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Michael Rabe: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Jul 09, 2012

Andrew Cohen is a professor and chair of the Department of Art and Design at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Michael Rabe

Michael Rabe

At the inquisitively early age of five, Michael Rabe (1947–2012) started his long and passionate engagement with India. His father Rudolph Rabe followed a “calling” to do missionary work and in 1952 moved with his wife Eleanore and their sons Michael and Gregg to the Gadag district in the state of Karnataka, India. The area is home to many art-historical landmarks of the Later Calukyan period, such as the Trikutesvara temple complex built in the eleventh century. Rabe spoke happily of his youth in India, especially his schooling at Kodaikanal International School in Tamil Nadu. While his family stayed in India, he was sent to Minnesota to live with an uncle, where he finished his last year of high school. He continued his undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Minnesota, receiving a BA in philosophy in 1969, with a minor in Sanskrit. In 1973 he earned an MA in South Asian languages and literature and completed a PhD in 1987, with the dissertation “The Monolithic Temples of the Pallava Dynasty: A Chronology.” Frederick M. Asher was his advisor, and Rabe was the first of many PhD students to work closely with this professor.

Since 1983 Rabe was an associate professor in the Department of Art and Design at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, where he taught courses in a wide selection of Western and Asian art history. With ease he would explicate the symbolism of global monuments. Eager to share his enthusiasm for South Asian art, he also taught as an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1986 to the present. A passionate teacher who did not limit himself to the classroom, Rabe was a veritable fountain of knowledge who shared freely with students and colleagues. I first met Michael in Chicago during the early 1980s, and from then on I always knew him as a scholar whose love for South Asian art was contagious. No doubt many members of the American Council for Southern Asian Art (ACSAA) have their own stories of lengthy, at times overwhelming, conversations with him regarding a full array of Indian art and cultural topics.

Michael Rabe

Rabe was fearless in the pursuit of learning. While never challenging without good reasons, he insisted on questioning the soundness of scholarship. Among his passions was the study of forged or copied works of art, especially South Indian sculptures. I recall more than one ACSAA panel where he questioned the validity, or originality, of certain artworks. One of the last email correspondences we had concerned a bronze that was being promoted as a Vijayanagara period work. Because certain compositional elements seemed “wrong” to me, I asked Rabe for his thoughts; he immediately and accurately identified inconsistencies with the bronze. Recalling this exchange I remember fondly my friend’s joy that came from looking at art, as well as his pursuit of clear vision. During this exchange, while eloquently sharing his thoughts, he was suffering terribly from a relapse of cancer (which he didn’t bother to mention).

Rabe is perhaps most widely known for his Pallava study, especially the densely researched book The Great Penance at Māmallapuram: Deciphering a Visual Text (Chennai, India: Institute of Asian Studies, 2001). Gathering painstakingly detailed visual and literary references, he argued that the ultimate meaning of the large Māmallapuram relief is a Pallava praśasti, a visual counterpart of a celebratory lineage recitation, while maintaining as secondary meaning the more commonly accepted narratives of Arjuna’s penance and of Ganga’s descent. There are other articles where he ties the literary with the visual, such as in “Sexual Imagery on the ‘Phantasmogorical Castles’ at Khajuraho,” published by the International Journal of Tantric Studies in 1996. In his spare time Rabe was working on a textbook to serve as an introduction to comparative themes in Asian religious art.

On behalf of Michael Rabe’s family, friends, and colleagues, I will miss his intellectual prowess and his insightful and generous scholarly sharing. His gregarious, good-natured friendship is what remains the most fondly remembered. Rabe is survived by his wife Duangdow Arjsiri and his three children, Rachel, Dylan, and (from a previous marriage) Daniel.

Filed under: Obituaries