At the Graveyard of My Childhood by Rekha Rodwittiya (Photo Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru)
It is a busy day at the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru. With under a month to go before its much-awaited opening on February 18, the modern five-storey building in the heart of the city is teeming with people. A large group of students from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology is here for a preview. A crew is installing towering granite ‘Rishis’, still in their protective sheaths, by Stephen Cox in the sculpture courtyard. A European curator admiring one of the three opening shows, by sculptor LN Tallur who has created 10 works in response to objects in the museum’s collection, wonders aloud if she can borrow a bronze for an exhibition next year. Amidst all the activity and the drone of drilling machines, an empty wood reception desk, its precise geometry mirroring a massive piece in corten steel made up of what looks like precariously balanced rocks, anchors the lobby, so that you can almost look through and beyond. They are both commissioned works, crafted by Arik Levy, an Israeli-born artist and designer who is interested in functional art, and match the experimental vibe of south India’s first private museum.
Since its founding as a digital-first museum during the pandemic, MAP has sought to rethink the function of museums by collapsing boundaries between fine art, photography, the folk arts, pop art and textiles. It has built up a loyal online viewership over the past three years, when the internet proved a great leveller for art. Now, with its physical opening imminent, it hopes to continue to prioritise accessibility and inclusion above all else. With a compact ground floor that opens up in the upper levels, the 44,000-sq-ft building by architects Mathew and Ghosh is a breath of fresh air. Four galleries, a café and a rooftop restaurant, a 130-seat auditorium, a library, a members’ lounge and a conservation laboratory make it a place for not just objects, but also for stories and experiences. The idea is that visitors to the museum should feel welcome to experience it in a multitude of ways—by taking audio guided tours, attending a talk or a performance, scrolling through the collection on large LED panels, exploring artefacts as holograms in the Sasken Multimedia Gallery, interacting with MF Husain’s digital persona, or taking a course in art appreciation. There are no rules here—nothing to tell you something is high art, or not—and countless opportunities for active experiences.
“MAP is situated in Bengaluru not only because it is my home, but because I believe it is where India’s future lies,” says Abhishek Poddar, founder, MAP
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“MAP is situated in Bengaluru not only because it is my home, but because I believe it is where India’s future lies,” says Abhishek Poddar, the founder, an art patron who donated nearly 7,000 works from his personal collection to the museum. “To set up another museum in Delhi or Mumbai, where there is a fixed notion of what a museum is and what it means, would have been pointless. Bengaluru, on the other hand, is the perfect place for experimentation, as marketing companies have found. It is young and tech-savvy and does not have much of a museum-going culture.” A businessman, Poddar, who has been a fixed star in the Indian art firmament, has had remarkable success garnering the support of the industry, fellow art patrons, artists and Bengaluru’s who’s who to help MAP get started. Their names are prominently displayed in the lobby and on the website, as much in gratitude as in the hope that they inspire others. “While we don’t have an acquisition budget and we are still in fund-raising mode, we have been getting a lot of works from people who are quite taken with the idea that the core collection was donated by the founder. These are people who want to see that India has world-class museums. Entrepreneur Jaithirth ‘Jerry’ Rao, for instance, has given us works from his collection. Gautam Hemmady wrote to us and gave us his matchbox collection. Someone from the US gave us Krishna Reddy prints. We have over 60,000 works and counting now. It is a collector’s collection. It wanders off in many directions and it is at once a nightmare and a curatorial delight, offering up threads from various kinds of artworks to weave a narrative with,” says Kamini Sawhney, director, MAP. One such narrative Sawhney has put together is Visible/Invisible, a permanent exhibition spread over two galleries that explores the visual representation of women in Indian art from the 10th century to the present day.
“We have over 60,000 works and counting now. It is a collector’s collection. It wanders off in many directions and it is at once a nightmare and a curatorial delight,” says Kamini Sawhney, director, MAP
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Sawhney says it was important for MAP to present narratives that are of the moment. “We know that women have dropped out of the labour force in large numbers since 2020. Young girls have quit school. India is ranked one of the most dangerous countries for women. A large number of people in our country who are marginalised are women. We wanted to explore these narratives by looking at how they are represented in art, where they are a central subject but have very little agency because image makers have largely been men. They are either depicted as goddesses or as objects of desire—there is very little space for women to be mortals, to have ambitions and desires that human beings have.” The exhibition, organised into four sections, Goddess and Mortality, Sexuality and Desire, Power and Violence, and Struggle and Resistance, juxtaposes cherubic goddesses and sexualised pin-ups with powerful works on the sacrifices required of women—from their unrewarded labour of fetching water to cooking for the family. There are subtler critiques of mother-and-child iconography, addressing the notion of motherhood as essential to a woman’s personal fulfilment and the invisible female child, and of the appropriation of the female body for the nationalist struggle. Encompassing works by Bhupen Khakhar, Jaya Ganguly, KG Subramanyan, Somnath Hore, Arpita Singh, Haren Das, Rekha Rodwittiya, Ravinder Reddy and other celebrated artists, the show shines an equally bright spotlight on photography. Alongside Gauri Gill and Anoli Perera who turn the notion of the woman as unwilling studio subject on its head, there is KL Singhal’s sexualised portfolio portrait of a young Saira Banu, film posters where it is the man who is almost always at the heart of the action, and nameless portraits from the past where the male gaze—or a possessive arm a la Donald Trump—frames women. You cannot help but pause in front of a large photo—it used to hang in Poddar’s dining room—of a south Indian woman from the 19th century posing with surprising poise and confidence, with a book by her side. But the works that you take home with you are those where the women take agency, from Bhil artist Bhuri Bai’s exuberant plunge into painting to Ranjeeta Kumari whose portraits, commissioned by MAP, of the domestic space are unsettling. The social status of women is also quite literally woven into the textiles that are part of the show, especially an exquisite brocade sari that spells out the motto of a married woman’s life, her dharma, as the service of her husband. Some of the works in the exhibition are accompanied by tactile interpretations that add a welcome new dimension to the museum experience.
LN Tallur, who hails from Karnataka and splits his time between India and Korea, says one of the interesting things about MAP is that it allows for centuries-old works to be interpreted in ways that are relevant today. “The idea of works in different media, from different generations and showing different ideas, being displayed on the same wall is exciting. But even more so was the chance for me, personally, to interpret some centuries-old objects from the MAP collection. I borrow the idea of concept drift from the world of Artificial Intelligence and use technology to depict the same old content and talk about modern tensions,” Tallur says. His large and arresting sculptures, in metal, wood and stone, are scattered throughout the museum in what will be his first major solo show in his home state. “I have shown in galleries in Mumbai and elsewhere in India but there has never been a proper museum space to exhibit before. I am excited to see MAP make a beginning. Even though they don’t have a lot of physical space—the ceilings could have been higher to improve the experience, for instance—they have ambition and they are the perfect platform for society to start talking about a new museum culture for India.”
For Tallur, one of the highlights of MAP’s impending opening is the modernist printmaker Jyoti Bhatt’s retrospective spread over two galleries that not just brings together his unseen works of photography under one roof but also displays his diaries, which MAP is getting translated from Gujarati. Titled Time and Time Again, the show, drawn from over a thousand prints and 60,000 negatives from Bhatt’s photographic body of work, is part of MAP’s core collection of photography. “A large chunk of our collection is photography, a medium that has not been looked at seriously by museums until recently. More art is being produced today using a camera than with paints and brushes. It is the art medium of the future,” says Poddar.
An art project’s success often lies in the local and cultural contexts. MAP’s many outreach efforts and inclusion goals, and its use of technology to make up for the limited physical space with free online resources and exhibitions, should stand it in good stead. “We are hoping to create a museum-going culture in the city. The challenge is to talk to people about how art can transform their lives, how it can prepare them for a world where the nature of work is changing, requiring them to develop their right and left brain in tandem,” says Sawhney. For starters, perhaps they will come in to play with the MF Husain hologram and stay to admire Ayesha Singh’s stainless steel take on Bengaluru’s multi-cultural skyline, and explore everything in between.
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