On September 3, Afghanistan bid tearful adieu to its much-loved American ‘grandmother’, Nancy Hatch Dupree. For a country divided over a range of issues, Kabul residents were united in their sorrow over the demise of a remarkable historian-archivist-activist, who single-handedly saved a small part of Afghanistan’s rich and ancient heritage.
Born on October 3, 1926, Hatch spent her early years in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, Kerala, where her father was an adviser to the Maharaja. Her mother, a Broadway actress, was drawn to Indian art and theatrical dance forms and embarked on the first PhD on Kathakali by a foreign scholar.
The young Hatch did her master’s in Chinese art at Columbia University, but her life was linked to southern Asia in an inexorable manner. First married to an American intelligence officer, Alan D. Wolfe, posted in what was then called Ceylon, she later moved with her husband to Iraq, then Pakistan, and finally Afghanistan in 1962.
The Kabul of 1962 was often described as the ‘Paris of the East’ with its cosmopolitan ethos. It was in this milieu that Nancy found the love of her life — personally and professionally. While researching the Bamiyan Buddhas (destroyed by the Taliban in 2001), she met an American archaeologist, Louis Dupree. They had a torrid affair that initially scandalised the local elite, but was soon sealed in marriage.
With Louis, Nancy immersed herself in her professional calling — a deep love and respect for Afghan history and culture. From the mid-1960s till her demise, she authored five books and scores of articles and pamphlets that she modestly described as guide books, on different aspects of Afghan art and culture with a focus on the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Paradoxically, her life overlapped with the many vicissitudes that befell Afghanistan — the Soviet invasion in 1979, when her husband was briefly imprisoned and the couple was forced to return to the U.S.; 9/11; and the Karzai-Ghani years that marked the beginning of the slow and halting reconstruction of the ‘graveyard of empires’.
In this tumultuous period, Dupree set herself the task of saving as much of Afghanistan’s heritage as was possible, the richness of which she had learnt from her husband who died of cancer in 1989. The manner in which a 70-plus Dupree resorted to cloak-and-dagger methods to salvage the artefacts and documents from Afghanistan to Pakistan — and back — is part of the folklore associated with this daring ‘grandmother’.
Returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, Dupree set up the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, which was later converted into the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University. It now has over 100,000 documents and exhibits. At the time of her demise, the intrepid Dupree was archiving photographs taken over the last half century. Thanks to her lifelong commitment, young Afghans may still be able to recall some part of their past, which is sadly being looted or destroyed.
Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi