The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 3, 2001
'Art and Soul

Things that museums do
B N Gosamy

THE manner in which museums identify their audiences, and address them, interests me greatly.

I speak here not of our own museums, where, for the most part, apathy reigns, and minds tend naturally to sink into a state of near-torpor after showing flickering signs of life from time to time. I speak of other parts of the world where museums matter and audiences are taken seriously. There, museums are constantly thinking of ways, working out strategies, to engage minds. 

Paintings from a Gita Govinda series. Pahari; from the family workshop of Purkhu; end of 18th century
Paintings from a Gita Govinda series. Pahari; from the family workshop of Purkhu; end of 18th century

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.

Taoism and the arts of China
May 20, 2001
Some fakes and a scandal
May 6, 2001
A collector’s intimate world
April 22, 2001
Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001
Arts and the common man
January 28, 2001
Voices from China
January 14, 2001
The persistence of memory
December 17, 2000
Nizami: Mystic; Epic Poet
December 3, 2000
Different snakes, different ladders
November 19, 2000
Celestial mappings
November 5, 2000
Discussing art — threadbare
October 29, 2000
Feeding the Imperial Image
October 8, 2000
Goya: Painter of the absurd
September 24, 2000

Yet another Mughal Ramayana
September 10, 2000

Children: Seen, but not heard
September 3, 2000

The Curator of Asian art at the Museum, Caron Smith—committed, thoughtful, keen and with a lively mind—was part of the small group responsible for envisioning and mounting the exhibition (which was also shown at the Asia House Galleries in New York). As we talked about the show, she led me, during my visit, through a part of the process of devising ways of drawing the average, interested but essentially uninformed, viewer, into the subject. The exhibition naturally featured sections, introductory panels, detailed labels. There was the predictable intellectual content, and art historical rigour, in the presentation. But, as a teaching device as it were, one distinguished example, a painting of the Gita Govinda, from an 18th century Pahari series, was taken and ‘opened up’ for the viewer in elaborate, intimate detail.

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.

Keeping pace

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).