Meeting Abhishek Poddar a day ahead of the virtual launch of his long-anticipated project, the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, I cannot resist posing that embarrassingly ingenuous question: Why a museum? Was there a formative experience early on in his life? “I could say it was the 1979 visit to the Louvre and to other great European museums on my first overseas trip, but I would be lying,” says Poddar, 52. In truth, MAP is the high point of a life marked out in art. Having collected since the 1980s, curated exhibitions, commissioned work, and made lasting friendships with artists, Poddar is now building an art space with the widest range in India. The first privately promoted institution to house an archive of Indian fine art photography alongside modern, contemporary, medieval and folk art, MAP is coming up opposite the government-run Venkatappa Art Gallery on Kasturba Road, a space Poddar had proposed to overhaul into a modern museum in 2016 before shrill opposition from a group of local artists led to his withdrawing from the project.
“There is a popular perception that public-private partnerships are always a recipe for disaster,” says Poddar, who then decided to go independent, putting up 41 works from his personal collection, including national treasures by Tyeb Mehta, Vasudeo Gaitonde and FN Souza, for sale in a Christie’s auction to raise capital for MAP. At the heart of the museum, which already has a collection of about 20,000 works, is the generous bequest of over 7,000 works of art by the Poddar family. With additional support from the likes of the Tata Trusts, Citibank, Infosys, Wipro, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, artists and private donors, the museum, slated to open next year, promises Bengaluruites first-hand encounters with great art and meaningful storytelling. A five-storey building—designed by Soumitro Ghosh with close guidance from the MAP Architectural Committee led by architect Rahul Mehrotra, with museum professional MahrukhTarapor and the late textile conservator Martand Singh—will house the collection, but for now, it is the brightly painted mural skirting the upcoming concrete structure that is drawing attention. The painting by the Aravani Art Project, a city-based transgender artists and activists’ collective, depicting corporation and construction workers, students, trees and Bengaluru’s living heritage, is a statement of intent by MAP, which bills itself as an inclusive institution.
A short walk down the lane that hugs the museum leads to Sua House, the office Poddar shares with MAP’s core team. At every turn, the eye falls on something thought-provoking and beautiful: Dayanita Singh’s photographs, an MF Husain, portraits of Poddar’s two children by contemporary artist Riyas Komu, all floating in a sea of natural light even on a rainy winter day.
When I ask to see Henry Moore’s 1976 photograph of the late classical musician MS Subbulakshmi with her husband Thiagaraja Sadasivam, it takes Poddar under a minute to not just fish out a photobook from one of the sleek shelves lining the wall but also to flip to the exact page. “I used to know where everything was. Now we have a librarian,” he says, with the air of someone who, having sown the seeds, is ready to let others run the show. “She is the boss,” says the founder-trustee, introducing museum director Kamini Sawhney, who moved to Bengaluru in August 2019 to take the reins after a long stint as head of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation in Mumbai. Sawhney looks up from signing papers and tells me they have put together a team of about 50, including restorers, a tech team, educators and researchers, to get started. “Very few museums have this range, and we want to put it to good use with engaging programming. It is very important that the museum becomes an inviting space for the community—a space for engaging with ideas and not just a collection of art hanging on the walls,” she says. “We don’t want to be that ‘museum voice’ telling people what to look at. We have commissioned a survey on what people in the city want from a museum.” The digital launch on December 5th kicked off a week-long programme of talks and performances in music, dance, poetry and technology by the likes of art historian BN Goswamy, filmmaker Nandita Das, actor Lilette Dubey, visual artist LN Tallur and folk dancers responding to iconic pieces of contemporary art. The museum website showcased, on the day of the launch, an interview with Bhil artist Bhuri Bai and an exhibit on studio portraiture in India based on photographer Suresh Punjabi’s work, offering glimpses into two very different worlds.
I had the best teachers. And one thing I learnt is that democratising art, both for artists and for audiences, is an important goal to have in sight, says Abhishek Poddar, founder, MAP
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In the photograph circulated by MAP as part of the presskit for the launch,
Poddar wears a printed white-and-blue button-down and an inscrutable smile. Posing against a blank white background, a gold watch the only hint of luxury, he defies the conventional portraiture of an art collector as a prodigal grand seigneur wallowing in sybaritic splendour. That is not his style. Much like a translator on a mission to remain invisible even while making visible what may perhaps never have been seen, Poddar wants to let his work speak for itself. He maintains a low profile and does not easily give in to nostalgia. “I don’t know anyone who has so many Jamini Roys. For his parents’ 25th anniversary, he commissioned a ‘bouquet’ of flowers painted by prominent artists—that’s the sort of man Abhishek is. And yet, what he is building is an institution for everyone,” says Stanley Pinto, an art aficionado from Bengaluru who has been among the voices of support for Poddar’s museum project. One of those Jamini Roys acquired by Poddar from Roy’s son in the late 1980s, a large tempera-on-cloth featuring a standing Vishnu, is stretched out on a table at MAP’s restoration wing—housed for the time being in an adjacent building along with the immersive-tech lab and educational centre—where over the next few days it will be purged of stains and watermarks before it is deemed fit for display at the museum.
Poddar’s commitment to blurring the lines between high and low art runs deep. “I had the best teachers. And one thing I learnt is that democratising art, both for artists and for audiences, is an important goal to have in sight,” he says. “Jyotindra Jain [the art and cultural historian and the former director of the National Crafts Museum] introduced me to the world of crafts. Mapu [Martand Singh]’s exhibition on textiles from the Vishwakarmas opened my eyes to a whole new world. And while I wasn’t new to photography, Dayanita Singh and Prabuddha Dasgupta have been major influences in my understanding of Indian fine art photography.” Among the first pictures that left a mark on him were portraits of him and his parents at their home in Kolkata by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was a family friend. In 2006, Poddar founded a network of photography galleries under the banner of the Tasveer Art Gallery to showcase and support contemporary Indian photography. “We were clear that the name of the museum should include photography in it,” he says. The largest collection at MAP is that of photography, and this includes the archives of the late TS Satyan, a pioneering photojournalist who captured India in the 1960s and ’70s, bequeathed to MAP by his family, and a massive collection of documentarian photographer Jyoti Bhatt’s work, both acquired by the museum and donated by Bhatt.
“MAP represents a trend among Indian industrialists to build legacies in art,” says artist Riyas Komu. “At a time when public museums in India have no money for programming and conservation, Kiran Nadar’s museum in Delhi, the Munjals’ Serendipity Arts Foundation and Abhishek are investing in archiving time and dealing with the present. It is a cultural risk they are taking and if it pays off, it will change perceptions about art in India.”
“Already, people who are engaged with art are beginning to see Poddar as a custodian to whom they can leave their collections to look after and share with society. Poddar’s reputation and personal connections aside, MAP is the only privately promoted museum in the country where the family did not want its name to feature promptly and may even exit from the project at some point,” notes Geetha Mehra of Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery.
“Abhishek is a collector with a genuine fondness for whatever he is picking up. And nothing escapes his eye. He will collect anything—old engraved mirrors, Navaratri dolls, silver and porcelain. The fact that MAP can dip into this trove and curate exhibitions cutting across a wide range of art is exciting to me, personally.” Mehra says she is in the process of introducing to MAP a couple “who have some very interesting objects that they may want to bequeath”. While Poddar is well known as a collector, he has also played a role in encouraging artists to look beyond the medium of the canvas to make etchings, tapestries and jewellery boxes, Mehra says. “Back in the ’90s, he was among the first curators to marry art and craft. This sensibility has stayed with him.”
While Abhishek Poddar is well known as a collector, he has also played a role in encouraging artists to look beyond the medium of the canvas to make etchings, tapestries and jewellery boxes
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“Children are a major target group for MAP,” says Poddar, who used the lockdown to build up online resources and design art workshops for children. “If you introduce them to art at a young age, the culture will build itself.” His own exposure to art began early and he started collecting while still a teenager, guided by eminent artists such as Manjit Bawa. “I remember Manjit bhai bringing Abhishek home one day in the late 1980s. I was preparing for a solo show but Abhishek had set his sights on one of the paintings—Hovering Angels. He wanted to acquire it directly, not from the gallery,” says Jayashree Chakravarty, an artist Poddar cites among his early influences, in the same breath as Bawa, Arpita Singh and Ram Kumar. Chakravarty remembers being awestruck by the beauty and opulence of the Poddar residence in Kolkata. “It was my first direct encounter with a collector and it was exciting to see how he would respond to a particular work. It was a confidence-booster for me, as it must have been for many emerging artists whose work he collected.”
MAP’s collection owes a lot to Abhishek’s people skills, says photojournalist and curator Prashant Panjiar. Some of his work is part of an impressive collection of photographs bequeathed to MAP by the former photo editor of Time-Life News Service’s South Asia bureau, Deepak Puri. A museum, says Panjiar, should have deep pockets to acquire works and also have in place proper protocols for donations. “While Abhishek has built strong relationships with artists and photographers and actively sought out collections, I hope the museum evolves strategies to keep adding to its collection in the coming years.”
For now, the MAP team is busy cataloguing the growing collection, digitising it and spotting interesting themes that run across its length and breadth. For Sawhney, conceptualising an exhibition is like tossing together a wholesome salad with ingredients sourced from every corner of the country. “For instance, since our collection includes everything from Tyeb Mehta to Nainsukh to trade labels with pictures of gods on them, I am looking at how miniatures influenced pop culture, and how to tell the Krishna story by marrying different styles. Abhishek also has a lot of Durgas. It is exciting to plunge into this chaotic cabinet of curiosities, and to forge collaborations with museums and curators across the world to weave beautiful narratives,” she says.
The human mind cannot thrive when subjected to the organising impulses of society. Poddar is idealistic enough to envision a project where the function of the curator is to make art meet the viewer where he stands.