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A new museum of possibilities in Bengaluru

With its presence both in the digital and the physical space, the Museum of Art and Photography hopes to democratise art and change the museum-going experience

HA Gade , Balkrishna Patel, Rajesh Mehra and Jagdish Swaminathan at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University (Baroda, Gujarat), 1967, digital file from the original negative. Photo by Jyoti Bhatt, courtesy: the Museum of Art & Photography

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The fragrance of jasmine hangs in the air as you enter the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) on Kasturba Road in Bengaluru. There is considerable buzz near the entrance, with people busy “lighting” digital diyas. All you need to do is scan a QR code, which takes you to the MAP website, press the “light” option, choose your diya style—and your lit lamp will appear on the screen with your name.

The influence of technology can be seen in every aspect of MAP’s new space, be it in the design or the exhibition format. For the past three years, in fact, the museum has been working within the digital space, organising virtual exhibitions on its website from its vast collection of 60,000 artefacts, besides working on other programming elements, such as artist talks, panel discussions, workshops for children and masterclasses.

Earlier this year, its not-for-profit online resource-making platform also launched the Encyclopedia of Art from the Indian subcontinent to showcase the evolution of art in the region and highlight how ways of thinking have changed. Now the museum, founded by philanthropist-collector Abhishek Poddar, is finally ready with its physical space. The preview, held last week for patrons and supporters, offered a glimpse of the design and curatorial style people will be able to view from 18 February, when it opens its doors.

With a presence in both the digital and physical spaces, MAP hopes to become a space of possibilities—where it becomes possible to democratise art and create an engaging museum-going experience through storytelling, dialogue and cultural exchange.

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The museum is housed within a 44,000 sq. ft building designed by Bengaluru-based architects Mathew & Ghosh. Divided into five storeys, it will include art galleries, an auditorium, a library, a multimedia gallery, a technology centre, a sculpture courtyard, a learning centre, a specialised research and conservation facility, a gift store, a café, a member’s lounge and a terrace fine-dining restaurant. While most of the programming is free to all, the galleries on the third and fourth floors are ticketed.

On the first floor, at the Sasken Multimedia Gallery, a unique digital experience, awaits. The technology team has created holograms of 450-500 artefacts from the 60,000 objects, dating from the 10th century to the present and spanning paintings, sculptures, textiles, photographs and more. By the time the museum opens to the public, a lot more will be on display, along with descriptions. Just outside this dark room, one has the option of curating one’s own exhibition. All you need to do is choose one of the eight topics—“fantastical creatures in art”, “portraits from the studio of Suresh Punjabi”, “Tapestries of Krishna: the pichwais of Nathadwara”, among others—and a digital display of curated objects and photos from the collection appears on the screens. The number of topics will expand by February.

For director Kamini Sawhney, digital and physical are two parts of a whole. “MAP turned things on its head when it expressed itself digitally first during the pandemic. Traditionally, museums have had a physical space, after which they have tried to see how they could use digital to reach wider audiences. But we understand both as being integral to a museum functioning in a modern world,” she says. “They are different but complementary.”

Some parts of the building are still not ready—take, for instance, the learning centre, which is integral to public outreach. “We also wanted to settle into the building to understand the needs of the public before we finally open,” adds Sawhney, explaining why they decided to hold a preview in December.

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Meanwhile, the team is busy presenting narratives and creating dialogues from the collection. Take Chirag-e-Al, a solo show of artist L.N. Tallur, who lives and works in India and South Korea. “Tallur draws from traditional sculptures and lamps in MAP’s collection, to create intersections between artificial intelligence (AI) and ritualistic belief systems, challenging audiences to question humanity’s growing reliance on technological systems. Mythical characters melt and morph, as he speculates on how AI can transform them,” mentions the curatorial note.

The third floor is currently hosting Time & Time Again, a mammoth exhibition of artist Jyoti Bhatt’s photographic body of work. This is, in fact, his first major retrospective, drawing from 1,000 prints and 60,000 negatives. A modernist printmaker and painter, the artist acquired a camera as a student in 1956 and started documenting teachers, students, who went on to become friends and collaborators.

In the first part of the exhibition, dedicated to portraits of artists, one can see his focus on the “face”. In fact, one of the first images is a self-portrait, with his own face superimposed on a drawing. There are interesting portraits of Nasreen Mohamedi, J. Swaminathan and others. The most fascinating is a 1983 candid photo of close friend Bhupen Khakhar taking a nap at the Sayaji Baug Garden, Vadodara.

The confluence of the digital and physical realms becomes evident in exhibitions such as this one, as some of the displays accompany QR codes that allow you to read the MAP Academy’s Encyclopedia articles on artists such as Khakhar.

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The other part of the exhibition is dedicated to Bhatt’s documentation of indigenous art forms, disappearing due to rapid urbanisation. He was, in fact, one of the biggest proponents, along with J. Swaminathan and K.G. Subramanyan, of the rich visual landscape of India. On display are photographs of the Pithora paintings in Rathwa houses in Gujarat, mandana paintings from Rajasthan, and more.

On the fourth floor, one can see the exhibition, Visible/Invisible, curated by Sawhney, which looks at representation of women in art through the MAP collection. Using four narratives—Goddess and Mortal, Sexuality and Desire, Power and Violence, Struggle and Resistance—the show tries to address preconceived notions of femininity and gender as social constructs through art history. Covering mediums such as painting, sculpture, photography, textiles and jewellery, the objects are grouped thematically rather than chronologically.

There’s a miniature painting of a person standing on a terrace. At first glance, it looks like a man, but when you look closer, you can make out that it’s a woman dressed like a man. Titled Royal Woman On A Terrace, this 20th century painting from Mewar presents the idea of being depicted the way you want, irrespective of gender. If you look at it further, you can make out other details too—the headgear, or pagh, which used to be worn only by noblemen. It’s evidence of a privileged background.

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'Caged Desires', Nirmala Biluka , 2010, Watercolour on paper from the exhibition, 'Visible/Invisible'
'Caged Desires', Nirmala Biluka , 2010, Watercolour on paper from the exhibition, 'Visible/Invisible'

The section on sexuality and desire has a unique kantha work that shows Krishna teasing gopis, an attempt by the curatorial team to showcase the link between desire and devotion. This stands in stark difference with another work on the same floor—a leather shadow puppet figure of Shurpanakha, from Karnataka’s tholu bommalata tradition, which is part of the section on power and violence. This story of desire takes a violent turn when Lakshman punishes her by cutting off her ears and nose. Another really interesting work, which has been created exclusively for the exhibition, is the 10-minute video projected on white dupattas. Titled Kanasu Kannadi (Dream Mirror), it has been created by Payana with Maraa, Falana Films and Joe Panicker and features actors who identify as transgender. This layered installation includes songs from popular Kannada films and reflects the desires of the participants. Multiple frames feature distorted images, showing the overlap of dream and reality.

“Through Visible/Invisible, we wanted to look at issues that link to the community at large, and hence the show on gender,” says Sawhney. The show will be on view for three years, changing form over time by drawing on objects within the collection. The Visible/Invisible show will serve as a catalyst to other programming as well.

The team is planning a conference schedule for March, on issues related to women. There will be three such conferences over three years. “We are looking at the violence of invisibility. Take the museum space, for instance, which has a lot of women professionals, and yet the positions of power are held largely by men. We are looking within ourselves on how to correct the imbalance. MAP is posing a series of questions, instead of making statements,” she adds.

The temporary galleries, which are currently showing the Jyoti Bhatt exhibition, will change shows every four-six months. “There are two galleries below, which will either have one theme running through them or host separate shows,” says Sawhney.

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The next one will be themed on the Ramcharitmanas, curated by art historian Kavita Singh and held in collaboration with the American Institute of Indian Studies, which has the entire digital collection of the manuscript. “From the very beginning, we wanted MAP to be accessible to everyone. And to speak especially to a young generation whose visual experiences are so greatly influenced by the digital world. More than half of our population is under 25 years old; no country has more young people. We are fortunate to have been able to start from scratch, thinking in an integrated way about how to approach audiences,” says Sawhney.

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