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The world's first museum biennale opts for a hybrid format

With masterclasses and virtual showcases, the biennale, hosted by the Bihar Museum, seeks to highlight the museum as a site of incubation of ideas

Detail from 'A Painting of Sultan 'Ala Al-Din Khilji Besieging Ranthambore', Guler, opaque pigments and gold on paper. Courtesy: The Piramal Museum of Art
Detail from 'A Painting of Sultan 'Ala Al-Din Khilji Besieging Ranthambore', Guler, opaque pigments and gold on paper. Courtesy: The Piramal Museum of Art

A painting depicting an ongoing battle scene between the Khilji dynasty and the Chauhans of Ranthambore is imbued with a sense of movement. There are so many scenes taking place within a single work—Sultan Alauddin Khilji is consulting his advisors on the left, while Raja Hamir Gath seems to be doing the same on the upper right. Elephants can be seen marching from the fort, while soldiers armed with muskets and cannons seem to be retaliating from outside. This Guler style of painting, which belongs to a key collection of The Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai, combines the Mughal and Himalayan schools, resulting in a lyrical work with soft colours and balanced perspective. And now significant works such as these from the institution will be seen as part of the Museum Biennale to be hosted in March by the Bihar Museum. “There has never been a museum biennale before this anywhere in the world,” says Alka Pande, who has curated the event.

The biennale was to open last year in a physical space in 2020, with 13 participating museums. “We were getting key collections and also hosting a two-day international conference on Bihar, India and the World. The three-month-long biennale was all about connecting people and cultures,” adds the author and curator. But with the ongoing pandemic, the idea to have an entirely physical event was put on hold. In the ensuing months, with most cultural institutions having pivoted to a more digital way of functioning, the biennale team too thought of doing the same. “The nodal officer, Anjani Kumar Singh, felt that since we have started something, we should not let it die,” says Pande. “And hence, a hybrid format was envisaged for the biennale.”

Now, the Museum Biennale will have a physical opening but the collections will be showcased virtually. “There will be a host of master classes, with a handful being physical and the rest being virtual. There will be a two-day conference that people can log in to,” says Pande. Each of these sessions will be streamed live and later put up on a YouTube channel. There are also plans to bring out a comprehensive catalogue, spanning over 500 pages, showcasing work of all the 13 museums with elaborate essays.

The idea of the event is to sensitise the public to the importance and significance of museum culture in India and facilitate an understanding of the culture. “Critical for society’s development, museums are repositories of knowledge that do not just showcase a collection of objects and material culture, but also provide a comprehensive narrative of the evolution and transformation of the human race,” mentions the curatorial note. “They are essentially a laboratory of ideas and an incubator of 'new' knowledge.”

The biennale features a diverse array of museums, from the contemporary ones such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art to those like the Piramal Museum of Art, which offers a journey into modernism. Some of the other participating museums include MAP, Bengaluru, City Palace Museum, Udaipur, Museo Camera, Gurgaon, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. It’s interesting to note the presence of regional museums such as the Assam State Museum and the Virasat-e-Khalsa from Anandpur Sahib. “We are also showing some indigenous works from collections of the IGRMS, or the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal. We are not making boundaries that it only has to be an archaeological museum. It could be a museum of objects, or of memories. The team has tried to be as inclusive as possible. The idea of this biennale is to plant a seed and let it flower,” says Pande.

The Museum Biennale, to be hosted by the Bihar Museum, will be inaugurated on 22 March, 2021, and will continue as a virtual event till 28 March.

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