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MAPping India's rich, invisible art

Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru showcases the country’s powerful and vibrant artistic traditions

MAPping India's rich, invisible art

White Space, LN Tallur. 2022. Ink on marble and artificial decolam. Iwan Baan/MMAP

Bindu Menon

IN 1963, when Jyoti Bhatt appeared before a selection panel for his Fulbright scholarship, a jury member commented that his linocut print of a cat and its kitten was a copy of artist Pablo Picasso. Bhatt asserted that it was a copy of a kind, not of Picasso, but of the line drawing made by some illiterate village woman on her hut in Saurashtra, “for whom any words like Picasso, France, Africa or cubism, did not have any meaning”. He added, “I appreciate that you could see the similarity, but it is rather sad that you have no idea about so many of our own indigenous traditions because you do not find them in the books you have on your shelves!”

Reconstructing Venus, M Shanthamani. 2004. Oil on canvas.

One finds this illuminating nugget of information at an ongoing exhibition of the veteran Baroda artist’s photographic works in Bengaluru’s dynamic new art space called MAP, an acronym for Museum of Art and Photography. Bhatt’s argument sits well with the vision of MAP itself: which is to visibilise and celebrate the unknown artist, create an aesthetic that is not beholden to western canons, break down any elitist barriers around art, and showcase India’s powerful and vibrant artistic traditions.

 a courtyard in Banasthali village (Rajasthan), Jyoti Bhatt. 1972.

“Who should decide what art is?” asks Kamini Sawhney, director of the museum, which recently opened its physical space to the public. MAP is custodian to over 60,000 art works that encompass pre-modern, modern and contemporary art, photography, indigenous traditions, pop culture and also textile, crafts and design. “The idea is to be inclusive, so that when people step into a museum, they can see some part of their life also reflected in the space and engage with it,” says Sawhney.

Silver gelatin print.

The brain behind the museum is industrialist and art collector Abhishek Poddar, who founded it with his personal collection of over 7,000 works, and hopes that the next generation “will eventually be the real curators of MAP”. Corporates and other private collectors too have generously chipped in.

The five-storey, 44,000 sq ft building that sits like a steel box in the heart of Bengaluru, is designed by architects Mathew & Ghosh. Besides art galleries, MAP also houses an auditorium, an art and research library, an education centre called MAP Academy, a conservation lab backed by Tata Trusts, and spaces for dining and merchandise.

When the pandemic delayed its physical launch, MAP used the window of opportunity to take a deep dive into digital possibilities. “MAP actually turned everything on its head. We started as a digital space before entering the physical one. Also, Bengaluru is the IT capital, so why not tap into the huge resources at hand,” says Sawhney. So, almost a third of the collection was digitised, online talks and collaborations with other museums, walkthroughs and workshops were conducted, and an exhaustive database of Indian art was launched.

A partnership with Accenture Labs also brought to life artist MF Husain in an interactive 3D avatar which will tell you why he is obsessed with horses and Madhuri Dixit.

The ongoing exhibitions show how the link between art and technology needn’t be tenuous — from the mind-boggling installations of LN Tallur or the experimentation that veteran printmaker and artist Bhatt has done with photography.

Besides pushing such boundaries, the museum also prods the visitor to pause and probe. The ambitious Visible/Invisible exhibition explores the visual representation of women through 130 artworks. So while a Bollywood film poster, quite ironically titled ‘Aurat’, amplifies the male protagonist and the iconic Jamini Roy’s Yashoda-Krishna paintings celebrate the mother-boy child bond, Sawhney points out, “Why do we have narratives that invisibilise women? Don’t daughters bond with mothers?” The works both reinforce and rip apart patriarchal narratives. Through such juxtapositions, Sawhney hopes the community will debate and demolish accepted norms.

At the museum, one sees youngsters happily play around with digital panels, where they can browse through the collection and add the images into their Insta accounts. Pretty cool, says one of them. Hopefully, the engagement will only get deeper.

The glow of Chirag-e-AI

Karnataka-born artist LN Tallur has just finished installing an 18-ft bronze sculpure, aptly titled Vimana, at Bengaluru’s international airport. He is quick to point out that Vimana doesn’t mean only a flying object but has layers of meaning to it. Mana means scale or measurement and vi-mana implies something that is beyond scale, like the tallest shikhara or tower of a temple. It is this constant spirit of inquiry and recasting of cultural symbols that shapes much of Tallur’s art practice. Take his deeply engaging works at the MAP. When requested by the museum to work around its lamp collection, quite symbolically, for the inaugural show, Tallur says, “I thought it is a bit cliched because I like to push ideas further.” And that’s what he has done with his 10 works, using different media. He has congealed symbols of the past with the future, as if to indicate the ephemerality of time. Rather playfully titled Chirag-e-AI, the exhibition uses every cultural, mythological or historical reference at Tallur’s disposal from the museum, and reimagines them amid technological advancements. So, in the installation Data Mining, he has chipped at and sandwiched hundreds of plywood panels into a lamp holding a mrigapurusha, a mythical half animal-half human being that runs at the speed of thought.

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