Carmel Berkson '46

Inspired by ancient Indian art


 Davindra Lokhande

Carmel Berkson had been a practicing sculptor for more than twenty years when she took her first trip to India in 1970. What began as an international jaunt turned into a lifelong passion for a culture and a place that has become her adopted home.

“When I was a student at Duke,” says Berkson, “the names of Gandhi and Nehru may have reached us via the press, but the phantasmagoria that is India had no relevance in our lives.”

Originally from New York, Berkson arrived at Duke as World War II
played out on the global stage. Although she was artistically inclined, the lack of any art courses to speak of compelled her to major in history. “Then as now,” says Berkson, who lives in Mumbai, “the study of history leads us into all else.”

After graduating, she attended Columbia University and studied with renowned sculptor Milton Hebald. She spent the next twenty-two years raising a family with Martin Fleisher B.S.E.E. '45, whom she met at Duke while he was training in the V12 Naval Program, and creating sculpture in clay, wood, plaster, and metal. When a friend invited her to go to India, Berkson accepted, thinking it would be a fun adventure. But the trip turned out to be revelatory. She was immediately entranced by what she found during excursions to such ancient sites as the extensive and intricately carved caves at Elephanta Island, Ellora, and Mahabalipuram. Berkson was so moved by the compressed energy and ancient tradition inherent in the sculptures that she felt compelled to put aside her own work to learn more about that of India.

“There was no question that the individual who worked alone as I had done was more or less irrelevant,” says Berkson, who was awed by the collaborative nature of the work she observed. “In India, there had been no break in the ancient traditions of cooperative ventures among royalty, scholars, artists, artisans, architects, and priests.”

Émigré: Berkson with Indian friends. Courtesy Carmel Berkson

Outfitted with a camera, an artist's sensibility, and a historian's curiosity, she returned to India, backpacking around the country and learning all she could about its rich history of ancient aesthetic traditions. She moved there in 1977—although she maintains a residence in New York—and spent the next two decades taking hundreds of photographs and researching and writing about the evolution of the country's centuries-old sculptural and religious artwork. In 2001, she began sculpting again, inspired by what she had seen and discovered.

She has published five books of photography and criticism based on her discoveries and insights. Her most recent, Indian Sculpture: Towards the Rebirth of Aesthetics, came out in 2009. Earlier this year, she was one of only a few non-Indians selected to receive the Padma Shree Award, India's fourth-highest civilian honor, for her contributions to the appreciation and understanding of Indian art.

“I hope I can join in the task of redirecting attention to what we can learn from the history of indigenous aesthetics and of the motivating philosophies, rituals, and general ways of coping with life,” she writes in Indian Sculpture, “and that with this revived understanding and focus, a connection with the form-life embedded in the cave temples and Hindu temples of India will have beneficial results for the aspiring artist. What is here is still very much a potent, forceful source of energy.” 

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