Art

India in archives


india in archives

‘Coal Workers, Dhanbad, Bihar State, India’ 1989, silver gelatin print.
© Sebastiao Saldago/The Deepak Puri Collection/Museum of Art & Photography, Bengaluru

Two significant cultural archives go online soon in Bengaluru, offering easy access to a treasure trove of the arts and art practices of the country, writes Nikita Puri.

Some time ago, Delhi-based Vidyun Sabhaney was shuttling between Rajasthan, Karnataka and West Bengal to find alternative retellings of the Mahabharata in traditional forms of image-based storytelling. As a writer and illustrator working in the visually-flush medium of comic books and graphic novels, Sabhaney also hoped to decode the language of these art forms to understand their usage better.

Sabhaney‘s travels brought her close to diverse storytelling techniques, such as the leather puppeteers in Karnataka’s Hassan and Koppal districts and the practitioners of kaavad katha in Rajasthan. (Kaavads are boxes that open up in away so as to tell stories through painted pictures). From the kaavad-makers of Chittorgarh and the artistes of Jaisalmer who use these kaavads in performances to the Pattachitra artists in West Midnapore and Birbhum in West Bengal, Sabhaney‘s travels kept her occupied for much of the year. Funding her project, which documents how these traditional art forms have changed over the years, was the India Foundation for the Arts(IFA), an agency that offers grants for art-related research and projects.

Come October 25, Sabhaney‘s project, along with many others that received grants from the IFA, will be available for anyone to access online.

“We are going to launch the archive with two years’ worth of material, from 2011 and 2012”, says Arundhati Ghosh, executive director of the Bengaluru based foundation. “It’ll take us a few years to put everything up.” There are approximately 540 of these grants, about 70 of which are ongoing projects.

Like the foundation, another monumental storehouse of art, the Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru, is also looking to open its archives. Better known as MAP, the museum has an extensive collection of historical and contemporary photography and art, besides popular culture. Spread out in a space of 3,000 sq mt on Bengaluru’s Kasturba Road, MAP is expected to house 15,000 works predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, dating from the 12th century to the present. Though the museum space is expected to open in 2020, part of its collection is already online.

MAP’s story grew out of a project that didn’t take off. About two years ago, Tasveer, a Bengaluru-based gallery meant to exclusively promote photography with its then curatorial director Nathaniel Gaskell(now associate director of MAP), had made a bid to enter into a public-private partnership to revamp the city’s neglected Venkatappa Art Gallery. But following protests over “privatisation of a state museum”, it withdrew the bid.

Some months later, Tasveer co-founder Abhishek Poddar, the industrialist whose reputation as an art collector precedes him, would be seen at a ritzy ballroom of a five-star hotel in Mumbai. The event that had drawn collectors, curators and art aficionados from across the country was a major auction by London-based Christie’s.

Poddar was at the event as 41 works from his own repertoire, including multiple pieces by Tyeb Mehta, V S Gaitonde and Bhupen Khakhar, were going under the hammer. The auction of works from Poddar’s collection raised ₹350 million.

Poddar put in ₹500 million into MAP, a project estimated to be worth ₹1 billion. Later, seated in his office at the Sua House in Bengaluru, which also hosts the Tasveer gallery, he said,”We had promised the city of Bangalore a museum. So the idea is to do it by ourselves now.”

T S Satyan Musem of art & photography Bengaluru

A Shaivite woman’, 1976, silver gelatin print. Yousuf Saeed’s work on Urdu will be part of the IFA archive.
© T S Satyan/Museum of Art & Photgraphy, Bengaluru

“The Poddar family has donated around 7,000 artworks to the Art & Photography Foundation, the charitable trust that manages MAP,” says a representative of MAP. (Poddar is also the trustee of the Art & Photography Foundation.) Subsequently, others have also donated to the trust, including Deepak Puri, the former South Asia general manager and photo editor of Time. Another major body of contribution to MAP has come from the family of T S Satyan, one of India’s first photojournalists. Among the works that have already gone online are 60 of Satyan’s photographs. In time, all of Satyan’s work of over 1,500 photographs and contact sheets will be available for viewing.

While the physical museum space will be ready by 2020, “MAP is carrying out its mission (of making art accessible and approachable) by actively reaching out to the community through a variety of programmes and projects, including loans, exhibitions, workshops and lectures,” says the museum’s representative. So far it has conducted 45 workshops, reaching about 1,000 students.

For the India Foundation for the Arts, where the archiving work of four years has been backed by Aarti Lohia of the Lohia Foundation, the physical “museum” will be in a two-bedroom apartment next to the foundation’s office in Raj Mahal Vilas. Under climate-controlled conditions, the archive will be accessible once a day to anyone who’d like to study the staggering diversity the organisation backs. The foundation felt the need to archive the material it has when it turned 20 in 2015.

india in archive lohia foundation

MAP is expected to house 15,000 works predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, dating from the 12th century to the present.

Work at the IFA’s office is now in full swing. Shelves and boxes full of documents are being closely examined before they move into their new home next door. Some days ago, poring over these documents to stitch together a dastan (story) was Bengaluru-based Kafeel Jafri, a dastango (storyteller who narrates the story in 13th-century Urdu art form, Dastangoi). Jafri will introduce the archive during its launch at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in Bengaluru on October 25. During the performance, he will touch upon the variety of projects backed by the foundation, and also address the need for preservation not just of art practices and projects but also as a human desire. He equates the foundation’s archive to family albums or photos tucked away in memory cards of our phones.

“These are not the kind of works you’ll find in mainstream media,” says Ghosh. Instead, these are alternative histories. One of the foundation’s grants, for instance, has gone into the documentation done by Kerala-based actor and theatre artiste Sajitha Madathil. Madathil’s work focuses on the intervention and entry of women in Kerala’s previously all-male performance traditions like Singaari Melam (a percussion ensemble) and Kathakali.

“The archive will become the institution’s memory, a place where the institution’s history is located. It will also serve as a springboard for new thoughts,” says Ghosh. This archive is also an opportunity for the artistic community to learn from one another, says Sabhaney, adding how this is particularly a need in relatively newer forms such as comic books.

india in archives

Comic book artist Vidyun Sabhaney’s documentation of picture-based forms of storytelling
© Courtesy IFA

india in archives

‘Maharani Gayatri Devi in Jaipur’, 1962
© T S Satyan/Museum of Art & Photgraphy, Bengaluru

Besides being a trigger for new projects, such archives also play a significant role in “disseminating the firsthand kind of research that grantees have done,” adds Yousuf Saeed, an independent filmmaker and designer. Based out of Delhi, Saeed is also one of the foundation’s grantees and has archived Urdu in popular print culture, mostly in advertisements from old magazines. Last year, he had also organised a three-day conference to talk about Urdu in classical culture as well as contemporary pop culture. The papers shared during the conference helped many learn about the popularity of Urdu in wedding songs from the Konkan region as well as the almost endless supply of detective novels written in Urdu. Mostly authored by Ibn-e-Safi in India and Pakistan, these have now also found publishers in English and Hindi.

Irrespective of geographical constraints, as the India Foundation for the Arts and MAP put all of their material online, it’s brand new world to traverse through.


For India Foundation for the Arts, log on to indiaifa.org.
For MAP, visit map-india.org