Connected \\ July 11, 2018

New curator of Indian and South Asian Art

Siddhartha V. Shah has spent his life focusing on how art transforms the mind and spirit. To now be working in a museum whose mission is all about transformation through art and culture seems the right fit.


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© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


As the new Curator of Indian and South Asian Art, Shah brings an eclectic resume to the role. He comes to PEM from Columbia University with interests that cover aesthetics of imperial rule in British India, Tantric cults of the Divine Feminine, and late 19th-century British and French painting. In addition to his work as an independent curator, he also has taught yoga workshops, helping people go deeper into their practice through understanding the link between yoga and mythology. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Illumine, a Chicago-based publication focused on yoga.

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Siddhartha at home with his cat Poona. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

Growing up outside Chicago, Shah was raised in a traditional Indian household, speaking his native language and travelling yearly to India with his parents. This helped spark an early interest in Indian art. Watching his mother get dressed for weddings and parties, picking out what jewelry to wear and visiting sari shops in India all made an impression.

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Siddhartha with photographs of his relatives and ancestors. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


“The beauty of it all, it's incredible,” says Shah, “and it's just as present in sacred art, too.” He remembers regularly visiting a temple in Rajasthan and watching a Krishna sculpture get dressed every day in a new outfit, covered in jewels and adored.

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Detail of DURGA by Rini Dhumal, an artist based in Baroda, 2000. It’s the first painting Siddhartha ever bought and the first time he saw contemporary Indian art in a gallery. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert


Back at home, his mother insisted on having images of deities everywhere. She thought that from wherever one stood, "God" should be able to see you and you should be able to see the divine. This included different Hindu deities, Buddhist forms, images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

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This piece is made from Mexican cans and was purchased by Siddhartha in San Francisco in 2000. The object was displayed with a number of other Mexican frames made of recycled metal, but this one happened to have an image of the Hindu goddess Kali slipped into it as a display. Siddhartha saw it and assumed it was some kind of altar. He never removed the Kali from the frame and has kept it as an altar ever since. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

“I would look at them all the time and it helped me to be in an active, conscious relationship with an object,” says Shah. “I'm sensitive to objects and I pay attention to what they might want to share. My relationship with art, and my aim as a curator, is to awaken and inspire people. It's to support a growing awareness — to turn us onto diversity and social issues.”

Shah will develop exhibitions that tell the stories of the artists, communities and traditions of South Asia, as well as important moments in the history of the region. PEM was the first museum outside of India to focus on the achievements of its modern artists since acquiring the Chester and Davida Herwitz collection in 2001.

With such an extraordinary collection of modern works,” says Shah, “we have the ability to present the art of South Asia and its diverse cultures as connected to the past while looking firmly to the future to initiate new conversations.


While Shah has taken a somewhat circuitous professional path, Lynda Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director, said he is just the kind of person to put PEM at the forefront of the South Asian art world. 

“Siddhartha is dynamic and involved in the kind of relevant conversations PEM needs to be a part of,” says Hartigan. “He’s not your typical academic that comes through the regular channels and that’s what we like most about him.”


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Holding a Gujarati parasol that is embroidered with the names of the women who worked on it. It’s one of the new curator’s favorite possessions. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

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