“We’re not discussing art the way [one does] in college or an AP course, but learning about art so that when one goes to a museum, you have the broader context of how the art fits in with the larger scheme of Indian art,” he explains. “You also have enough knowledge to appreciate what you’re looking at.”
Reddy began hosting his study groups two years ago as an effort to bring South Asian art to a broader Western audience. A psychiatrist, he owes his fascination with Indian art to the culture he left behind when he moved to the United States.
“Growing up, my parents used to take me to temples and I wasn’t interested at all at that age,” Reddy says. “Most of what I know now about India is after I moved to America.”
Beyond his involvement in the South Asian Cultural Arts Council, Reddy is also the author of Arms & Armour of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka: Types, Decoration & Symbolism, where he explores the history behind ancient Indian weaponry. He joined this San Diego Museum of Art-based support council years ago to “increase awareness and appreciation of the rich and diverse arts of the Indian subcontinent.” As a board member, he is one of the several South Asians who volunteer their time by offering lectures.
These monthly meetings were originally held at the San Diego Museum of Art, home to more than 1,500 works of art originally from South Asia. From there began a journey of appreciation, inspection, and analysis of Indian art, iconography and symbolism. After gaining traction with his monthly sessions, he now offers bi-weekly meetings to keep up the momentum of learning, and members seem to appreciate this greater frequency. Today, his virtual study group has art-lovers from beyond just San Diego.
“We’re taking art out of the context of an enclosed culture,” says Reddy. “Or just a museum. Or just people in the know.”
Although Reddy was thrilled by the newfound diversity in his audience, the study group’s increasing popularity brought its own set of challenges as well. For one, there was a noticeable difference between the audience members’ understanding of Indian art itself.
“We have people who are from India, either first or second-generation immigrants. We have people who have visited India multiple times,” Reddy says. “But then, on the other hand, you have people who have never been to India but are fascinated by art from South Asia, perhaps because of the colors or the stories or the exoticisms.”
To navigate these differences, Reddy keeps his curriculum simple. He opens every session with a review of the material he covered previously and provides necessary explanations for niche religious or mythological concepts. Study group members also receive supplementary study materials that provide the broader context of the art he covers.
“If you have an audience that is not shy about asking questions, that’s a huge advantage,” Reddy says.
The coronavirus pandemic has penetrated nearly every sphere of public life. Reddy’s study groups were no exception. Unsure of how to safely continue these study groups, the SAAC originally cancelled them. Then, the rest of the world slowly began to go virtual, and Reddy followed suit. These study groups were given a new life through bi-weekly Zoom meetings. Although the shift was unprecedented for Reddy, who was accustomed to leading his small group in person in the rooms of the San Diego Museum of Art, he appreciates the merits of a virtual format.
“The huge advantage people is that people don’t have to leave their homes” Reddy says, laughing. “They don’t have to get into their cars and find parking, which is a nightmare, if you know anything about San Diego. They don’t have to dress up at all.”
But the benefits of Zoom go beyond mere convenience. Reddy forged new connections with his audience after the pandemic struck — connections that were not possible with his previous study groups.
“We now get people who are not local,” Reddy says. “I mean, you and I would not be having this conversation if this was a purely local activity. You live in Pleasanton, but you still had a chance to watch our video. Without that, you would have had to drive all the way to San Diego.”
Before closing off our meeting, Reddy holds an artifact of his own up to the Zoom camera. It’s an ancient, authentic dagger from Karnataka, with a handle in the shape of a baby Krishna. Although Reddy confirms that the dagger is real, he says his interest in this object is purely artistic, not as a weapon.
“It’s an honest-to-goodness dagger. But the question is, what’s Krishna doing on the handle of this dagger?”, Reddy says and laughs. “Do you see this two-headed bird right here?” he asks, pointing to the sculpted feathers emerging behind the Krishna. “It’s Karnataka’s state emblem. It’s called the Gandaberunda…and what context can this be used in? Well, today it’s used in a particular kind of dance in Karnataka. To me, the blade is nice. But it’s the handle where the story lies.”
It’s heartening to watch the SAAC study groups grow and attract different members of the American demography. It’s a reminder that South Asian tradition and heritage is just as important and celebrated as its Western counterpart. Reddy’s study groups have faced some setbacks, from cultural contrasts to a global pandemic. But his leadership is a reminder that ancient art can survive — and even thrive — in an increasingly digitized culture.
“It’s giving art,” Reddy says, “especially ancient art, a new life.”
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, the Director of Media Outreach at Break the Outbreak, and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. Her Instagram is @kanchan_naik_