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.