Darbar Series: Interview with Deborah Clearwaters

Posted on March 8, 2012 by

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By Shruti Iyer

Deborah Clearwaters is Director of Education and Public Programs at the Asian Art Museum, where she oversees a department of eight in the development of educational materials, gallery interpretation, and programs about Asian art and culture for diverse audiences. She joined the museum as Adult Programs Coordinator in 1998 and worked her way up to her current position, serving as Manager of Public Programs and Associate Director along the way. She holds a double B.A. in Art History and Japanese Language and Literature and an M.A. in Japanese Art History from the University of Maryland. Prior to her museum work, Deborah worked for a private gallery in Japan, interned at the British Museum, taught English as a Second Language, and was assistant to the Educational Attaché at the Embassy of Japan in Washington DC. Deborah speaks conversational Japanese and is an ongoing student of the Japanese Way of Tea.

Deborah graciously took the time to talk about the Maharaja Exhibit and the upcoming world premiere of  Darbar.’

What was the genesis of the Maharaja: the Splendor of India’s Royal Courts Exhibit?

The exhibition was actually conceived by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, [where it showed from October 2009 – January 2010].  We had been searching for a high quality exhibition in Indian Art, because we like to have a good rotation of the different cultures that we cover.  We cover all of Asia, and hadn’t done an exhibition onSouth Asia for a couple of years, so we were really searching for one.  Our Deputy Director for Art & Programs, Robin Grossbeck, read about the exhibition at theVictoria &AlbertMuseum inLondon, and we went in hot pursuit of it!  The exhibit itself has been touring to several cities both in theU.S. andCanada, and goes to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts inRichmond opening May 21, 2012.  It has been at theAsianArt Museum since October 2011 and will be closing in April 2012.

The original exhibit [at the Victoriaand AlbertMuseum] drew heavily from their own collections, collections of the Queen, several Maharajas, and other collectors in India.  The version that is here in San Franciscoincludes art from American collectors as well.  It is a very expensive, complicated exhibit – in fact, to install the ‘Silver Carriage,’ we had to rent a crane and remove an entire panel of windows from the museum to get it into the building (view the video here)!


You are the director of education and public programs. How do you go about choosing programs for Asian Art Museum (AAM) to present?

We’re always looking for the best quality programs and partners who can enrich the themes that we’re presenting in the exhibition.  So, it makes a lot of sense to have a cohesive suite of programs that promote the exhibition themes.  We also look for there to be very strong community relevance in the partners we choose – whether they have a strong following or other type of recognition in the Bay Area.  We’re trying to get people galvanized to come to the museum to come see the exhibit – the programs really help support, educate, and provide context for the artwork that’s on view in the galleries.  So, this was a perfect opportunity to work with the Chitresh Das Dance Company!


What drew you to the Chitresh Das Dance Company (CDDC) and Chhandam School of Kathak when organizing the public programming for the exhibit?

The Chitresh Das Dance Company definitely fulfills the criteria of quality and relevance to the exhibition, but also has a strong community presence in the Bay Area.  My staff and I have seen many of your productions, so we know of your reputation – not only as a company that puts together quality productions, but also as one that has a reputation of being an educational institution.  We’ve have worked with the company over the years, so it was good that we had that relationship to tap into.  The Maharaja Exhibit gave us a platform on which to really go deeper into our relationship with the company.  Not every community has such a breadth of high caliber dance companies – the Indian community definitely has that, so we are really fortunate!

The other thing I really like about Chitresh Das, is that he definitely has qualifications in the traditional dance [of Kathak], but also, he’s continually contemporizing the dance form.  It’s not a static snapshot of the past, but an exciting, continually refreshing approach to Kathak Dance.  This is what makes your company, not only a great resource in the Bay Area, but very unique on the global stage!


Darbar highlights the artistic renaissance that took place in the courts of North India as well as the methodology of divide and rule utilized by the British to conquer India and eventually dissolve the same courts. What sort of historical perspective can you provide the audiences of Darbar?

The exhibit is organized for an American audience, who may not know much of this history, much less the fact thatIndiawas once a British Colony.  It provides a really good basis for understanding both the cultural and political history over the past 300 years or so.  When we do an exhibition, we try to frame it around the time period of the objects that you see.  This exhibition introduces the span of time starting with competing independent kingdoms, then the partial control of the subcontinent by the English East India Company, and later the incorporation of present day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh into the British Empire.  All of those stories are told by the objects and interpretive materials that are presented.

The first two galleries use the art to explain the expected roles of an ideal ruler.  The galleries talk about him being spiritual, a great hunter, and a just ruler.  It then goes into the ideal ruler’s personal life – with a section on the palace life.  The third gallery is an intensive history lesson – there is material about the competing kingdoms, the fluid boundaries between the different regions, which are then capitalized on by the English East India Company, and subsequently the British rule.  By the end of the exhibition, you are seeing the Maharajas truly living a cosmopolitan lifestyle.  They are straddling two worlds of being an English ‘bowler hat-wearing’ gentleman, but also having to remain in their native traditions.

The objects in the exhibit stop in the 1930s, but the didactic information and  the audio tour talks about Partition, Independence, and what happens to the Maharajas afterwards.  The rich audio tour is complimented with information on the walls.  Every day, we have two docent tours, and have had 75,000 visitors as of today [February 27th]!  By walking through the exhibition, people will get an incredible sense of the complexity of the history and the diversity of the kingdoms.  They’ll be exposed to the glory and the tragedy of the high points and low points of the whole story!  Hopefully Darbar will bring out some of these historical themes.


Let’s switch gears for a moment. At the CDDC & Chhandam School of Kathak, we not only teach dance, but teach the importance of promoting the art form – advocating for it among the larger community and society. In this modern day and age, it is challenging to garner sustained community support towards the art of ancient societies, whether it is dance, music, fine art, etc. How has AAM addressed this issue?

We definitely struggle with this issue as well.  One thing that is key, is working with youth – which the [CDDC] does, as well.  Early exposure to your or other people’s cultures, gives youth a sense of pride in the contributions of that culture.  Celebrating the uniqueness, but also finding common ground among cultures is essential.  Our school programs aim to serve teachers, parents, and students with an authentic, immersive experience of traditional culture fromAsia.  You can plant those seeds in the youth.  During the natural course of a person’s development, they may not care about this much until they have kids of their own!  There are times in a person’s life when these things become suddenly much more important.  If they’ve had that early exposure, then they know where they can go back to make a deeper dive.

The other thing we’ve been experimenting with in the art we exhibit, is balancing excellent exhibitions of traditional art, with the contemporary component.  For every exhibition, we’ve been striving to have some contemporary component.  Currently we have Sanjay Patel’s work as a contemporary counterpart to the Maharaja Exhibition.  [Sanjay Patel] is a Pixar animator, who has done popular cartoon books about the Hindu Deities and the Ramayana.  He’s not a traditional Indian painter – he is of Indian heritage, born and raised in California – but his style is much more like Disney’s.  With Sanjay Patel’s exhibit, we have kids, who aren’t even ethnically Indian, telling the Ramayana to their parents, because of this very accessible medium!  We are suddenly able to explore these broader influences and inspirations, where in the past years, the museum was a bit more orthodox about showing the traditional arts ofAsia.

Now we’re trying to strike a balance.  What the outcome is – it’s hard to say, but we do have a new vision that is allowing us to explore the interconnectivities between time and place.  It allows us to be a little bit more experimental, so we’re not entirely rooted in ancient culture.  We are showing how these ideas and ancient objects can still inspire people today.


What are your hopes and expectations for Darbar?

I hope the show will entertain the guests, of course!  I hope it transports them to another time and place in a very immersive way, but also in a way that doesn’t exoticize the culture.  I also hope Darbar has a synergy with the ideas presented in the exhibition and pulls from it, the qualities, beauty, and grace that transcends time and place.  I think it’s going to be a sell out series – if it hasn’t sold out already!  I hope people get a full experience of Indian culture and they see the continued relevance and connection to life today – through this living art form in the 21st century!

Any last words for Darbar audiences?

I hope people come early to see the Maharaja exhibition or before it leaves on April 8th!

The Chitresh Das Dance Company and the Asian Art Museum (AAM) will be presenting the world premiere of DARBAR, March 15-18, 2012!

Come experience the majestic decadence of India’s Moghul Courts through internationally renowned kathak master and choreographer, Pandit Chitresh Das’ new work!  The production will feature the critically acclaimed Chitresh Das Dance Company and live music by world-class musicians.   DARBAR will be held in conjunction with the exhibition Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts.

Click here to purchase tickets!

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