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The art world’s private eye

In a year when several public institutions have lost steam, private museums across India have emerged as the new spaces for cultural narratives

Indigo took centre stage at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum as part of the exhibition ‘Alchemy’
Indigo took centre stage at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum as part of the exhibition ‘Alchemy’ (Photo courtesy: Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum)

A black and white photograph shows a teenage girl beaming while speaking on a cordless phone. The wall behind her is plastered with photographs of Backstreet Boys and other pop icons from the 1990s. Another image takes the viewer to a factory where women, with gajras in their hair, are assembling a set of rotary telephones.

These unseen, transient images from everyday life, captured by photojournalist T.S. Satyan, are set to be a major highlight at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru. A private museum founded by art collector Abhishek Poddar, MAP stands out for its focus on photography—it will have a section dedicated to the medium.

Women working at the Indian Telephone Industries factory in Bengaluru, a silver gelatin print, by T. S. Satyan (1923-2009)
Women working at the Indian Telephone Industries factory in Bengaluru, a silver gelatin print, by T. S. Satyan (1923-2009) (Photo courtesy: Museum of Art and Photography)

Nearly 500km away, in Goa, another private museum is coming up. Founded by fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, the Moda Goa Museum and Research Centre will, in fact, be the first costume museum in the country.

A gold gilt hookah at the Amrapali Museum, Jaipur.
A gold gilt hookah at the Amrapali Museum, Jaipur.

Several such private museums have come up around the country, be it in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Goa, Jaipur or Ahmedabad. The one thread common to most of them is their focus on niche themes. So while the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum (KLM), Ahmedabad, shines the spotlight on a family’s history and collecting style, the Amar Nath Sehgal Private Collection, Delhi—perhaps the only single-artist museum in the country—showcases the diversity of the late artist’s oeuvre. The Amrapali Museum in Jaipur features a personal collection of jewellery and objects belonging to the brand’s founders, Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera. There will soon be one dedicated to the history of currency in India. The Bengaluru-based Rezwan Razack’s Museum of Indian Paper Money will reveal unique stories about every note issued in the country through its shades and patterns. January 2019 also saw the setting up of the first public-private art museum at the Unesco World Heritage site of Red Fort in Delhi. Set up by DAG, in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India, within the restored British-era barracks, Drishyakala is the art gallery’s first site-specific museum.

These private museums focus on the different microdots that make up the vibrant tapestry of Indian art and culture—ranging from calendar and tribal art, archival prints and contemporary photography to costumes and textiles. This year, many more will be added to this list. JSW, for instance, plans to start a children’s museum in Mumbai. Isha Anand Piramal of the Reliance Foundation already has plans for an arts space in that city.

At a time when public institutions such as Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur have lost momentum due to administrative troubles and lack of focus, these initiatives stand out for their distinctive curatorial vision.

This is, of course, not the first wave of private museums in India. There are the Birla museums, some of which have been turned into public enterprises, or the LD Institute’s NC Mehta Collection in Ahmedabad. In fact, art patrons have always contributed significantly to collections in public museums too. “The eye, taste and obsessions of a private collector—the effort that goes into finding something and recognizing its aesthetic value—has affected larger public collections as well," says Kavita Singh, professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.


What sets this new set of private museums apart? Perhaps the fact that public institutions—based on the template of colonial times, with an Orientalist, ethnographic gaze—are caught in a time warp.

The General Amara Singh Kanota Library and Museum (Kanota, Jaipur)
The General Amara Singh Kanota Library and Museum (Kanota, Jaipur) (Photo courtesy: Eka Resources)

It would be wrong to say that every public museum has fallen into the trap of the age-old colonial template. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum is one of the rare Indian public institutions that has been reinventing and reassembling its collection. Its Engaging Traditions series enables museum objects to be enlivened by interventions from contemporary artists. But most public museums don’t rupture the social order. The conservative museums speak mostly in the voice of praise. Contentious issues of class, caste and gender are not visible in their collection or programming. “Even the state is willing to acknowledge that there is poverty, there is hunger, there is gender violence. But then how does culture become only a space of safety? They are blocked in some very old narrative of culture as celebration, culture as a kind of an ornament, culture as entertainment," says Prof. Singh.

That shows in the way collections are being built within these public museums. “Within academia, there is a lot of interest in popular culture and calendar art, but I don’t see any public museums collect this. Private museums are now more adventurous, and they have led the preservation of aspects of history which might have gotten lost to us," says Prof. Singh. Kamini Sawhney, director, MAP, concurs, saying, “The saddest part today is that our cities are crowded but the museums are empty." The private museums, she says, are trying to find a way out of this conundrum. “We are trying to provide a world-class space that provides a platform for ideas and conversations, as the museum is not just about the object," she adds.

For instance, MAP promises to be the first museum to juxtapose popular culture with calendar art and trade labels from colonial times to showcase important moments in history. These labels, stamped on cotton bales brought to India by the British East India Company, featured icons of Bharat Mata and Lord Ganesh, seeking resonance with Indian customers.

Such museums are attempting to establish new ways of seeing through existing collections. At the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi—incidentally the first such private museum, set up in 2010—one can see the curatorial team, headed by Roobina Karode, conceptualize avant-garde exhibitions based on the issues of the times. Earlier this year, a show, titled Common Course, about satirical and political commentaries by artists, brought together K.G. Subramanyan’s incisive and stinging poetics on the political drama of the Emergency with R.K. Laxman’s cartoons on politics of the everyday in independent India. The team has also been delving deep into the collection to curate large-scale retrospectives of women artists such as Nalini Malani and Arpita Singh.

Often, parallel exhibitions at these spaces showcase different facets of one school of art or one artist’s style. If one came across Gaganendranath Tagore’s caricatures, dripping with sarcasm about the double standards of dubious priests and Anglicized bhadralok, at the KNMA, it was his landscapes and semi-abstract work that one got to see at the KLM. The family patriarch Kasturbhai Lalbhai founded several textile mills, including Arvind and Nutan Mills. “One of our aunts, who is married in the Tagore family, convinced Kasturbhai that it is important for posterity that this collection remains in India and does not go overseas. So, even though Kasturbhai was personally not a collector, he bought these works to Ahmedabad in the early 1940s," says Jayshree Lalbhai, who is married to Kasturbhai’s grandson. She is one of the founders of the museum and is involved in the curation.

The curation style at these museums, particularly at MAP, is such that objects are no longer locked in silos of high or low art. Nor does the display follow the oft-repeated categorization of classical, pre-modern and modern art. “The idea is to look horizontally across art forms and styles and focus on themes," says Sawhney. “How do different cultures and art forms speak about the same themes, like, say, episodes from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat?" In an exhibition that the team is planning with the Bihar museum at the Museum Biennale this year, MAP will look at the figure and representation of Sita across various mediums, art forms and visual cultures—folk, miniature, classical and modern art.

These private museums are also looking at the confluence of different schools of thought. So, the Moda, housed within a 450-year-old ancestral house, Casa Dona Maria, will bring together heritage and fashion. The idea of such a space came to Rodricks after a request from the late cartoonist Mario Miranda to explore the history of the traditional pano bhaju costume (a nine-yard sari worn with a heavily-embroidered, jacket-like blouse). The designer began researching the costume history of Goa, collecting textiles, clothes and accessories. The Moda is likely to have 15 galleries, a boutique and a vast library of books.


Given the need to view old objects in newer contexts and be involved in a dialogue with contemporary, pressing themes like the Anthropocene epoch, in which human activities affect the climate, gender violence and political turmoil, Pramod Kumar K.G., managing director of the museum consultancy Eka Cultural Resources and Research, Delhi, says it is time to move away from the set template of creating a cabinet of curiosities. Pramod, who is helping with the design of the Moda, is also handling museum projects like the Bastion Bungalow Museum in Fort Kochi and Rezwan Razack Museum of Paper Money in Bengaluru

“Our role is to create a fresh narrative around the objects so that viewers get a holistic vision rather than just a random assortment of objects," says Pramod. “Instead of looking at materialities and grouping objects , we look at storylines. If we give a larger context to the objects and anchor them to human stories, then the entire experience is richer."

The aim is to make museum spaces more interactive and tactile with mock models, and move away from static displays and didactic text panels. Different formats in the architecture and design of these spaces are emerging. So, the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum offers an intimate, cosy space, where Mughal miniature paintings, works from the Bengal school, woodworks, line drawings and postcards interact with the lived history of the space—the family furnishings are used as props in this 1905 mansion. The house has been restored by architect Rahul Mehrotra.

The museum campus also has an art deco house built by Claude Batley in the 1930s and a house built by Mehrotra—these host temporary shows of modern and contemporary artists. In 2019, indigo took centre stage in this space (as part of the exhibition Alchemy), with artists such as Manish Nai and Tanya Goel exploring the complex sociopolitical narrative around the pigment in myriad ways.

MAP, on the other hand, has a more expansive design to reflect the museum’s collection. One floor will be devoted to its permanent collection, while three galleries will host temporary shows. It aspires to be a cultural hub, with a sculpture garden, an education centre and a café.

The museum will employ technology to enhance the experience. The ground floor will boast of an interactive virtual wall that will help viewers interact with, and sift through, the collection. A holographic table will allow objects which are not physically present in the museum to be seen in 3D. The museum will also have a conservation lab, with the staff providing curatorial inputs to government museums. The aim is to create a museum district in Bengaluru—the neighbourhood has three other museums, the Science museum, the Government Museum and the Venkatappa gallery.

Private museums have greater freedom to explore social inequities. In 2018, the KNMA hosted an artistic project called Smell Assembly by Ishita Dey and Mohammad Sayeed that comprised collections of smells that were not always pleasant. The smells were collected from three sites in the city—Majnu ka Tila, the fish markets of Chittaranjan Park, and the ittr shops and spice market of Old Delhi—and consisted of smellscapes of Sakha cab drivers (cab drivers who were part of a union), the labour union Shahri Mahila Kamgar Union, sanitation workers, manual scavengers, ittr makers and associated clusters. This also involved a conversation where the workers came and shared their experience of exclusion in a cultural landscape that often “others" people on the basis of their body odour and the stench of their occupation. A museum should allow people from the margins to not only display the pretty objects they make but also to express their anguish.

“An ideal museum should allow you to encounter someone from a completely divergent background," says Prof.Singh. “ Culture is also a space for difficult conversations, for compassion, for stepping out of your skin, becoming a different person."

Shweta is a Mumbai-based culture writer.

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