The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 16, 2000
'Art and Soul

Accessing collections of art
By B.N. Goswamy

WHENEVER I am not angered by it — which is not often — I find the situation obtaining in our museums and related institutions somewhat pathetic. I am sure there are some exceptions — somewhere — but, in general, it is the same story of stupor and indifference, sheer disregard of what museums are all about: matters to which I hope to be able to return in this column. But an issue which I do wish to bring up here, a situation that I have recently rubbed against myself, even while identifying objects on behalf of the Government of India, for a major international exhibition due to come up in another two months is the issue of accessibility to collections housed in our museums. The callousness with which our ‘treasures’ are kept apart, the sheer act of accessing them — something which one takes for granted, treats it as a right, in all museums abroad — turns into a major, tortuous enterprise here. Where there are personal friendships, or official clout, things might, somehow, work out. But, ordinarily, curators and keepers just sit on their collections, impassive and slothful, unwilling to stir themselves to show objects in their care, even to scholars well established in the field. There is no interest in scholarship, no desire to share or gain information. Paintings or sculptures, manuscripts or textiles: nothing seems to excite them personally. It is as if they are there only for doing — in most cases, not doing — their job. If you do get to see some things, the air is that a favour has been done to you. As a system, nothing functions.

  Accessing collections of artIt is in this dreary context that one values, specially, all that gets published — whenever it is published — from our institutions by way of catalogues: like the Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit and Prakrit Manuscripts in the Asiatic Society of Bombay that came to my notice recently. The substance of the work is not new, for Prof. H.D. Velankar, that distinguished old-school scholar of classical Indian languages, compiled it years ago. But Velankar’s work has not been accessible for a long time, and it is only through the editorial efforts of V.M. Kulkarni and Devangana Desai, both associated with the Asiatic Society themselves, that it has now been published and made available. It is a handsome volume, carefully edited, running into close to 500 pages: but, more than this, it is packed, absolutely packed, with information. There are sections on linguistics and medicine, astronomy and astrology, texts and vedic Dharmashastras, Tantra after and Kavya Puranas and Agamas. Manuscript manuscript is listed with information on script, size, material, date, colophon, brief account of contents, short excerpts, and so on. Surely this is not for everyone — it is a highly specialised work — but for those in the field, it is like other catalogues of its kind which used to come out in the past — but, sadly, only in the past — with such regularity, it is a mine.

I am not a scholar in any of these areas; my ignorance is, in fact of serious proportions when it comes to these subjects. But even I, with my interest in painting and sculpture of the past, could pick up, from these pages, both information and fine insights. The early, illustrated manuscript of the Aranyaka Parvan, dated 1516, which over the years has become a cornerstone of the studies of style in Indian painting, for instance, is not only listed here, but discussed, gone into with perceptions concerning script, provenance, names of scribes and painters, etc. This is of great interest to me. As is a discussion, however brief, of the wonderful manuscript of the great Buddhist text, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, with one now dates to ca. 1200 AD. The information I get on it from the Catalogue is precise, terse, reliable. For me, that is perfect for a beginning. This is what a catalogue should do: to speak in a voice of authority, lead you to your material with clarity.

In contrast, there are no scholarly catalogues that anyone seems to be working on in our museums; certainly no complete catalogue of any collection is available. And as for information, when it comes to the usual run of museums of India, all you get, from curators, and whatever notes their so-called records contain, is soft information, vague and calculated to fill you with unease. That is, if you get that far at all. As for accessing the collections in the flesh, see objects in reserve collections with one’s own eyes, the young scholar, new to the field, has to pray to all the gods, or powers, that he or she believes in, to gain that end. One can understand that objects in museum collections cannot be allowed to be handled all the time, and by everyone — considerations of safety, fragility, etc. have to prevail — but, more often than not, these considerations are used only as an alibi. ‘Masterly inactivity’ is what the custodians believe in.

Catalogues of museum collections? It sounds at this moment a distant dream. In most places, not even a complete list of holdings can be accessed. I am personally aware that — something that would be unthinkable elsewhere in the world — even the accession registers of some museums are not complete. Years after objects have been acquired, they lie about unphotographed, unlisted, certainly uncatalogued. Do I sound angry when I say all this? Yes, but I am glad that I do. But am I being unduly critical? Ask anyone who has been given the run around by a museum curator.

Taking good care

I recall working, years ago, in the reserve collection of a museum, having somehow succeeded in going past all hurdles, all barriers of sloth and natural unhelpfulness. The young gallery assistant who was assigned to show me the miniature paintings that I was interested in, brought in, on a trolley, a pile of paintings, all in their mats. He was going to hand me the paintings, one by one, he announced. Before handling the pile, however, he carefully put on a pair of gloves, something that I was impressed by. But that seemed to be the extent of his care for these objects. The moment I handed him back a painting after having examined or photographed it, he would take it and throw it, — bang — over a pile lying at some distance. Obviously, he had seen the use of gloves somewhere, but as for throwing objects, with whatever the act did to the object? Nobody told me not to throw them, he would have answered, had I asked.