The Dance and the Divine is the title given by art consultants Sanne Grundberg to a remarkable selling exhibition (being held on London’s Connaught Street from June 4 to 17) based on the collection of one of the most cultured couples of the 20th century. They, like the collection, were a marriage of Swedish and Indian culture. Professor Bengt Häger was one of Sweden’s greatest impresarios, founding and managing the Dance Museum and the University College of Dance and Circus in Stockholm, as well as managing the Cullberg Ballet from 1967 to 1987, among much else. His wife Lilavati, meanwhile, was one of the stars of a company set up by Ram Gopal – the “Nijinsky of India” – in which capacity she travelled all over the world, including to Sweden, where she met her husband. She played a very important role in the Festival of India in Sweden in 1987, hosting over 200 performing artists, as well as writing books on Indian life, dance, music and crafts. The King of Sweden awarded her the Medal of Karl Gustaf and when she collected it she wore a blue and yellow sari – her traditional attire in the Swedish national colours.
The couple’s breadth of cultural influences was as wide as that of their circle of friends (who included Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Kurt Weill, Bertholt Brecht and Pina Bausch). They collected art from India, China, Japan and southeast Asia and some of their pieces reflected their professional life in dance: one particularly lovely item is an Indian miniature from Lucknow (second picture), dating from about 1770: it shows the Nawab of Oudh and his son being entertained by a Nautch dancer and female musicians and is on sale for £10,000. The arts also make an appearance courtesy of an embroidered silk Peking Opera robe (£12,000, third picture) worn by Mei Lanfang in Farewell My Concubine, dating from 1230 and with a dedication to the couple.
Their tastes also stretched more broadly: there is a monumental bronze head of Buddha (£65,000, fourth picture) from the Kingdom of Lan in northern Thailand from about 1500 and a series of paintings including Handmaiden and Two Attendants (£25,000) and Krishna with Parrot (first picture, £50,000) by Jamini Roy (1887-1972).
“We are greatly privileged to show this unique collection built by a couple who were fêted by many, including the King of Sweden and the assassinated Prime Minister Olof Palme,” says Anna Grundberg, director and founder of Sanne Grundberg. “They were a much-loved couple right at the heart of Scandinavian culture, which they enriched with Lilavati’s Indian roots. The collection was built with a modern and multicultural sensibility.”
Lovers of India might like to escape on an under-the-radar tiger safari, or to Chhattisgarh, a land of forest dwellers and shamans. Those leaning more towards Sweden might like to take a look at this e-cache of Nordic design. Dance fanatics, meanwhile, why not consider investing in a new flat that overlooks the rehearsal space of the English National Ballet?