Shangri-La labour of love – Doris Duke bridging cultures

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A closer view of the luster Mihrab or prayer niche from Iran
A closer view of the luster Mihrab or prayer niche from Iran

The story goes thus. In 1935,  Doris Duke, a beautiful, young American heiress on the final stop  of her lengthy first honeymoon with a dashing aspiring politician arrived on the then US territory of Hawaii. She promptly fell in love with Hawaii’s soporific natural beauty. During her long stay of over a few months on the island of Oahu, Doris Duke purchased a 5 acre property overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the famed Diamond Head. Reputed to be one of the world’s richest women, she proceeded to use some of that wealth to build a veritable paradise. Shangri-La, the Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures  in Oahu Hawaii is as exotic and elusive as its name. It captures quite magnificently not only the inherent human  need for beauty, harmony and joy, but also serves as the perfect setting for an incredible collection of Islamic Art that Doris Duke amassed in her lifetime.

The collection in Shangri-La owed its origins to the lifelong love for Islamic art that Doris Duke developed during her six-month long honeymoon through Egypt, India, Indonesia, China and Japan. But that can come later. Before that, I must put on record my first encounter with Shangri-La. Having worked quite closely for many years with Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah in Kuwait, I had been exposed to different aspects of Islamic art, but yet, I was unprepared for the magnificence of the place I visited, a few months back, when I was in Hawaii as part of a journalism fellowship awarded by the East-West Center, an internationally recognized education and research organization set up  by the US Congress in 1960 to promote better relationship between the US, Asia, and the Pacific Islands through study, research and dialogue. The fellowship programme involved travelling to places in the US and countries with substantial Muslim population, and it aimed at  increasing media coverage and raise public debate regarding religion and its role in the public sphere with special reference to America’s relations with the Muslim world.  So there we were, 17 media professionals from the US, China, Malaysia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine,  Kuwait, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines. And at the last leg of our tour of the US, we found ourselves in Hawaii. Since my participation as a cultural journalist was partially supported by Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), I was, even more, eager to touch base with what was the home ground of both the East-West Center and DDFIA.

Shangri-La blew me away not only with its painfully beautiful setting, but with the visionary zeal of its founder- a woman of uncommonly bold spirit and exquisite taste, a woman whose eye for detail and eagerness to learn, own and share huge bits of culture that was not her own  by birth.  By building and sharing Shangri-La, and by making provisions for setting up the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts, Doris Duke has come to  symbolize the incredible power art has to challenge assumptions, bridge cultures  and break  stereotypes.

“The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art also known as Shangri-La is part of a much larger Charitable foundation based in New York that  engages in charitable giving in areas of environment, art and children’s health,” said Farideh Farhi, a docent/volunteer as she led our group through the entrance of  what used to be Doris Duke’s seasonal home. An independent scholar and a faculty at the University of Hawaii, Farideh volunteers her time to guide visitors through an interactive and educative session that leads the guests  through the architecturally interesting compound that seamlessly blends modern building elements with Islamic features from the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and North Africa  against a  tropical landscape resulting in an interesting  synthesis. The tour that lasted for an hour and a half  took us   through the defining areas of the house including the entrance courtyard, the Damascus Room, the Mughal Suite, the central courtyard, living room, Mihrab room, dining room, leading to an extensive Mughal garden and a play house.  A woman of enormous wealth, Doris Duke owned several properties, and yet as Farideh mentioned, Shangri-La was special because this was one place she built from scratch. A labour of love, she and her first husband were involved in every aspect of its design and construction.

“The origins of this house goes back to 1935, the year when at the age of 22, Doris Duke went on her honeymoon. On that trip she said she fell in love twice,” said Farideh. On her honeymoon, one of the countries Duke visited was India. There she saw the Taj Mahal, Red Fort and other examples of Mughal architecture, and she fell in love with the richness and diversity of Islamic art. “In India, she commissioned her first collection of Islamic art – the Mughal bedroom suite,” continued Farideh. But the bedroom suite that was initially intended for the Florida home of Doris Duke, ultimately never made it there. “On their way back to the United States, the young couple stopped in Honolulu, the capital of what was then a US territory. She fell in love again and that bedroom suite instead of going to Florida was brought to Hawaii and it became the nucleus around which Shangri-La is built. It is that duality of love for Islamic art and Hawaii that makes this house special,” she pointed out.

Another interesting duality about Shangri-La is the blend of modernity and tradition. Home to around 2500 objects from countries like India, Spain, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Central Asia, Turkey, and other parts of the Islamic world, Shangri-La is a synthesis of the old and the new, the West and the East (Islamic). “This building is modernist in style as it was built at a time when the style of architecture was thus. The lines are straight and simple while the ornamentation is Islamic. The style of architecture is similar to that of Morocco, Spain and Syria where an ostentatious display of wealth is something people avoided,” said Farideh. The plain white facade of the building almost Mediterranean in  its simplicity is in stark contrast with the sumptuousness of its interiors aided by the exotic collection of ceramic, woodwork, enamel, glass, cotton, paper and metal work. It took two years for the architects, craftsmen and artisans to come together and build the terraced house according to the vision of Doris Duke and her first husband James Cromwell, and then it took her  a lifetime to gather and assemble works of art from different corners of the world.

The house revealed itself to us one room at a time. The entrance courtyard surrounded by a thick foliage, and two 17th century camels looking on led to a foyer  that featured architectural elements  in plaster, ceramic and wood mostly inspired by traditional Moroccan architecture. An eclectic mix of objects from Egypt (metal lamps), Turkey (tile panels), Syria (wooden chests), Iran (copper basins) was on display. The foyer led to a beautiful central courtyard, a bit of green paradise inspired by Iran and traditional buildings in the East. Of special interest was a monochrome, glazed, stone mosaic tile panel from Isfahan inspired by the Shah’s mosque in Iran. The courtyard flowed to the living room, yet another beautiful room with a spectacular view of the Mughal gardens, pool and a playhouse. The living room had beautiful stucco work, painted ceiling, and architectural features with traditional Moroccan elements along with interesting objects from the Maghreb and Andalusia. The Mihrab room adjacent to the living room showcased a masterpiece – a 13th century 12 feet luster mihrab,  one of six surviving luster mihrabs made during the Ilkhanid rule in Iran and  as the website of Shangri-La states one of only two of its kind outside Iran. Skirting around the dining space, we arrived at the opulent Damascus Room, one of two Syrians rooms in Shangri-La. This period room with its wooden panelling, painted and raised surface was ornamented with late Ottoman-Syrian interiors inspired by traditional buildings in Damascus and Aleppo. In line with affluent homes of the late Ottoman times, the Damascus Room has on display luxurious objects such as ceramic plates, glassware and hanging metal lamps from North Africa, Turkey and Iran.

A major highlight of the Shangri-La is the Mughal suite, a space whose ornamentation and architecture was inspired by Doris Duke’s travel in the Indian subcontinent. This section with its marble bedroom suite, window and door jalis (perforated lattice marble screen common in Mughal architecture), inlaid stone work was commissioned by Doris Duke from Agra. After cooling off in the sumptuous white and red interiors of the Mughal suite, we proceeded to enjoy a spectacular view of the Pacific from the beautifully laid Mughal garden, yet another love she acquired during her trip to India. “It is well known that paradise is visualized as a garden,” explained Farideh. “A verse in  the Quran talks about the presence of four rivers crisscrossing in Paradise to create four gardens (char bagh). During her visit to the Taj Mahal, Doris Duke saw a whole series of char bagh, but since this place had little space, she had only one built.” At one end of the Mughal garden stands the playhouse overlooking a pool, oddly reminiscent of similar structures in the subcontinent.

Doris Duke was a complex, interesting open-minded individual whose life at first glance reads like a fairy tale. A woman who was left enormous wealth by her father at a young age, a philanthropist, linguist, expert pianist, war-time correspondent, surfer, swimmer, art connoisseur, collector and most importantly and above all a human being who was empathetic to other cultures and beliefs. When asked about Duke’s vision for the place, Deborah Pope, Executive Director of Shangri- La said, “What I find interesting is that she built this place clearly as her home. She was only 23 when she conceived and designed the house. For the next fifty or sixty years, she continued to acquire and collect Islamic art. By the time she reached her fifties, she was already writing her will and what was to become of this place. In the early 1960s, her will called for the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts to own and manage this property, and she gave it the mission to promote the study and understanding of Islamic art. That was thirty years before her death. I think a big part of her legacy was her vision to create a place and then leave it to posterity.”

Today, Shangri-La, the creation  of this colourful woman with an incredible spirit is a beacon of hope and understanding with its encouragement  of an extraordinary cross-cultural dialogue. Over the years, Shangri-La has become a centre of study and research for visiting scholars and artists and it has come to symbolize American belief in  religious and cultural diversity and inclusiveness. In a universe that is increasingly becoming polarized, Doris Duke’s Shangri-La is a powerful example of tolerance. More than ever, her legacy has acquired added significance in the light of mindless violence and hurtful rhetoric to which the world at present is being subjected.

By Chaitali B. Roy – Special to the Arab Times

This news has been read 12014 times!

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