Sitting at the Feet of Gurus

During one of her visits to Bali, she struck up a conversation with a young Balinese child.  In the course of their talk, Claire asked the child what she wanted to be when she grew up.  With wide eyes, the child replied with puzzlement, “Be?  But I already am.

Deena Burton 1

I’ve written about Claire Holt repeatedly in these pages – a thinker, writer, dancer, and person I admire greatly.  On the advice of a friend, I finally got around to reading her biography by Deena Burton, Sitting at the Feet of Gurus.


I’d say the subject of this book is better than the book itself, but Holt’s work means enough to me that I very much enjoyed learning more about her life and achievements.


Despite having looked through Holt’s archives at Cornell, I knew little about her life.  She never obtained any academic degree.  She worked for the American government.  She studied sculpture and dance, and once wrote dance reviews for a newspaper in New York City.


An early proponent of choreology – an academic study of dance – it was really Javanese dance that first grabbed Holt’s attention.  Really more than Javanese too, she wrote a book on dance in Sumatra that never made it to publication.

She studied Javanese dance in Yogya, and often did small performances and demonstrations during lectures and classes.


Born in Latvia in 1901, Holt first came to the States in the 1921, after marrying in 1920.  She began her pursuits in journalism in New York, and also studied sculpture with Alexander Archipenko.


Holt’s first trip to Indonesia was in 1930 – still under colonial rule, the Dutch East Indies – where she first met many of the first generation of artists and intellectuals from the West working in Indonesia – Walter Spies, Margaret Mead, Colin McPhee, and Jane Belo.


During her first experiences in the Dutch East Indies, Holt developed many important ideas, relationships, and connections that later emerged in major work, Art in Indonesia:  Continuities and Change.  She first discovered Javanese dance, and among the other artists and intellectuals, she also met Willem Frederick Stutterheim.


Stutterhein was a brilliant Dutch archeologist working in Central Java.  The two fell in love, though never married as Stutterheim was never able to divorce his wife back in Europe.  Much of Stutterheim’s work focused on the Hindu/Buddhist architecture found in Central Java.  Holt worked as his assistant while he conducted some this work.  Her time working with Stutterheim eventually made into her book, in the chapters exploring the early architecture of Central Java, in the chapters under the heading “Heritage.”


Holt lived and worked in New York during World War II, doing a variety of things, including working to develop a dance archive as part of the New York Public Library system.  She also lectured widely about dance in Indonesia.


By the mid 1940’s, Holt began working for the United States government, in the Department of Strategic Services (later renamed the CIA), doing research on the Dutch East Indies.  Sensing the collapse of the colonial government, the State Department wanted a record of the emerging political landscape of Indonesia.


Holt returned to Indonesia again in the mid 1950’s, and focused her work on the development of modernism and the independent nation of Indonesia.  The work she did in these years later found voice in her book under the section “Modern Art.”


After this trip in the 1950’s, Holt became a Research Fellow at Cornell, working with the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project developed by George Kahin.

Walter Spies Calonarang c. 1927 56 x 46 cm

Clearly there is much more to say about Claire Holt’s life and work than I have offered here.  Reading Burton’s book really solidified Holt’s place in my own life and work.  She is a writer and thinker I admire deeply, and I loved learning more about the life behind her achievements.


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