Obituary: James White – May 1941 to April 2011

Curator of Botanical Library at CMU and an Avid Lover of Indian Music and Visual Arts

James White, the very soft-spoken curator of Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library, and a great lover of Indian performing and visual arts, died on April 12, 2011 in the wake of an accelerating degenerative neurological disease.  He was 69.

White, born and raised in Johnson City, Tennessee, earned his bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State University. Later he went to Washington, D.C., where he took botany classes at George Washington University and art classes at the Corcoran Museum of Art. Then he joined the Smithsonian Institution in their botanical section.

In 1978 he moved to Hunt Institute’s botanical collections as the curator. In 1996 on a Fulbright fellowship, he went to India to catalog the colonial era botanical art. He returned to India two more times, and developed contacts with Indian painters working on India’s flora and fauna. As a person keenly interested in visual arts, India, warts and all, fascinated him. He became an Indophile. After reading the Sikh history, he became a practicing Sikh. He had a personal collection of arts and artifacts from many places, including several exquisite bronzes from India. His friend helped in auctioning them off to pay for his nursing home care.

He brought several Indian artists ­— Mahaveer Swamy from Rajasthan in 1994; Arundhati Vartak from Maharashtra in 2000; and Damodarlal Gurjar in 2001 — giving first exposure to their works in the US. As a testimony to his judgment to bring them here, most of their works were sold out.

Many readers would remember seeing White sitting very quietly in Indian music concerts in Oakland and in the S.V.Temple auditorium. He also helped in establishing the Pittsburgh branch of SPIC-MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth).

On more than one occasion White shared with friends his frustrations in dealing with museum administrators in India. In a Bangalore museum he saw a large collection of paintings in rolls in a musty basement. When he broached organizing an exhibition of the paintings (paying from his resources for insurance, shipping, framing them for display), the museum director asked him for a business class ticket for him and his wife.

The Hunt Library organized a memorial service to James White on May 20 at CMU.  In White’s death, the Indian Diaspora in Pittsburgh lost a good friend.                                       — 

Photo by Deepak Kotwal : The 48″ high Saraswati in Chola- style bronze from the private collection of Mr. Jim White, an Indophile. White passed away in April.

By Premlata Venkataraman.

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