Black Hat Lama preparing for religious ceremony at the New Year, Sikkim Sikkim by Alice S Kandell, February 1969

Asian Art Newspaper talks to Alice S Kandell about Himalayan and Tibetan art, Sikkim, and the Shrine Room in the Freer Gallery, Washington DC, and her travels in Sikkim

In 1965, Alice Kandell first visited the former kingdom of Sikkim in the eastern Himalayas. She was there to attend the coronation ceremony of the chogyal (king) Palden Thondup Namgyal and his wife, Kandell’s friend from the US, Hope Cooke. At the chogyal’s invitation, Kandell travelled around the country with her cameras to document Sikkim and its citizens – their home lives, their work, and their religion. The result – a collection of over 15,000 photographs – was later donated to the Library of Congress and a selection has been digitised on the library’s website. It is a striking overview of the kingdom in its final years of independence, before it became an Indian state in 1975.

Kandell, who enjoyed a successful career as a child psychologist in New York City, frequently returned to Sikkim over the years and later began collecting Buddhist art. She acquired a Tibetan shrine room, which she kept for many years in her home – it is now held at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC. Asian Art Newspaper had the pleasure of talking to Kandell about her experiences in Sikkim, her photography, and her collection of Buddhist art.

Alice Kandell Discovers Sikkim

Asian Art Newspaper: The story of your introduction to Sikkim – involving a friend of yours and her relationship with the future king of Sikkim – is extraordinary. Can you describe what happened?
Alice Kandell: I had always been interested in Asia and Buddhism. I was in college. We were young – very young. We were going on a trip with a college professor, who was taking us to Russia. I wanted to go, and this girl was also going – I did not know her. She called and said, ‘Would you like to go to Tibet after the trip?’ I said, ‘Sure, I would love to go!’ I called my parents and my parents said no, ‘There is a war in China!’ I sort of knew about that, but I had no idea of what was really happening… However, she did go, and of course she never got into Tibet, but she did stop at the border in Darjeeling, at the Windamere Hotel. While she was there she met, by chance, the crown prince of Sikkim (which was then a small independent kingdom on the border of Tibet). The main route into Tibet was through the Nathu La pass, so all trade travelled through the kingdom. It is a very Buddhist country. And – I will make a very long story short – she married him.

Shortly afterwards the then king passed away and her husband became king and she the queen. I was sent an invitation to the coronation. As I was in graduate school, I could not leave during the semester. However, I really wanted to go, so I approached my professor and said, ‘There is this American girl and she is going to marry this king and she is in the Himalayas’, and to my complete surprise the professor said, ‘When fantasy becomes reality, a member of the Harvard psychology department should be there to witness it’. That changed my life, right then and there!

Heaven on Earth

When I arrived in Sikkim, I found it to be the most beautiful place, a real heaven on earth. The air was beautiful, the white mountains with snow blowing off the top of them, with white puffs of cloud hanging over beautiful, jagged peaks – all this was combined with a bright blue sky and the sounds of monks chanting. The dominant mountain is Kangchenjunga (a massif comprising 16 mountain peaks), which is the third highest mountain in the world. However, the first day I arrived it was pouring and the monks were all out chanting to make sure it did not rain on the day of the coronation. The coronation came and the sun came out to reveal this beautiful view. The Sikkimese are very religious, kind, gentle and accepting people. Their art is also so beautiful, I never really got over it. So I kept going back, year after year after year. Sometimes I would go two or three times a year and spend a month or so there at a time. I became very enamoured of the way of life in the country.

AAN: You paint such an evocative picture through your words, but you also have your photographs. Did you teach yourself photography? Were you taking pictures from your first visit to Sikkim?
AK: I was always interested in photography, but never really pursued it – I was in graduate school getting a PhD! Then a magazine called Redbook called and they wanted a story about Hope (the queen) and the country. I knew nothing about photography, so I went out and bought a really good camera. I then went to the School of Visual Arts in New York and the International Center of Photography, as I did not have much time, I hired the professors to go with me and teach me on the spot – we went all round New York City. As the years went on, I continued to study, as I still enjoy photography very much.

The King of Sikkim

The King of Sikkim was a very wise man and he had seen that Tibet was going to be overtaken by the Chinese, so he had brought a whole monastery, which is like a whole city of people, to Sikkim to save them. It is called Rumtek Monastery and it is still based in Sikkim today. He also brought down silversmiths and gave them a house to live in and silver to continue their craft. The king also created a huge library for their sacred texts, to get them out of Tibet, and housed them in an Institute of Tibetology – also still there today.

The king then asked me to tour Sikkim and document the country using photography. At that point, I had four cameras and all kinds of film – Ektachrome, Kodachrome, indoor, outdoor, lowlight, highlight, black and white, all different films, all different filters, all different lenses, long lens, short lens. Anyway, I took all of that. He gave me a jeep, and he gave me access to all of the monasteries and sacred places – wherever I wanted to go.

I toured the country several times. Once I took a writer with me, because I did not want to write and photograph at the same time. I had done that before and found it very difficult. So I took Charlotte Salisbury, whose husband (Harrison Salisbury) was a journalist on The New York Times, and we went around for a month and photographed everything we could of the country. I was there for several years, photographing different trips, and we eventually published a book, Sikkim: Mountaintop Kingdom (1972).

When Sikkim was taken over (in 1975), I realised that they were very special days, when the kingdom was independent and the people were genuinely happy.

Tibetan Buddhist Art

AAN: You mentioned earlier your collection of Tibetan Buddhist art, which spans many centuries. When did you start collecting, and how did that come about? Did you pick up pieces while you were travelling?
AK: I am not a Buddhist, but you can still appreciate Buddhism and the religious art. In the Buddhist tradition, religious objects are given to you to use in meditation. In Sikkim, you could not buy anything and they would not sell it. Why would they? However, I saw pieces in Nepal, but I did not buy them as I did not have any money as I was in college. It was not until I came back to the US and the refugees started coming out and bringing things with them that I was able to purchase the art.

Tibetan art and Sikkimese art are a little different, there are more flowers in Sikkimese art because more flowers grow in Sikkim – they do not grow in the highlands of Tibet. I was collecting Tibetan art after my children had gone to high school, when pieces were beginning to appear on the US market. One day, a man came to me and said, ‘I am going to take you to my friend’s house in one of the boroughs of New York’. So we went to Brooklyn and walked into this room that was a Tibetan shrine room. The man who owned it was American, but of Russian origin (a Russian Orthodox priest actually), and in his bedroom was a very large, Tibetan, shrine with beautiful objects that he had lovingly collected over the years. I suddenly felt at home. I felt, ‘This is where I belong’. He was a very wonderful and interesting man, who had grown up in a Russian monastery. However, across the street was a Tibetan monastery, so he went over and they had taken him under their wing and used to tell him all their stories. That was when he started to collect their art.

Eventually, he wanted to deaccession and move into a bigger house, so I received his collection in exchange for his being able to move – that started my shrine room collection. I had a jump-start with all of his pieces as he was very knowledgeable. He was also a restorer and knew every inch of every piece. He is now my adviser and we are very close.

When did you start collecting?

AAN: When you started collecting, did you plan what you wanted to add to this core? Did you have a strategy, or did you simply pick up pieces to add to what you inherited from him?
AK: I just picked up pieces here and there. I was seriously collecting between 20 or 30 years ago – but I am still collecting. I do not need it, but if I see a piece … However, it is very rare that you see something now, because it is nearly all gone. Fortunately, I was able to finish my shrine room, which evolved slowly. Each piece came to me – they never came two at a time. Tibet closed in 1959, so now the children and grandchildren have been in the US for a couple of generations, they have assimilated into American life, and so sometimes they are willing to part with pieces.

AAN: I understand you donated part of your collection to the Smithsonian and many of your photos of Sikkim to the Library of Congress’s archive. Is accessibility to this art important to you?
AK: I think it is not only the need to share, but also the feeling that it does not belong to me, especially the Tibetan art. And yes, the photographs should be available. All photographers want their work to be shared.

In the beginning, I put random pieces together in a shrine room – that is how it began to grow. The shrine room acquired so many pieces, and it was in my dining room, hidden. I felt it really belonged in the public eye. However, it is hard to give things to a museum – they often do not want them, as they already have so much! Someone told a curator at the Smithsonian to come and look, but she said, ‘I am not interested’. Then, as she had a cancelled appointment in New York, she decided that she would come and view the shrine room. She went in to the room by herself and was there for five minutes; when she came out there were tears in her eyes. Six months later it was on show at the Smithsonian. It had 300,000 people visit in four months. Now it is on display permanently; at first they had not planned that. I know that being in there gives you a momentary feeling of peace, comfort, and spirituality.

AAN: What do you hope people will learn from seeing your collection and your photos of Sikkim?
AK: What I hope they will feel is the spirituality and beauty of what is now lost, a civilisation, a country, a place of real beauty, of real spirituality, and maybe some will feel this when they visit. The old Tibet. And perhaps a little introspection. What do you feel when you go in there? Do you feel something about your own life? Everybody does. I do. It makes you think, just for a moment. If you visit, you will see.

AAN: Did you feel that you had to be extra sensitive in how you were collecting and preserving these objects, because they are affiliated with a faith?
AK: Absolutely. Everything is researched. I had a lot of advice not only from my adviser, but also from monks from Tibet, who have made their way to the US. I am very, very careful about being sensitive to what their needs are, but also to the beauty. So is the Smithsonian, by the way, they are very careful.

AAN: Are you continuing to collect? Or do you feel as though you have found everything that you were hoping to find?
AK: So, we were standing in the middle of a room full of boxes when the Smithsonian came to take everything. They spent seven days packing up with eight people – it all went off in a big truck. Then my adviser and I were standing in this mess of a room, where the Tibetan pieces had been, now empty. And I said, ‘Are we going to continue to collect Tibetan art now that they are all gone?’ He said, ‘Do not talk to me about collecting Tibetan art – it is an addiction! It is easier to get off heroin!’ I said, ‘Oh no, you are wrong’. I thought I was going to start to collect something different. Maybe Chinese. On the other hand, there were still pieces coming from these exiled families, and I said, ‘If I do not help with these beautiful things, they will disappear and I will never see them again’. So I decided to keep on collecting.

What has actually happened is that I have collected a whole new shrine room! It is, in many ways, better than the first one. I think because I am better – I know more about what I am looking at. Now this one is complete. However, I am still buying, I know I should not, but nothing substantial for several months. Pieces have to come to you – you cannot just go out and buy them. Plus I have not got the room, so I have decided to give this one away, too. Again, I had the same feeling. For a while I had a few pieces in there, but now it is too big and it is complete. I have feelers out to other museums who may want it.

AAN: It must be painful parting with your collection.
AK: Yes, it is painful to give these things away, I love them and I go in the shrine room every night. I do not meditate as I am not a Buddhist, but it makes me feel safe and that the lamas (Tibetan Buddhist monks) will take care of me. However, I really have to give this new shrine room away. Period. It does not belong to me. So it is a relief, but it is also a painful thing to do.


See the Shrine Room donated by Alice S Kandell at the National Museum of Asian Art.