On December 9th, the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) will have a soft opening for its patrons and friends, as it gears up for a public opening in early 2023. 

Like with many museums, MAP too began as the obsession of a single man: its founder, art collector, Abhishek Poddar.  But not all art collectors open museums.  For that, you need a specific set of qualities that include passion, relentless drive, subjugation of the ego, a thick skin, a trained eye that sees connections, both artistic and otherwise across realms.  Poddar has this.  He knows and loves art, but then many people do.  Poddar, by dint of will, has put together a collection whose contours will become obvious once the museum is fully open.  What is obvious now is that this is a man who does not easily give up in the face of snarls, smirks, scowls and snubs.  Bangalore’s government did not make it easy.  It’s public too viewed MAP with suspicion. 

And yet, here we are, a few years later, looking at the opening of a private museum, which in my mind, deserves to be celebrated.  

The interesting thing for Bangaloreans is to see what kind of museum MAP will be. 

Every public arts institution in India these days says that it wants to be inclusive, but most never achieve this goal.  Most end up as containers of beautiful objects, a space where an elite few stand silently in contemplation of works of art.  Is this where MAP will end up? Or does it want to revert back to the original Latin definition of the word, museum, which comes from the nine muses of inspiration? 

Early museums were places where people gathered to debate and exchange ideas.  The famed “museion” of Alexandria for example was a library.  Museums as they stand now only began in 17th and 18th century Europe.  They are Western constructs, which is perhaps why Indians to this day are uneasy about entering museums. Part of it is because we are a privileged civilization where ancient and amazingly beautiful art objects remain part of our functional everyday lives.  In India, we can still enter 2nd century temples and worship ancient sculptures of gods and goddesses.  We can still touch century-old murals and walk on stone steps that were built by Chola kings. We don’t generally wall off art behind glass and post docents to explain what they mean.  

This makes it difficult for museums in general and private museums in particular. No matter whether it is MAP or KNMA (Kiran Nadar Museum of Art) or even the older Salar Jung Museum, bringing footfalls into the space is a particular problem in India, compared to say, museums in London, which operate within a society that is used to specialized separate spaces quite different from the permeable boundaries that define India.  In India, our museums go back millennia in the form of stupas and temples that plundering kings built to win back public favour.  Today crowds of people happily traipze through Pattadakkal and Badami, quite unaware that the treasures they are touching would be spirited away by modern curators if they could.

Modern arts institutions whether they were founded by robber-barons of America, or today’s rich folks are acts of passion and redemption, a way of equalizing the inequalities that life has so richly bestowed to you, a way to set things right and perhaps most importantly, leave a legacy. So what then is the function of a museum in today’s India? What is its role and what should be its goal? Kantara, the super-hit and must-watch Kannada movie may offer an answer.

Kantara provided footfalls into movie theatres. Of that, there is no doubt.  It did so by being true to its vision, even if that vision was viewed as anti-women, angry-young-man-gone-mad, or totally self-obsessed. By showcasing the history and ethos of the “bhootha kola” of coastal Karnataka, Kantara mainstreamed an esoteric and regional form. Why he had to portray women badly in order to achieve this is something only Rishab Shetty can answer, especially since he seems to adore his daughter. Contrast that with Ponniyin Selvan, where Aishwarya Rai’s beauty made Mani Ratnam forget the nuances and darker shades of this powerful woman character.  

So what will provide footfalls to a museum? I went and looked up the blockbuster exhibits of the Metropolitan and the British museums and they ranged from King Tut to Alexander McQueen.  These may not be relevant to India. What seems to work is a combination of vision plus empathy. You need to have empathy for the people who are entering the premises.  What will speak to their soul and spirit? What will nourish their sense of identity and their ideas of beauty? These questions can provide a way forward with respect to the types of exhibits that a museum mounts.  If instead, the museum becomes an echo chamber catering to a narrow moneyed group of collectors (as so many have become), it may retain its donors or headlines, but it will sag without the essential wild and fierce spirit that flamenco dancers called “duende.

As a Bangalorean and someone who loves the arts of India, I hope that this city imparts its genteel and welcoming spirit to the arts institutions that call it home.  Including and most especially MAP.

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