Across from one of Bangalore’s largest green spaces, a box-shaped structure enveloped in embossed stainless-steel panels has recently risen up in the southern Indian city’s central district. Occupying some 44,000 square feet, the much-anticipated Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) is set to be India’s first major art museum dedicated to the full range of the subcontinent’s contemporary visual culture, with a promise to redefine the country’s museum landscape in the process.
A main driver of MAP’s approach is its focus on reaching and connecting its local community. That desire to make art a collective conversation open to all is visible on the museum’s exterior where a spray-painted, monochrome mural by street artist Marco Santini consists of words submitted from the community: meaningful, mirror, and inspiration, for example.
With a founding gift by philanthropist and collector Abhishek Poddar, MAP came into existence after Poddar realized that after years of being deeply immersed in the Indian art scene he wanted to share “this transformative experience with others,” he said during a preview of the museum in February. With “more of a mission” than a specific curatorial vision, Poddar hopes that MAP will serve as a catalyst in developing a more regular museum-going culture in India by encouraging the public to engage with art more thoughtfully, in their home country.
“Museums in India are often seen as elitist or irrelevant spaces for the average person unless they are deeply involved in the arts sector,” he said. “We would like the museum to be as inclusive as possible,” by incorporating a rich tapestry of a diverse voices and dismantling hierarchies between high and low art and collapsing the divisions between mediums. The 60,000-object collection includes, of course, painting, sculpture, and works on paper, which are equal footing with textiles, memorabilia from the Hindi film industry, and works by Indigenous artists, who have historically been excluded from India’s own art history.
Walking through the museum’s compact, column-free five floors is an opportunity to view and engage with the art in well-lit free flowing spaces. Across five exhibition galleries, an auditorium for public programs, an extensive research library on Indian art and culture, and a conservation center, MAP has the space to reframe the narrative of Indian art history, from an Indian perspective, which is clear in its opening displays, ranging from how women are depicted within the permanent collection to preserving the underknown photographic work of a major artist.
Conservation becomes a focal point in “Time&Time Again: Jyoti Bhatt,” which features more than 160 photographs, alongside contact sheets and detailed travel journals. Better known for his important modernist paintings, Bhatt captured ways of Indian life and craftsmanship that were at risk of vanishing during the second half of the 20th century. As Poddar has amassed one of the largest photographic archives in India, Bhatt felt that MAP would be the best home for his archive of images—he donated some 1,000 prints and 60,000 negatives.
Because taking photos has become so ubiquitous today, MAP hopes to draw in younger visitors to an exhibition such as this because photography has become such an immediate and accessible medium, and in the process teaching them how the medium has evolved over the past 150-plus years.
“Bhatt’s journals and contact sheets demonstrate how photography was once a time-consuming and physical process, far from the digital avatar it has evolved into today,” said Nathaniel Gaskell, the exhibition’s curator and MAP Academy director.
Under construction since 2018, MAP launched its online presence in December 2020, becoming one of the first digital museums in the country. Given that the pandemic has radically changed how visitors engage with museums, both physically and digitally, the timing couldn’t have been better. Apart from virtual exhibitions, artist talks, and VR experiences, the online project also includes MAP Academy, an expansive online resource that makes digitally available South Asian art histories, including online courses and an art history encyclopedia.
MAP director Kamini Sawhney said the museum’s significant use of technology will ultimately aid in their mission of helping people understand why museums are still relevant today. “We are doing so by using the language of the digital native to initiate dialogue,” she said. So far, MAP has collaborated with global IT services company Accenture for a digital intervention, using AI to create a 3-D hologram of the late artist M.F. Hussain. Launched in 2021, visitors can speak with the pioneering artist of Indian modernism, both online and now in the museum’s physical space; visitors can also access the digital records for all of MAP’s permanent collection, even pieces not on display, in its Sasken Multimedia Gallery.
How AI can intersect with traditional belief systems is also the subject of “Chirag-e-AI,” a solo show of contemporary artist Tallur L.N., featuring a series of sculptures and a video that draw upon ancient Hindu mythology and contemporary narratives around AI. Responding to 18- and 19th-century lamps in the museum’s collection, one lamp, for example, is based upon the half-man half-animal creature Purushamriga, who moves at the speed of light and is visible only to devotees of Shiva.
“In our contemporary world, a machine [using] AI is the Purushamriga. Machines that were designed to imitate human beings are being upgraded continuously to match human beings. AI-enabled machines now are being put to think and work like human beings,” Tallur said, adding that he sees AI as having “the power to both help and destroy.”
In addition to focusing on artists working with digital technologies, MAP also has a robutst commissioning program, with 20 new works spread across the museum’s grounds. Artist and designer Arik Levy has created a new installation, Rock Formation Tower, part of his ongoing “Rock Sculptures” series, that echoes the stacked boulders dotting the landscape of Bangalore. His faceted metal sculpture finds resonance in the region’s ancient geology.
Nearby, British sculptor Stephen Cox inaugurates the museum’s sculpture courtyard with Dialogues in Stone, an installation that embodies powerful goddesses, sages, yoginis, and rishis in powerfully spare forms. Made from basalt extracted from quarries in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu and fabricated by local stone carvers, Cox’s sculptures bridge the divide between fine art and craft, and in the process creating transcendent works that have a spiritual quality to them.
But it is the exhibition “Visible/Invisible,” curated by Sawhney, that is the tour de force of this opening display. Here, women take center stage, or rather the dichotomy between their representation as in art and the fact that they often have limited agency over their depiction. Sawhney began thinking about the exhibition at a time when Indian women have become increasingly invisible in the public domain, so to speak, in 2020 when women’s participation in the Indian labor force had dropped to 20 percent.
Divided in four sections, with titles like “Goddess and Mortal” or “Sexuality and Desire,” the exhibition features more than 130 works from MAP’s collection, primarily focused on the past century. The exhibition powerfully traces how women rose from the margins of art history by using their agency to narrate their own stories. In one body of work, Bangalore-based photo-performance artist, Pushpamala N. assumes various personas to interrogate gender, place, and history, while Arpita Singh presents a refreshingly alternative re-presentation of the goddess Durga in Devi Pistol-wali (1990).
“Visible/Invisible” also features responses to certain objects by contemporary artists like Gurjeet Singh and Akshata Mokashi; the latter, for example, recreates a 19th-century portrait of a courtesan from Lucknow in a colorful, embellished textile iteration.
These responses are part of Sawhney wants to further reach visitors, with the objects on view equally revealing the past and offering clues to the future to “unlock the stories” within and thereby making them “accessible and relevant to the audience,” she said, adding that she envisions MAP as an incubator of “ideas and conversations that we initiate through our collection, creating a cultural exchange with our audience.”
With role the community central to the museum’s success, as well as the larger project of transforming the overall cultural space, Sawhney said what’s more important is for “the community to have ownership over the space [for] when they have a sense of belonging and pride toward it, they become its best ambassadors.”