Letter to an Indian friend

Bronze ritual mask (17th or 18th century) depicting the deity Panjurli, protector of the jungle and wildlife, ‘Bhuta’ culture,Tulu Nadu, South India

dieu indien1 copie 2.jpg

Dear Panjurli,

I sincerely hope that you can forgive my rather informal greeting. Please do not take offense: you are a ‘bhuta’, a deity, but we have known each other for a long time.

You are from the south, the coast of Malabar, which has fuelled so many European dreams on the spice route, in the days of sailing ships and various ‘India Companies’. Tulu Nadu, in the region of Mangalore to be precise. The honorific ‘ji’ (Panjurli-ji) is therefore out of the question, but I must admit, after all these years, that I still do not speak one Dravidian language… I am ever so sorry about this, believe me, I will make up for it in a next life. We met over 30 years ago in the window of an exceptional antique dealer, who became a friend, with the sign Phillips Antiques. In Bombay. All right then, Mumbai to please the populists currently in power in Maharashtra. But I digress. You fascinated me from the start. I knew nothing of the culture you arose from. Like the overwhelming majority of India. I once thought that you were from one of the subcontinent’s many tribes: the Gonds in the Bastar jungles or the Bison Horn Marias of Chhattisgarh, perhaps. In terms of location, I was way off. But in terms of tribe, I was quite close... I see you are smiling. Indeed, the world of Tulu Nadu is based on a society of very Hindu villages, extremely hierarchical, with a caste system as rigid as cast iron. Absolutely nothing tribal, culturally, in this rigid microcosm. At first sight... Because you still are no other than the Bhuta boar, linked to the jungle of Western Ghats, wild animals and aboriginal tribes. I thought you were superb, bronze ritual mask of the 17th century (I learned all this afterwards, through research) crowned with cobras. And I developed a passion for this mysterious world you were born from. Since then, we, you and I, have collaborated on two exhibitions and several articles, and I have expanded my collection of bhuta bronzes by going from auction to auction. The Museum Rietberg in Zurich has dedicated an exhibition to your unique culture. I assure you: not one of the masks exhibited on this occasion remotely compared to you. You are the most beautiful. You are and will always be, dear Panjurli, my favourite.

With all my affection and respect. You are a deity. And I will never forget that.