The Life and Times of Walter Spink

author: Bonnie Brereton


WHEN SCHOLARS of Asian art history hear the name Walter Spink, they're apt to think of the rock-cut monuments at Ajanta and Ellora or the Krsna theme in India miniature painting. But for those who have had the good fortune of knowing Professor Spink as mentor, colleague, or friend, what's more likely to come to mind is a personal anecdote involving the compassionate, creative, and quirky man we know as Uncle Walter, Walterji, or just plain Walter.

There are so many Walter stories to tell. A former student reminisces about the collage of verbal and visual images and symbols of Walter's "Arts: Ideas: East: West" course and how it changed the way she views the world. Ajanta Site Seminar veterans recall magical meanderings through monuments, museums, markets, and villages. At least one Ajanta veteran will attest that following Walter's open-ended itinerary taught her the true meaning of patience. an international student remembers going to meet the famous American professor for the first time in India and finding him at a restaurant near the Ajanta caves dancing to a Frank Sinatra song in a lungi. And there is one who will never forget learning to operate a stick shift under Walter's guidance, driving to the Detroit Institute of Arts. These are only a sample of the simple joys and profound experiences that Walter has generously bestowed upon his students.

If an Indian raconteur were to tell the story of Walter's life, however, he would certainly focus on much grander incidents, and he would probably begin something like this: "On February 16, 1928, a baby boy was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and immediately the earth shook and flowers rained down." Walter was destined to be special, and many of the traits we associate with him today were evident in his early life. Yet his progression from auspiciously marked infant to renowned art historian has been circuitous and replete with the unexpected and unpredictable. And, as with all great people, there is also a body of folklore about Walter.

Walter's acute aesthetic sensibility, so obvious in everything form his sensuous Krsna-Radha lectures to the forget-me-nots he nurtures in his garden, took root when he was a young boy. The second of three children, Walter (known to his parents and siblings as "Bud" or "Buddy") was at his happiest exploring books and fields and watching turtles and frogs on the idyllic 250-acre Massachusetts farm where the family lived. His parents rented the farm for about ten years while his father, an engineer, supervised the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir, which today supplies most of Boston's tapwater. The project gradually consumed vast areas pristine forests and farms, as well as five picturesque villages in Berkshires, forcing the residents to abandon their homes and relocate. The sense of poignancy and tragedy arising from the denuding of the landscape and dislocation of the people made a profound impression of Walter. At the age of nine, he composed on of his first poems, "To Greenwich," in honor of one of the villages destroyed by the reservoir. His reading of it brought tears to the audience of displaced townspeople. When the reservoir was completed, the family moved back to their home in Rhode Island, where Walter had difficulty adjusting to the relatively urban atmosphere of Perryville.

Walter's love of nature provided the stimulus for his early love for biology and other sciences and propelled him toward achieving recognition as a high school winner in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. The Providence Journal heralded his honor wiht the headline, "Bud Spink goes to Washington" and a reporter accompanied Walter to the nation's capital, where he met dignitaries including Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman and was offered a summer job working zoo. The latter experience caused him to give serious consideration to a career as a zoo director, and when he entered Amherst College, he planned to major in biology.

Walter was attracted to biology by the beauty of animals and the desire to share the experience of that beauty with the others. After only a few weeks of college science courses, he realized that biology meant laboratory science and dissection rather than watching animals in the streams and fields. He turned instead to philosophy and Western art history and, after graduating summa cum laude in 1949, went on to Harvard to continue studying art history.

At Harvard Walter met some of the people who were to have the greatest impact on his life. Among them was Benjamin Rowland, one of the first Western art historians to write about Indian art. Walter was attracted to this little-known field of study both by Rowland's approach to teaching and by the exoticism of Indian art itself.

Another influential person was the poet Archibald MacLeish, who selected Walter to participate in his poetry wrinting seminar. Walter had always enjoyed reading and writing poetry and in high school had even earned some spending money composing verses for greeting card companies. Throughout his life he had continued to write poetry and has enriched the his classes with recitations of Yeats, often juxtaposed with translations of Japanese haiku and Vaisnava devotional poetry. At least once he had students in his East: West class compose haiku and enter them in a contest sponsored by Japan Airlines in hopes of winning free tickets to Japan. (Unfortunately, no one won.)

Still another Harvard person who was to influence Walter's life was Richard Edwards, a student of Chinese painting at the time. He and Walter would graduate the same year, 1954; lather they would become University of Michigan colleagues, as well as camping and canoing cohorts and lifelong friends.

Finally, there was Nesta, who has been Walter's wife, friend, and foil for nearly fifty years. At the time they met, Nesta was a graduate student in Western art history. Intelligent, compassionate, and tolerant of Walter's idiosyncrasies, Nesta has both provided the groundedness and the freedom for Walter to thrive. At the same time she established her own successful career as a print connoisseur and has recently completed her magnum opus on Whistler lithographs for the Art Institute of Chicago.

Walter and Nesta were married in 1952 and three days after their wedding flew to England to board a ship bound for India, where Walter, a Fulbright graduate fellow, was headed for dissertation research. On their three-week voyage form Liverpool to Bombay, the Spinks had the company of other Fulbright scholars enroute to their respective research projects, along with British citizens returning to India from home leave. Neither Walter nor Nesta had been to India before, and they settled into Calcutta, where Walter was assigned to work at the National Musuem, amid the dual drama of the monsoon storms and the inundation of refugees from Pakistan after the recent partition. Nesta recalls, "We used to say that if we survived that year in India we'd survive married life."

Walter had set off to India prepared to do his dissertation research on medieval Hindu sculpture in the Lingaraja temple site at Bhuvanesvara. Shortly after arriving in India, however, he learned that the inner sanctuaries of active temples were closed to non-Hindus. (Rumors that he attempted to disguise himself as a Hindu by dressing in a dhoti are folklore, although Walter admits that he's starting to believe them.) Though he realized later that he could have proceeded with his original idea by modifying his proposal and working on related monuments, he became fascinated by the rock-cut Jain monuments that he visited at Khandagiri and Udayagiri in Orissa. He recognized certain stylistic features indicating that they were much later than they were traditionally dated. As he traveled in India he visited myriad caves, and his thesis developed, as he once put it, "as a way of putting the house of caves in order."

After returning from India in 1953, Walter wrote his dissertation, Rock-cut Monuments of the Andhra Period: Their Style and Chronology." Later he mused that he was a little embarrassed "about the authority with which I did it . . . But I did write it with an efficiency that I haven't rivaled since." He completed both the writing and the typing in a little more than a year, propelled by the radio broadcasts of the McCarthy hearings in the background, and received his Ph.D. in 1954.

But graduating from Harvard was only one of the several momentous events to occur that year. Just two months later the Spink's first child, David, was born, and in another two months, Walter was drafted. "Fortunately, the army was extraordinarily accommodating in trying to figure out what they could do with this man who was not only a Ph.D. in Indian art from Harvard but who also was older than most other draftees," Nesta recalls. "They dug into his past and discovered his science background, and so they sent him for medical training in San Antonio." After completing his training, Walter was posted to a field hospital in Massachusetts, where he was assigned to work in the unlikely position as finance clerk.

The army allowed Walter to be discharged a few months before his two-year tour of duty was over so that he could begin teaching at Brandeis University. He remained there from 1956 to 1961 and during one of those years served as acting chair of the fine arts department. In that capacity he left a lasting mark of which he is justly proud: he reduced the faculty teaching load from three to two courses per semester, a policy that remains in effect today.

In 1961 Walter began teaching at the University of Michigan, where he soon initiated or took an active role in numerous projects, including the Asian Arts Archives, the Ars Orientalis editorial board, and the American Committee for South Asian Art color slide project. Since that time he has compiled a densely packed curriculum vitae listing his service on dozens of committees dedicated to teaching, exhibiting, and promoting knowledge of South Asian art. The vita also reveals Walter's success at obtaining funding for these projects and the myriad honors he has received for his work.

Walter has continued his research with a dedication and tenacity matched by few research scholars. For over four decades he has returned regularly to Ajanta, some years two or more times, to examine not only inscriptions, floor plans, and iconography but also the presence of clarified butter (gee) residue (indicating ritual use), the typological evolution of door hinge socket holes (useful for establishing the chronological development of the caves), and the work habits of present-day artisans (for insight into their ancient counterparts). Each new trip brings new insights (and lost flashlights).

Since completing his initial research, Walter has been more interested in the richness of the fifth-century monuments, which he feels have more solvable problems. In the process, he has stumbled upon a startling new view that, he  claims, he never realized could be conceivable until he worked his way into it. This is the idea that all the caves at Ajanta as well as four or five related sites were built in the relatively short reign of one king.

Spink's ideas - stated boldly and insistently in dozens of articles - have revolutionized the history of this site. Earlier theories held that the Mahayana cave-temples had been created over a period of 200 years, from the fifth to the seventh century, or even later. Spink's "short chronology," now familiar to virtually all historians studying India, compressed the developments into a mere decade and a half.

From approximately 462 to 477 C.E., Spink maintains, the site experienced a sudden burst of pious activity under the patronage of the Vakataka emperor Harisena. During his reign, Spink believes, political and artistic achievements reached a height that was without parallel in the world. Ajanta saw the simultaneous excavation of several caves through the support of both the emperor and a consortium of wealthy and powerful courtiers. Competition with the rival Asmaka dynasty resulted in an uneven pace of development. After Harisena's death in 477, Spink maintains, the site's original patrons abandoned their excavation projects, and new donors, eager to take advantage of the opportunity to make merit, hastily added intrusive carvings in any available space. After around 480, the region cane under the control of a Hindu ruler, and not another image of the Buddha ws ever made at Ajanta.

Walter often compares the murals of the Mahayana portion of the site to a time capsule, documenting palace architecture, furniture, interior decor, hairstyles, jewelry, textiles, clothing, musical instruments, and cooking utensils. a virtual archive of contemporary life, the caves reflect the splendor of a golden age that Walter argues flourished suddenly and faded just as quickly in the second half of the fifth century.

His goal at one time was eventually to be able to say just when every image, window, door jamb, and pillar was constructed in a sequence from 462 to 485 C.E., and undertaking he himself characterized as "obsessive." Walter contends that although he is sometimes accused of being interested in chronology. he's actually interested in biography and the life of the site. "Life goes along from year to year and just as you can study a person and what he was doing and how he changed from year to year, you can do the some thing with this site."

As important as his own research is to Walter, he is equally committed to providing both Indian and non-Indian students with the opportunity to see Ajanta firsthand and to grapple with the practical problems of how and why the work proceeded. His site seminar started well over twenty years ago, when Walter began taking a small group of University of Michigan students to Ajanta during the winter break. Later the course evolved into a two-week summer seminar drawing both graduate and undergraduate students from around the world. Generally the group assembles in Mumbai, then moves on to relevant museums and monuments at Elephanta, Ellora, and Ajanta.

The group spends eight days at Ajanta, where each day Walter assigns a new problem for the group to work on. The human aspects of art history are important for Walter. Why did some paintings end up sloppy? Was this group of artists less skilled than the others, or were they just eager to finish up quickly so they could eat lunch? After the work for the day is finished, Walter and the students typically pass the evenings playing bridge, drumming, listening to classical music, or enjoying other cultural pursuits.

The problem of funding the site seminar has occupied much of Spink's time and energy. He is famous, and in some circles infamous, for his success in obtaining grants, as well as for his creative finance schemes, which include juggling accounts, creating work-study projects, and contributing hos own frequent flyer tickets and funding. His willingness to be flexible with his own time in order to allow a few more students to go along has cost him a considerable amount of his own money. But India - in all its sensory glory, its history, and its wonder - is a treasure that Walter feels is crucial to share with developing students.

Walter's generosity and love of beauty extend into virtually every facet of life. In the dead of winter he often surprises friends with the gift of a daffodil bulb for forcing - complete with a container and gravel. For years he's graciously hosted and cooked spaghetti dinners for his classes. to the students who come to do archival work projects in the study of his house he offers coffee, tea, and music - Bach, Mozart, and Shankar are among the favorites. It is gestures like these that prompted one of his doctoral students to refer to Walter in his dissertation as "a model of what it is to be a cultivated and humane person; he is a man I would like to be like."

Like the Indian artisans whose work he knows so well, Walter has carved out a labyrinth of cells in the cellar of his home, transforming it into a scholarly sanctuary lined with books and enlivened with Indian artifacts and textiles. And in one corner, stashed away in huge, secondhand suitcases, is a horde of T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, baseball hats, and toys, purchased at rummage sales and awaiting distribution among villagers there. Folklore has it that the demise of Pan Am was due, at least in part, to their liberal policy toward Walter and his excessive baggage requests.

India also has taken its toll on the Spink family over the years. During a family trip in the mid-60s, Walter contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disease that nearly took his life and left him with a slight limp and a tremor in his hands. Fortunately, he was at home when the symptoms became apparent, and he was able to obtain treatment in Ann Arbor. Another, equally terrifying incident took place several years later when Walter, Nesta, and their three children, David, Phillip, and Ann, were living in India. The drivers of two school buses, each carrying one of the Spink boys, decided to race. The bus carrying Phillip careened off the road and down a cliff, where a small tree prevented it from rolling to the bottom and virtually certain for all inside.

Walter has been called a visionary with a deep passion for sharing and preserving the beauty he sees around him. Among the myriad projects on his agenda are promotional videos for the site seminar, teaching videos for courses on South Asian art and architecture, and proposals designed to preserve Ajanta and other monument sites from deterioration. The latter are particularly crucial light of the recent phenomenon of cultural tourism, which is making the future of Ajanta's precious time capsule as precarious as an all-but-forgotten farm in Berkshires of Massachusetts. Whether these and Walter's other visions become realized, surely they will not be the proposals on Walter's crowded agenda, even after he retires.

Those of us who have had the good fortune of knowing Walter as art historian and friend can only wonder what our lives would be like today if he actually had gone on to direct a zoo.