Alice Boner, a Swiss painter and sculptor, art historian, and an Indologist. 
Snapshot
  • Born Swiss, but with an undeniable Indian karma, Alice Boner continues to inspire artistes, academics and rasikas across the world.

To a whole generation of rasikas, Alice Boner is a forgotten name. But Indian academics and scholars in the fields of classical music, classical dance, drama, Indology, anthropology, temple architecture and history have to be indebted to this one woman who was not just a “lover of Indian things”, as someone put it mildly.

Though a Swiss national, her karma ordained her life to be dedicated to India and Indian arts. Alice spent half her life in India and contributed significantly to Indian scholarship. Alice was born in Italy in 1889 to an affluent family. Her parents encouraged her to study art from a very early age. As a teenager, she began studying visual art at the Ernest Blanc-Garin School in Brussels, in Munich and later in Basel, where sculptor Carl Burckhardt became her mentor. Soon, she started doing shows of her artworks. She worked in different mediums like charcoal, line drawings, acrylic and watercolours, bronze and wooden sculptures. She set up her own studios in Zurich. She toured all of Europe and made sketches.

Alice meeting dancer Uday Shankar in Zurich was a life changing event and the beginning of her love affair with India Alice meeting dancer Uday Shankar in Zurich was a life changing event and the beginning of her love affair with India

On 7 April 1926, Alice’s life changed for good. She witnessed a performance by the great dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar in Zurich and was deeply moved by it. She invited him to her studio and worked on drawing his sketches and creating his sculptures. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Alice and Uday. Using the influence of her family, she began organising Uday’s performances across Europe. They ideated the forming of a troupe together, but that did not materialise soon. Two years later, she saw Uday performing in Paris, and this time, they decided to pursue their plans.

But how could this Swiss woman, who hadn’t seen or heard about Indian culture much, be able to do justice to her ambitious venture? Uday decided to show her around India. They went on an extensive tour of the country in search of inspiration, in search of people who would understand their ideas and collaborate with them. They travelled to places like Mahabalipuram, the insides of Kerala, along the western coast of Indian shores, remote Rajasthan and central India. By the end of their journeys, they had gathered some of the best talent in the country and formed a troupe of 11 artistes. It was during this time that Alice first met Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar, his son, the teenage Ali Akbar Khan, Baba’s students Timir Baran, dancer Zohra Segal and others. She also met Ravi, Uday’s younger brother, who she took a great liking to. He was to become the darling of the Uday Shankar Dance Troupe, with special attention from Alice. When Ravi fell ill on tours, Alice nursed him back to health with motherly love and concern. With Alice managing the logistics and Uday managing the creative content, the troupe toured extensively from 1930 to 1935. Beginning with its first performance in 1931 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, all the way to the last tours, Uday and Alice spread the message of Indian classical dance across Europe and in India. As a part of these tours, Alice also explored several other facets of India, that she was to return to later in her life.

In 1934, Uday and Alice travelled to Kerala and met poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, who was establishing the Kerala Kalamandalam. They enjoyed a Kathakali performance that lasted three nights. Alice fell in love with the heady mix of live music, dance and abhinayam or aesthetic mime. In 1934, when Uday Shankar invited a young Balasaraswathi to dance in Calcutta for the first time, Alice was in charge of organising the performances.

For every venture, Uday had Alice’s support. But fate had other things in store for Alice. She felt that her art studies had taken a backseat after she had become the manager for Uday’s troupe. She quit, to tread a new path. But in the five years that they had worked together, Uday and Alice had unknowingly brought about a renaissance in Indian classical dance.

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Alice had visited Benaras in 1930. When she decided to resume her studies in the arts and anthropology, in October 1935, she returned to the city that she had felt attracted to and found a house on Assi Ghat overlooking the Ganga. She wrote of her new home in her diary: “It is so familiar, so welcoming, so warm. It encloses me with love and opens the world for me… I feel fulfilled, happy, settled and supported, like on a gentle stream.” For the next 40 years, Benaras was her home.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung lectured at the Benaras Hindu University and dropped in at her home afterwards for dinner. She met, hosted and befriended intellectuals and artistes, including scientist C V Raman, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the German Buddhist lama Anagarika Govinda, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, philosopher Sri Bhagwan Das and art historian Stella Kramrisch. Alice’s little house on Assi Ghat became a hub of intellectual activity, even as she continued her study of the people and places around Benaras. In 1937, French musicologist, artist and writer Alain Danielou and his partner, Swiss photographer Raymond Burnier, moved into a palace called Riva Kothi, which was very close to Alice’s modest home. She had known Danielou from 1929 in Paris. Their reconnecting in India and friendship encouraged her further. The company of these intellectuals stimulated her thoughts.

In 1941, Alice visited the Ellora caves and discovered a new way of understanding Indian temple architecture. She believed nothing was sculpted without a purpose. Drawing geometrical diagrams to understand sculptural patterns, Alice believed in the energy these ancient sites had. She toured extensively and meticulously maintained diaries of written and sketched material.

In 1949, Alice met 21-year-old Shanta Rao in Bangalore. This rekindled her interest in classical dance. Rao was training in Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. She and Rao became lifelong friends and Alice supported her artistic career, based on the experience she had had with Uday.

In 1957, Alice met Sadashiva Rath Sharma, a Sanskrit teacher in Puri in Orissa, who introduced her to the Shilpa Prakasha – an architect’s manual for temple construction. Alice found in this text references to the principles she had been formulating, which for her were proof that they were accurate. She and Sharma analysed and translated the text over the next decade.

In 1962, Alice published The Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture. The same year also saw the publication of her book on the compositional structures of Indian sacred art, based on her visits to the Ajanta and Ellora caves. “Now I am on my third adventure. The first was Indian dance. The second was Indian sacred sculpture. The third is Indian temple architecture,” she wrote in her diary in February 1967. She believed in “really touching the hidden meaning. Aesthetic considerations gave way to a symbolic, underlying conception”.

Alice had also travelled to Konark. Nearly 40 years after her first visit, in 1972, she published New Light on the Sun Temple of Konarka. In 1969, the University of Zurich awarded her an honorary doctorate for her contributions and publications, and in 1974, the then president of India V V Giri awarded her the Padma Bhushan. In 1978, Alice returned to Switzerland for good.

During her lifetime, she donated generously to Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum of Benaras Hindu University, which today houses a permanent gallery in her name. She had also expressed a wish that her home at Assi Ghat be turned into a centre for research and artistic collaboration, and had invited the Austrian Indologist Bettina Baumer to be its director. The Alice Boner Institute, under Harsha Vinay’s directorship today, hosts and supports the work of international scholars visiting Benaras. Alice had also decided that a part of her personal collection should go to Rietberg Museum in Zurich. In 1971, under her supervision, about 580 miniature paintings and around 130 masks, sculptures and art objects were transferred.

Alice passed away in Zurich in 1981. As per her will, her ashes were immersed in the Ganga. Having spent half her life in India, Alice’s contribution to Indian art, architecture and aesthetics are significant even 37 years after her death. In 2016, the National Museum in Delhi hosted an exhibition of some of her images, books and art objects. Her books, research papers and sketches are important for every student of Indian classical performing and visual arts. Alice, born Swiss, but with an undeniable Indian karma, continues to inspire artistes, academics and rasikas across the world.

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