Things that museums do
The intent is not merely to inform the viewer about objects, periods, historical developments, or to add to the stack of learned labels with which his/her mind might already be stuffed: effort is directed at deepening understanding, bringing the viewer into contact with the matrix of thought from which works of art spring. All this might sound too rudimentary, or too high-flown, depending upon the level from which one is viewing things. But let me cite an example or two of the kind of things that are being done.
I spent a few days,
recently, at the San Diego Museum of Art in California. Other riches
apart, that museum now houses—having received it as a bequest—the
Edwin Binney collection of Indian paintings. One of the finest, most
comprehensive, collections of its kind in private hands, anywhere. San
Diego, unlike some other cities on the west coast, does not have a
sizeable Indian population; the museum, till now, is not known as a
major centre for the study of Indian art in the USA. The average
viewer to the museum is, therefore, not expected either to come
looking for an Indian collection there, or—when he/she chances upon
an Indian work in a gallery—to be able to make much sense of it,
considering the ‘alien-ness’ of it all: the subject, the pictorial
language, the aesthetic, the layering of meaning. Aware of this, and
gauging quite finely the viewer’s need, the museum decided,when
selected works from the Binney collection were exhibited not long ago,
to engage the viewer differently than it would in the case, let us
say, of European or American works of art.
In the painting, against a wonderful sylvan setting that Pahari painters were so skilled at creating, a drama can be seen unfolding. One sees Krishna, of course—dark-bodied, clad in yellow, wearing a peacock-feather crown—but also, at some distance from him, Radha, and a sakhi, companion and confidante of Radha, who moves between the lovers. The figures are not difficult for an Indian viewer to identify, and he might even understand something of the transaction in the painting, but the American viewer, who might be drawn initially by the sheer poetic intensity of the folio, would know little, remarkably little. This painting was, therefore, blown up, analysed, explained. In other words taken apart and then put back together in the viewer’s awareness. To serve as an example.
There are some keys to the understanding of this kind of painting, the viewer was informed; things like setting, time, gesture, gaze, symbolic language. Questions were sought to be planted in the mind, using details from the painting. "A grove is divided into two sheltering bowers," the caption to the relevant detail said. "A grove is the place for lovers. Here they are separated." Why, the viewer was naturally led to wonder. "How many figures are there?" another caption, appearing below another blown-up detail asked? There are seemingly four, but in fact only three, for one figure, that of the sakhi, appears twice, pleading with Radha in one part of the painting, and speaking to Krishna in another. What does this tell us of the treatment of time, and of space, the unspoken question asked? Why is Krishna dark-bodied? Because his is the colour of infinite space condensed? And so on. Slowly, possibly with a mounting sense of excitement, the viewer was led to the final key, the wonderful Sanskrit text that serves as the source for the painting: the Gita Govinda. By this time, perhaps, the viewer was ready to take in the magic of Jayadeva’s words, that gossamer web of craftsmanship and poetic utterance that he wove for us:
"Her body bristling with longing
her breath sucking in words of confusion
her voice cracking in deep cold fear
…She ornaments her limbs.
When a leaf quivers or a feather falls,
suspecting your coming,
she spreads out the bed
and waits long in meditation …."
It is easy to take a ‘superior’ view of an approach like this, but then you can take a superior view of anything. Especially, when you are inadequate yourself, or feel insecure. I know something about these paintings, and I certainly know the answers to the questions asked. And yet I find that I have learnt something from this approach. It is all a matter of identifying your audience, and addressing yourself to its needs, without compromising on quality, or going below a given level. The approach is simple and effective, sowing the seeds of thought, without resorting to technical wizardry, any kind of pyrotechnics. In other words, doing in its own manner what all those in the museum world should be in the business of doing: bringing the viewer in immediate, textured contact with the world of art and thought that is out there.
I find myself saying often that we, in our country, have great collections, but no great museums, barring two of three. This may be excessively stated, but I am sure at least of the fact that few people here grapple with the issues which museums raise in the manner that museum persons elsewhere do. Wryly, but accurately perhaps, it has been said:
Aghiyaar mehr-o maah se aage nikal gaye
Uljhe hue hain subh ki pehli kiran se ham.
(Others are hurtling along on their courses,
past the sun and the moon; and we? still playing are we with the first ray of
light that the morning brings).