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Culture Vulture

Communist Bulgaria's interest in Indian art

By blake smith and kristina nikolovska | 1 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.

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Blake Smith, a fellow at the European University Institute, is a historian of French exchange with India. His essays appear in such outlets as The Atlantic, Aeon and The Wire.

Kristina Nikolovska is a historian of early-modern Southeast Europe. She currently works as a specialist in Church Slavonic manuscripts and early printed books at the National and University Library in Skopje, Macedonia.

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