Kramrisch, Stella

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KRAMRISCH STELLA , (18961993), was an art historian and educator who specialized in the arts and cultures of South Asia. Born in 1896 in Moravia (then Austrian crown land, later a part of Czechoslovakia), Kramrisch worked steadily through a long century of intellectual ferment. She died in Philadelphia in 1993. Trained in part as a dancer, she brought firm visual skills to her analysis of India's artistic legacies and strong European standards to her insights into India's intellectual and ritual worlds. Many myths mask her personal history; her work was always the legacy she wished observed. She introduced European art-historical methods to many of her students in India, and her take on indigenous understandings of India's art to many students in the West. Her early labors were based on fieldwork and work with pundits on texts, and her interests ranged widelyfrom temple architecture and iconography to folk and textile artswith a powerful commitment to all of the material cultures of South Asia.

Kramrisch was trained in Vienna and Londonand by long living in Indiawith older mentors such as Joseph Strzygowski and Rudolf Steiner and, as prewar peers, such scholarly companions as Ananda Coomaraswamy, Alain Daniélou, Louis Renou, and Heinrich Zimmer. She traveled first to India in 1921, presenting herself at Rabindranath Tagore's Vishva-Bharati University at Shantiniketan, where she lectured until she was appointed at the University of Calcutta the next year.

Kramrisch moved from Calcutta to Philadelphia in 1950, invited by the Sanskritist W. Norman Brown to teach in the newly formed Department of South Asia Regional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as curator of Indian art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954 to 1979 and as emeritus curator until her death. Following her retirement from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, she continued to train graduate students at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York for another two decades. She was throughout her work intellectually curious, alive to contemporary art but unfazed by intellectual fashions. One of her late essays was written for an exhibition of the artist Francesco Clemente.

One of Kramrisch's first experiences in India was to visit the great cave-temple dedicated to Śiva on the island of Elephanta in Bombay's harbor. Her long meditation on that deity led to an authoritative essay, "The Image of Mahdevā in the Cave-Temple on Elephanta Island," published in the Archaeological Survey of India's Ancient India in 1946; to her exemplary catalog and exhibition for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Manifestations of Shiva (1981); and to her definitive personal study, The Presence of Śiva, in 1981. Kramrisch's final reformulation, "The Great Cave Temple of Śiva in Elephanta: Levels of Meaning and Their Form," appeared in 1984 in the proceedings of an international symposium held at the University of Pennsylvania in association with her Śiva exhibition.

Kramrisch's lifetime meditations on Śiva and the processes and stages of his manifestation were personal, rich, and fruitful. She saw his quintessential form at Elephanta finally as that of the eternal Śiva (Śad'ivā) and drew parallels between his three stages of emergence and the concept of a "triple body" for the Buddha. Her long exposure to India's myths and texts forms a rich mosaic in her later scholarship, impressionistic and literary in its presentation but deeply layered and felt (her students nicknamed The Presence of Śiva the "Stella Pur ā").

Kramrisch's early art-historical work in India moved her gradually from an ideological position brought from Europe to one recognizing India's praxis. She responded deeply to first-century bce Buddhist sculptures from Bharhut and to the aesthetic merits of art in the Gupta period (c. fifth century ce). She matched texts to techniques to study Ajanta's Buddhist painting, explored medieval Kerala in South India, and finally focused her prodigious efforts on the Indian temple. Combining close knowledge of monuments with a study of available texts, Kramrisch attempted to restore knowledge of indigenous meanings to the Indian temple and its forms. Articles appeared over many years in Ūpam and the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, both of which she edited in Calcutta; then finally, written in sight of the Himalayas, her essential two-volume study The Hindu Temple was published by Calcutta University in 1946. Both essential and essentializing, Kramrisch's volumes returned the temple's architecture from a century of archaeological caretakers to its meaning as a manifest form of divinity. What they do not do is approach issues of daily and changing ritual. The history of Hindu architecture became instead "an exchange of forms within a community of symbols" (Kramrisch, 1946, p. 220). Without Kramrisch's emphasis on the temple's symbolic scaffolding, however, religious and architectural studies in South Asia might never have met.

Following publication of The Hindu Temple and throughout her many years in Philadelphia, Kramrisch combined curatorial entrepreneurship of a high orderorganizing groundbreaking exhibitions, including The Art of Nepal (1964) and Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village (1968) as well as The Manifestations of Śiva (1981)with continuing text-based scholarship that increasingly sought for the origins of symbolism in Vedic literature. The essays "Linga," "Eka-Vratya," and "The Indian Great Goddess" were in part preparation for her major study The Presence of Śiva (1981), but in part they also document Kramrisch's retreat from her early encounters with praxis in India at a time when a new generation of scholarship had begun to delineate "temple Hinduism" through much different means. The fabric of her perceptions, however, continued to inform her deep engagement with the objects of India under her care, her sensuous and impassioned response to which remains a great part of her lasting legacy. That she was able to restore a religious dimension to an art and architecture largely subsumed by orientalist agendas, and to do so in the name of indigenous knowledge, had roots in early-twentieth-century thinking but flowered in India, fed by her living experiences as well as her scholarship. Her methodologies were as layered, personal, and reimagined, as are religious and aesthetic experiences themselves.


Kramrisch, Stella. Indian Sculpture. Calcutta, 1933. This is an incomparable attempt to bring a European-trained vision to re-create indigenous categories for India's sculpture. Where Kramrisch is led by her eyes, not by European theories, her observations still can seem revelatory.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. Calcutta, 1946. This is Kramrisch's definitive achievement. Initially planned as an introduction to an album of photographs by Raymond Burnier, these volumes have become a monument of twentieth-century scholarship.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Art of Nepal. New York, 1964. By means of this Asia Society exhibition, Kramrisch first introduced New York to the important art of this previously closed Himalayan kingdom.

Kramrisch, Stella. Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village. Philadelphia, 1968. Kramrisch used her major exhibitions in the United States to break new ground, here introducing the art world (and in part India too) to "subaltern" artistic traditions she valued as much as India's courtly cultures.

Kramrisch, Stella. "The Indian Great Goddess." History of Religions 14 (1975): 235265. This essay, a major example of Kramrisch's later scholarship, combines an understanding of the importance of India's essentialized "great" goddess and of her myriad and multiple sources.

Kramrisch, Stella. Manifestations of Shiva. Philadelphia, 1981. Kramrisch worked on this major exhibition for more than a decade to summarize her involvement with and knowledge of the great god Śiva.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Presence of Śiva. Princeton, N.J., 1981. It is difficult to say whether this volume, in which Kramrisch reprocesses all her knowledge of Śiva's myth, is a supplement to the exhibition above or the other way around.

Meister, Michael W. "Display as Structure and Revelation: On Seeing the Shiva Exhibition." Studies in Visual Communication 7, no. 4 (1981): 8489. This review is a tentative exploration of Kramrisch's intuitive understandings of art and display.

Meister, Michael W., ed. Discourses on Śiva. Philadelphia, 1984. These are proceedings of an international symposium on religious imagery held in conjunction with Kramrisch's Manifestations of Shiva exhibition in Philadelphia.

Miller, Barbara Stoller, ed. Exploring India's Sacred Art. Philadelphia, 1983. This well-edited selection of a lifetime of Kramrisch's widely disbursed essays has a biographical introduction by Miller and a bibliography of Kramrisch's writings by Joseph M. Dye III.

Percy, Ann, and Raymond Foye, with essays by Stella Kramrisch and Ettore Sottsass. Francesco Clemente: Three Worlds. Philadelphia, 1990. Kramrisch throughout her life engaged with living artists. Clemente's interactions with Kramrisch and India are particularly fascinating.

Michael W. Meister (2005)