Culture Vulture

Communist Bulgaria's interest in Indian art

After 1976, Lyudmila Zhivkova had near total power to decide what was printed, broadcast and performed in Bulgaria. keystone pictures usa / alamy
05 September, 2018

In a bright, spacious and strikingly empty building around four years old, Indian art and artefacts stood observed by a few bored guards. The museum’s only guide insisted that that morning in early June was exceptional and that the halls were usually crammed with tourists from around the world.

Recently incorporated into a new cultural centre known as Square 500, behind the city’s iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the museum has an ideal location for luring Sofia’s growing numbers of tourists. But despite our guide’s assurances, Square 500’s unique collection of Indian art, the largest in the Balkans, has been neglected for many years by the public, scholars and the state.

The Indian collection was once a priority of the Bulgarian government and a showcase of its aspirations to cosmopolitan modernity. In the 1970s and 1980s, the communist regime led by Todor Zhivkov covertly spent vast sums to become a European centre for the study of Indian culture. Troupes of Indian dancers toured the country and Indian films appeared on Bulgarian television. The work of Indian authors such as Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, whose descriptions of an oppressed peasantry appealed to Marxist sensibilities, appeared in Bulgarian translation. But it was the visual arts that were the heart of this ambitious campaign to reorient Bulgaria’s relationship with India and its place in the world.

Representations of the British Raj often overshadow India’s rich connections to European art and culture, including that of countries such as France, Portugal and Russia. Long before the Zhivkov regime turned to India in the 1970s, Bulgarian intellectuals had cultivated their own fascination with the subcontinent. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Bulgaria was emerging from centuries of Ottoman rule and a new nationalist movement was searching for historical roots, certain Bulgarian intellectuals argued that the country had a long association with, or was descended from, ancient Indian civilisations. The nationalist activist Georgi Stoykov Rakovski, after whom a Delhi school is named, insisted that there were close links not only between the Bulgarian language and Sanskrit, but also that Bulgaria and India shared common religious practices, customs and mythology. More importantly, perhaps, Rakovski saw another parallel between India and Bulgaria: both were oppressed by foreign empires and yearned for liberation. Bulgarian intellectuals were ecstatic when Rabindranath Tagore visited Sofia in 1926, while one of the era’s preeminent Bulgarian artists, Boris Georgiev, travelled to India himself to paint Tagore, Nehru and Gandhi.

This lively cultural exchange was interrupted after the Second World War and the establishment of a communist government in Bulgaria. For many years, the new regime in Sofia—under the leadership of Zhivkov since 1954—sponsored a Stalinist model of culture, focussed on promoting socialist values and containing dissent. In the 1970s, however, Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila began her rise. When her mother died in 1971, Lyudmila Zhivkova, then only 29 years old, assumed the role of first lady, accompanying her father on visits abroad. She had studied art and history in Oxford and Moscow, where she acquired a love of culture and a sense of herself as a historical figure in her own right. These included high-profile trips to India, where she met frequently with Indira Gandhi.

In 1976, Zhivkova became head of the state commission for science, culture and art, with near total power to decide what was printed, broadcast and performed in Bulgaria. Zhivkova was now a pillar of her father’s regime. But she was also the leader of a peculiar form of dissent. Besides her official activities, she organised Friday-night salons with Bulgaria’s leading writers and artists, many of whom were disenchanted by the sterile conformity of communist ideology and the art that supported it. While they did not openly disavow Marxism, they pursued new ideas that implicitly challenged the values of the regime. They were particularly interested in the cosmopolitan potential of art and spirituality—and India was a vital source of both.

Zhivkova’s circle was fascinated by Indian mysticism, drawing on a tradition of Bulgarian interest in theosophy, yoga and religious syncretism dating back to the early-twentieth century. Following in their footsteps, Zhivkova was drawn to Auroville, where Sri Aurobindo’s successor Mirra Alfassa had cultivated a community that practiced a blend of spiritual traditions. In 1981, she joined a committee to advise the Indian government on Auroville’s management and future. Her spirituality was barely distinguishable from her politics. When she visited Auroville in 1981 to celebrate her role on the committee, Zhivkova brought with her 1,300 roses. The flower is a traditional symbol of Bulgaria—one of the world’s leading producers of rose oil—and the number had a clear political significance. That year, the Zhivkov regime devoted its energies to festivals and garish monuments celebrating Bulgaria’s thirteen-hundredth anniversary as a state.

From an Indian perspective, the Bulgarian market was nothing spectacular. Trade with the Soviet Union was far larger and more important. Moscow supplied vital military hardware, while Bulgaria primarily offered fertiliser, chemical products and steel. For the Bulgarians, on the other hand, India was a crucial partner. Bulgaria was emerging as the “Silicon Valley of the Soviet sphere,” a hub for electronics and software production. The historian Victor Petrov told us over an email interview that “the Indian market, much more open than those of the Eastern Bloc, was a vital place to learn how to market and advertise in all spheres of business, as Bulgarians competed both against Western firms such as IBM and their Eastern allies.”

Business, personal connections, and high-minded ideals mingled in Zhivkova’s agenda, and nowhere was this more obvious than in her sponsorship of the Indian art collection now housed in Square 500. Iskra Zaharieva, a recently retired art historian who spent most of her working life with the collection, recalled Zhivkova’s reign as a “golden age of culture.” The funds available to them seemed limitless, she said. “All our requests were approved. Guides and curators were employed and they were much needed then, because around fourteen groups of tourists were visiting us every day.” The collection also benefited from Zhivkova’s friendship with the artist Svetoslav Roerich and his wife Devika Rani. Like his father, the acclaimed Russian painter Nikolai Roerich, Svetoslav was active in the dialogue between European and Indian artistic traditions. Zhivkova made personal visits to Bangalore, where the couple lived, and received many works of art from them.

These and other works were brought to the National Gallery of Foreign Art, established in 1985 and directed by Svetlin Rusev, another friend of Zhivkova and regular at her salon. A painter in his own right, Rusev knew Bulgarian art collectors living abroad, and encouraged Zhivkova’s ambitions to create the largest national institution for foreign art in the Balkans. Zaharieva remembered that Rusev was the mastermind behind the “Indian project, as he came up with the idea, made the concept and organised the purchases.” He collected Indian miniatures from the Mughal, Rajasthani and Pahari schools, Hindu temple sculptures and Christian art from Goa. “He was a visionary,” Zaharieva added. “The sculptures of Christian saints from Goa were unique pieces of art … a blend of Indian and Portuguese tradition. He was buying these sculptures obsessively.”

The now rather desolate corridors of Square 500, where the holdings of the National Gallery of Foreign Art were transferred in 2014, still hold evidence of Rusev and Zhivkova’s efforts. Although the museum’s collection of Indian art is vast and eclectic, the artefacts on display today fall into a few categories: temple decorations, wooden carvings, stone sculptures, doors and panels, in which ancient fragments juxtapose twentieth-century pieces. The Indian miniatures represent a full range of periods and regional styles. Rusev’s personal pride, the collection of Goan art, is perhaps the most powerful set of works. Outside of Goa and Portugal, no other museum houses such an extensive collection of Goan Christian sculpture, particularly the wooden statues—some life-sized or larger—of Jesus and the saints. It appears that Rusev saw these statues, carved by Indian artists for churches in a blend of styles, as an embodiment of art’s power to bring cultures together. They were a fitting centrepiece to Zhivkova’s cosmopolitan project.

Zhivkova’s tenure as director of cultural policy coincided with a dramatic expansion of India’s trade with the Eastern Bloc of communist countries. Trade with Bulgaria grew fivefold between 1970 and 1981, from a value of 26 million rubles to over 130 million, the equivalent of over Rs 1,600 crore in today’s money. Her death in 1981, however, marked the end of Bulgaria’s heyday of India-centric internationalism. The Soviet Union, Bulgaria’s chief ally, increasingly resented the Zhivkov regime’s aspirations to an independent foreign policy based on broad-minded humanist culture. An economic downturn in the early 1980s resulted in slashed budgets and an end to the expensive festivals, foreign junkets and art-collecting of previous years. The regime reoriented cultural production, pushing writers and artists to attack Bulgarian Muslims and promote “de-Turkification” as a response to rising unrest. Instead of showcasing global art, the regime now focussed on assimilating or expelling minorities, a tactic that did little to shore up its crumbling popularity. In 1989, the regime collapsed, along with the other communist governments of Eastern Europe.

“These were the most difficult days for the gallery and for the people in general,” Zaharieva said, recalling the decline in the country’s economy in the 1990s. “I remember there were days when there was no heating in the building during harsh winters.” Rusev, who died earlier this year, was accused of having enriched himself and his personal art collection. The National Gallery of Foreign Art was starved of funds and much of its Indian artefacts were put in storage.

The archives of the National Gallery for Foreign Art are sealed, and it is impossible for Bulgarian scholars to analyse Zhivkova’s legacy without risking disruption and protest. Rusev’s gallery was reorganised as a part of the lavish Square 500 centre, which, despite being a significant investment for the Bulgarian government, has in some ways destroyed the spirit of Zhivkova and Rusev’s project.

The new museum is devoted to proving that Bulgaria is a European country, and its Indian collection fits uncomfortably with this mission. The staff appeared baffled by our request for information about its Indian holdings, and arranged a tour meant to impress us with Bulgaria’s impeccable Europeanness. “After 500 years of slavery under the Turks,” our guide began, “we became a free people and caught up with Europe. Now, don’t you want to see our French paintings?” This invitation was repeated numerous times as we explored the Indian collection. However, the collection itself, now displayed in well-lit rooms, stands as a monument to a lost era, when a small Balkan country turned to India for cultural dialogue, spiritual insights and economic opportunities.