Thus, one of the country’s leading collectors, businessman and philanthropist Abhishek Poddar, was surprised that there was not a single authoritative source of information on the history of the art of subcontinent.
“I didn’t even know that India didn’t have an encyclopedia of art. And it was quite shocking that, being one of the oldest cultures in the world, nobody thought of doing it” , he said on the phone, adding: “Every child knows ‘David’ (by Michelangelo), the ‘Mona Lisa’ and Botticelli, but there are Indian masterpieces that even 1% of India does not know.”
The mid-11th century sandstone sculpture, “Celestial Dancer (Devata)”. Credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum
Funded by the Poddar Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), which will open later this year in the southern city of Bengaluru, the open-access resource was created by a group of around 20 researchers and publishers. Content has been peer-reviewed internally and overseen by a panel of expert scholars and writers.
The site is aimed at everyone from students and scholars to general interest readers in India and beyond. Hoping to make the entries as accessible as possible, the researchers focused not only on factual accuracy but also on 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 style of painting used by the Bhil people and artists like Bhuri Bai. Credit: Courtesy of Hervé Perdriolle
“A lot of scholarship is in ridiculously wordy lingo,” he said in a phone interview, calling the encyclopedia “the answer to this type of writing, which people find quite alienating.”
The research team, which largely includes early-career Indian scholars, also hoped to correct the various biases — including colonial narratives — that exist in historical arts literature, Gaskell said. This had an impact on both how entries are written and what was included in the first place.
“By including regional non-fine art elements, we immediately begin to address this issue.”
Religious and mythological art is widely present, such as this miniature painting illustrating a scene from the “Gita Govinda”. Credit: Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
The initial entries were curated to be representative of the different religious, linguistic and local traditions of the subcontinent, while featuring a roughly equal number of male and female performers. The encyclopedia also aims to shed light on the crafts and living traditions of marginalized communities, as well as the less-studied facets of regional art history – from folk dramas and embroidery to the well-known medieval Indian board game. in the United States as Chutes and Ladders.
For Poddar, navigating the gaps in existing research was mostly about sticking to the facts: “We’re not rewriting history, we’re just writing what happened and connecting it in interesting ways.”
Three years in the making, the encyclopedia was first 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 intend to expand the online repository by around 1,000 entries per year, with an increasing focus on the wider region.
Suhag Studio, a photography studio founded in Madhya Pradesh in 1979, is among the art institutions featured in MAP Academy’s Art Encyclopedia. Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Art and Photography
“We’re talking about things that are as much a part of Pakistani or Bangladeshi history as India’s,” Gaskell said, noting that many of the topics covered predate modern frontiers.
“It’s world art”
Poddar, who has donated thousands of items from his personal collection to his soon-to-open museum, believes that education is the best way to ensure the long-term prospects of the industry in India.
“If we really want to develop a museum culture and make the arts relevant, it needs a foundation in education – and one that is freely accessible and available, not just to museum visitors,” he said. “You have to start investing in things that you may not even see in the next five or 10 years – it may take a generation later.”
Among the oldest items featured in the encyclopedia are stamp seals made in the Indus Valley as early as 2600 BCE. Credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum
The businessman’s funding of projects such as the MAP Academy’s art encyclopedia is “to some degree” a matter of patriotism, he said.
“I just think we have such great art,” he added. “And it’s not just for the Indian community in India, or the Indian diaspora outside. It’s nobody’s domain – it’s global art.”
Top image: “Indian Scroll on a Sandalwood Branch” (1779) by Sheikh Zain al-Din.
This article has been updated to clarify Title of Abhishek Poddar.