life………such is the enchantment of Shangri La.

Shangri La is a much-revered destination for scholars, artists and tourists. In opening its doors to research and researchers in diverse fields, they have built a body of work that enriches not only our understanding of the artifacts housed therein but also recreates the story of times bygone.

When I read Wheeler Thackston’s (scholar in residence, December 3–8, 2010) translations of verses inscribed on some of the artifacts, they suggested to me the spiritual discipline of the artists, and the aesthetic experience that allowed for such exquisite workmanship. These translations and the music of Ghulam Farid Nizami  (who performed at Shangri La in March 2012) provided me with the material for a new choreographic piece in dance. So many resources, so many opportunities made possible because of the dedication, fortitude and single-mindedness to serve the arts. To me, Shangri La represents an enduring legacy of learning.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

It is in this magical space that I was invited to perform. I am deeply humbled by this invitation to create and perform Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions along with my revered kumu, Vicky Holt Takamine, and her very creative son, Jeff Takamine. Vicky truly represents the beauty, grace and dignity of Hawaiian culture. As two artists respectful of each other’s legacies of inherited culture and tradition, we worked for ten days, weaving together, with an unwavering commitment, patterned sequences of movements—sometimes complimentary sometimes opposing—allowing the movements to communicate and flow into one another. There was only the desire to flow with the music and allow our trained bodies to seek the rhythmic patterns, sometimes following the rhythms of the music, sometimes finding the silent space between the rhythms and sometimes chanting over the music.

Each of us looked forward to the process and to the rigors of practice and more practice, and the many ideas and input from every dancer. We shared our cultures, our approaches to learning, and the unique teacher/student relationship. For me, the most memorable moment was watching Jeff choreograph to Indian/Sufi music—the shift in orientation that was required of him. His brilliant mind weaved together movements both graceful and powerful to seamlessly bring together the music and dance. Another unforgettable experience was learning to make a lei. In the short time that I had between practice sessions I tried my hand at slicing through the ti leaves. I was charmed by the aloha spirit that the dancers infused into the lei making process. Later Jeff told me that each dancer was required to make her lei with “good and happy thoughts.”

As the performance date approached, we became more relaxed and confident. The vagaries of the weather caused some anxiety, but time and again Kumu Vicky assured us that the weather Gods would bless the evening and the performance by providing us with the perfect backdrop and lighting.

She could not have been more accurate in her prediction.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Based on this experience, it is my opinion that if two artists from significantly different backgrounds communicate well with each other and practice together they can weave the various elements of their individual artistic traditions around each other. What then evolves is a seamless weave of various threads into a cogent pattern, creating a tapestry of extraordinary cohesiveness.

I take back with me wonderful memories of time shared, of wonderful and inspiring people whose generosity continues to enrich and sustain my artistic life.

Thank you forever.


Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

About the Guest Author: Dr. Anita Vallabh is a Bharatanatyam dancer,
choreographer and teacher from Chennai, India. She was trained in the classical
traditions by Smt. Shanta and Sri. V.P. Dhananjayan. She was the recipient of
the National Award for the Best Dancer (1992-1993) from the National Hindi
Academy, Calcutta, and was conferred the title of “Kala Bharati”. Vallabh
received a Ph.D. from the University of Madras in 2002 and has performed
internationally throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. She is the
Creative Director the Chennai-based Aeka Academy, a holistic performing arts
school established under the auspices of Vaels’ Group Of Institutions.

Ayad Alkadhi Talks About His Experiences as an Artist & Resident at Shangri La

New York-based artist Ayad Alkadhi’s bold and dynamic mixed media paintings are arresting on many levels. He combines Arabic calligraphy, renditions of the human face and figure, political allegories and references to world affairs in ways that are visually stunning and thematically intriguing. A true citizen of the world, Alkadhi was born and raised in Baghdad and spent his childhood between England, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. At the age of 23, after the first Gulf War, Alkadhi left Iraq moving first to Amman, Jordan and later to Auckland, New Zealand. He then moved to his current home, New York City, where he graduated with an MFA from New York University’s ITP Tisch School of The Arts.

I am Baghdad XV, 2013Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971)
I am Baghdad XV, 2013
Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971)
Charcoal, acrylic and soil on Arabic Newspaper on Canvas
48″ x 48″ (122cm x 122cm)

Alkadhi had his first Hawai‘i experience as a Shangri La Artist-in-Residence from January 18-30, 2013. As part of his residency in partnership with the Intersections Program at the University of Hawai‘i Department of Art and Art History, Alkadhi conducted studio visits with university graduate and undergraduate students and presented Quest to Belong, a public lecture on his work. Alkadhi also created a painting during his residency which he gifted to Shangri La.

Alkadhi enjoyed working closely with visual arts students at the University of Hawai‘i and explained: “It was a great experience! I was received with great warmth by faculty and students.” His advice for the students whose studios he visited: “Don’t become too bogged down with the technical aspect of the work. Technique is very important but can always be learned and cultivated. Narrative is what is of utmost importance. Telling a story using stick figures can be a satisfying journey.”

While at Shangri La, Alkadhi spoke about his experiences in becoming an artist: “I always wanted to be a visual artist but it was not an option in Iraq in the early 1990s. So, I chose to study engineering and it was a struggle for me. In retrospect there was a benefit as it trained me to use the other side of my brain. Now I can be a pragmatist when I want and in dreamland when I want. Most of the time, I’m somewhere in between.”

Alkadhi’s earlier mixed media art work is characterized by graphic images and references to the political situation in Iraq. As times have changed his work has changed becoming less political and more painterly.  According to the artist: “Since last year, my work has veered away from Islamic narrative and is moving toward more visual themes.  I am letting the work go where it wants to go. I think I have come to a place where the general human condition is more important to me than the Middle East condition, although Middle Eastern references will always be part of my work. For me it’s all about communication. Earlier in my career I wanted to communicate specific ideas. Now I want to communicate emotions.”

Sleeping Beauties2011-2012 Charcoal, acrylic, pen and pencil on Arabic newspaper on canvas72"x 72" - 183 cm x 183 cm
Sleeping Beauties, 2011-2012
Ayad Alkadhi (b. 1971)
Charcoal, acrylic, pen and pencil on Arabic newspaper on canvas
72″x 72″ – 183 cm x 183 cm

His experience at Shangri La surprised him. “I came to Hawai‘i with little expectation, in fact I really didn’t have a set idea of what to expect,” Alkadhi commented. “I think that helped because I was very impressed. I really appreciated that Shangri La is a collection of thoughts, ideas, and dramatic gestures created for establishing a place that is unique, not anywhere else in the world, even in the Middle East.”

As an artist, he was moved by the visual impact of the place and the collections stating: “Shangri La is such an accumulation of visual effects how could one not be influenced? The best moments are the ones where you become one with the place and your senses are heightened.”

His first view of the gardens at Shangri La brought back memories. “From a personal point of view the experience was cathartic,” he shared. “On the day I arrived for the residency, the view from the Mughal Garden brought back memories of my grandfather who passed twenty-three years ago. He was a professor of 10th and 11th century poetry and literature in Baghdad and something about stepping into the Mughal Garden instantly brought him back to me.”

Alkadhi was also intrigued by the narrative he found running through Shangri La as a place: “I would advise future visitors coming to Shangri La to let go of preconceived ideas of what Shangri La will be or do for you. Come and be rewarded by the experience. Each person will react differently. Shangri La is all about the narrative. Doris Duke combined influences from North Africa, India and the Middle East with her own technical and creative paths. In creating Shangri La she told her own original story.”

Ayad Alkadhi in the Syrian Room at Shangri La, January 23, 2013
Ayad Alkadhi in the Syrian Room at Shangri La, January 23, 2013

View more of Ayad Alkadhi’s work on his website:

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.