Therefore, it came as a surprise to one of the country’s leading coin collectors, textile magnate and philanthropist Abhishek Poddar, that there is no single source of reliable information about the history of art in the Indian subcontinent.
Over the phone, he said, “I didn’t even realize that India didn’t have an encyclopedia of art. It was shocking that because it’s one of the oldest cultures in the world, no one thought of doing that,” adding, “Every kid knows about (Michaelangelo) David” And the “Mona Lisa” and Botticelli, but there are Indian masterpieces that even 1% of India does not know.”
Mid-eleventh century sandstone carving, “Heavenly Dancer (Divata)”. credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum
Funded by the Poddar Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), which opened later this year in the southern city of Bengaluru, the open access resource was created by a group of about 20 researchers and editors. The content has been internally reviewed by a group of expert scholars and writers.
The site is aimed at everyone from students and academics to general interest readers in India and abroad. Hoping to make the entries as accessible as possible, the researchers focused not just on factual accuracy but using clear and concise language, said project founder and director, Nathaniel Gaskell.
The encyclopedia highlights a wide range of regional art forms, such as the Pithora painting style used by the Bhil people and artists such as Bhuri Bai. credit: Courtesy of Hervé Berdriol
“A lot of scholarship is in ridiculously lengthy language,” he said in a phone interview, describing the encyclopedia as a “response to the kind of writing that people find distasteful to.”
Gaskell said the research team, made up largely of early-career Indian academics, also hopes to correct various biases — including colonial narratives — that exist in the historical arts literature. This affected both how the entries were written and what was included in the first place.
“By including regional and not-so-good technical material, we immediately started to address that.”
Religious and mythological art appears on a large scale, such as this miniature painting illustrating a scene from the “Gita Govinda”. credit: Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
The initial entries are formatted to be representative of the various religious, linguistic, and local traditions of the Indian subcontinent, while featuring an equal number of male and female artists. The encyclopedia also aims to highlight the crafts and living traditions of marginalized communities, as well as the less-studied aspects of regional art history – from folk drama and embroidery to the medieval Indian board game known in the United States as Chutes and Ladders.
For Poddar, overcoming the shortcomings of current scholarship was primarily about sticking to the facts: “We don’t rewrite history, we write what happened and relate it in interesting ways.”
After three years of preparation, the encyclopedia was initially launched in English, which is widely spoken in India. The organizers hope to translate the entries into Hindi in the near future. The researchers also plan to expand the online repository by about 1,000 entries per year, with an increasing focus on the broader region.
Studio Sohag, a photography studio established in Madhya Pradesh in 1979, is among the art institutions in the MAP Academy of Arts Encyclopedia. credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Art and Photography
“We are talking about things that are as much part of the history of Pakistan or Bangladesh as they are of the history of India,” Gaskell said, noting that many of the topics presented predate the modern frontier.
This is universal art.
Poddar, who has donated thousands of items from his personal collection to his soon-to-open museum, believes education is the best way to secure the sector’s long-term prospects in India.
“If we really want to develop a museum-going culture and make the arts relevant, it needs a foundation in education — and one that is accessible and freely available, and not just for museum visitors,” he said. “You have to start investing in things that you may or may not see in the next five or 10 years – a generation may pass later.”
Among the oldest items included in the encyclopedia are seals made in the Indus Valley since 2600 BC. credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum
He said the entrepreneur’s funding of projects such as the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art is “to some extent” a national issue.
“I just feel like we have great art,” he added. “And it’s not just the Indian community in India to see, or the Indian diaspora abroad. That’s not anyone’s domain—this is universal art.”
Above image: “The Indian Cylinder on a Sandalwood Bough” (1779) by Sheikh Zainuddin.