For decades, artists, historians, students and art enthusiasts have struggled to learn about art from the subcontinent, access information scattered around the world, or find narratives told from an Indian perspective. Now information will be available on one open-access online platform—be it articles on a marble reclining mouflon dating back to the mature Harappan period (2600-1900 BCE), the sandstone sculpture of a celestial dancer (mid-11th century), a Kangra miniature painting depicting a scene from the Gita Govinda (1820-25) or Untitled (Portrait Of A Man Holding A Bird) by studio photographer Suresh Punjabi (late 1980s).
The Encyclopedia of Art from the Indian subcontinent, created by the MAP Academy, a project of the Bengaluru-based Museum of Art & Photography, and launched on 21 April, seeks not just to showcase the evolution of art in the region but also highlight how ways of living and thinking have changed with time.
Hailed as a one-of-a-kind compilation, this site will offer information on mediums and themes such as textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, indigenous traditions and popular culture—whether it is tracing how rhythmic movement has been expressed in sculptures through the ages, or depictions of nature by artists from various communities, be it the Bhil or Warli.
In addition to the Encyclopedia—currently at over 2,000 entries, spanning 10,000 years—the platform aims to make South Asian art and art history more accessible through online courses, articles and blogs. The content has been created, and is maintained, by over 25 researchers, editors and academic advisers. “All of this, including the Encyclopedia, will be on the same site, and be interconnected. Say, if a course mentions a particular artist, the name will be hyperlinked to the entry in the Encyclopedia. We want the latter to be a foundational knowledge bank that continues to grow,” says Nathaniel Gaskell, MAP Academy’s founder and director.
The objective, broadly speaking, is twofold. One, to offer a new lens on history and overcome the limits of existing scholarship, which may be Euro-centric or market-driven. Two, make the existing scholarship available in simpler language.
It hopes, then, to look at regional histories in a new light. “Our focus is on non-hierarchical approaches to art forms—including geographic representation and diversity, gender inclusivity and caste sensitivity; the knowledge we make accessible through the MAP Academy, therefore, has a clear social purpose,” says Gaskell.
Moreover, “a lot of existing research contains gaps and biases, which can be quite problematic. That said, while there is also a lot of important scholarship, a majority of this is not available in one place, or is inaccessible to beginners due to their use of complex language,” he adds. They hope to make the information available in simpler language, providing extensive bibliographies for those who want to dive deeper into particular subjects.
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The entries that attempt to question canonical narratives have been written primarily by researchers from the subcontinent. While working on articles —say, on modern and contemporary art—the team has tried to ensure better representation of gender, region and community. “While working on textiles, for instance, we realised we didn’t have enough material from regions around Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. So, we embarked on a research trip just for that,” says Gaskell.
The process of putting together the content had its share of challenges. For much of the material lay in libraries around the world, not within India, where most of the team is based. The inaccessibility of research, in effect, validated MAP’s vision for the Encyclopedia.
It also turned out to be a task to find researchers who shared their vision. “In my experience, there are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to writing on the arts—either the style is too scholarly, or oversimplified. There is no middle ground. And that is the space we want to occupy—reliable, factually correct, unbiased, without dumbing things down or overcomplicating them,” says Gaskell. To ensure this, the Academy also has an academic review panel of experts which includes Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Manisha Ahmed, Rahul Mehrotra, Rosemary Crill, Shukla Sawant and Yael Rice.
It will not be able to feature research in Indian languages at present. For now, it’s looking for knowledge experts to help translate the Encyclopedia into other languages. “We realise that to truly make ourselves accessible, we can’t be restricted to English. Even just having a translation in Hindi, for example, is not enough. We are trying to get researchers who can understand content in regional languages. “This,” Gaskell notes, “is a long-term project.”
The Encyclopedia can be viewed on www.mapacademy.io and updates can be followed on instagram.com/map_academy.