TO get an overview of India’s artistic and architectural heritage or ‘inheritances’, one feels at a loss as to where to begin. We know that a lot is lost in the ravages of times past but what survives, which may form a fraction of what existed, is mind-boggling. To estimate, let alone encompass the breadth and depth of the visual culture we have inherited, is staggering not only in numbers but in its diversity and range. Equally difficult is to take stock of the incredible number of monuments, innumerable paintings and sculptures, countless objects of art from across the centuries scattered around the vast landscape of the subcontinent.
It is no exaggeration to say that every other town possesses a heritage site or two; some have dozens or at times entire streets full of painted mansions as in several towns of Shekhawati in Rajasthan. While many murals and sculptures are in situ, portable objects are stored in private or public collections and the rest in shops and godowns of antique dealers, both in India and abroad. I do not know whether there exists a comprehensive documentation of what belongs to monuments and institutions, let alone what lies scattered elsewhere. Even the encyclopaedic archiving of monuments and sculptures of ancient and medieval periods by the American Institute of Indian Studies in Delhi, the French Institute of Pondicherry or the IGNCA, to name a few, cannot be said to have exhausted the artistic and architectural wealth. All one can say without hesitation is that there is enough material for generations of research scholars to work upon.
The first generation of post-Independence scholars (like Karl Khandalawala, C. Sivaramamurti and Moti Chandra) laid the foundation of the collections of some major museums including the National Museum in Delhi, Kala Bhavan in Benaras and the Prince of Wales Museum (now renamed as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) in Mumbai, and established exacting standards of art historical research through publications. It is not clear if these institutions even have complete catalogues, let alone digitized ones, despite their commendable antecedents.
Several other museums grew through private initiative. The Sarabhai family helped establish the world class Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad and published volumes on textiles and other arts annotated by eminent scholars. (Ahmedabad is a veritable museum city, not only metaphorically for the numerous monuments but for a variety of museums, including an ethnographic museum, a museum of everyday art including utensils, even a museum of kites!)
The Gurusaday Dutt Museum in Calcutta and Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in Pune reflect the passion and insights of their collectors. The Raza Library in Rampur contains important manuscript illuminations whereas collections of Khudabaksh Library in Patna include a complete volume of the Tarikh-i-Khandan-i-Timuria or Timurnama, a chronicle of the Mughal dynasties, painted by three generations of the best of Mughal artists. A unique private museum in Patna made up from the collection of R.K. Jalan houses, among other things, a large number of Chinese objects of art, including porcelain and bronzes.
The ‘inheritances’ need not be limited to India and Asia alone; they may include all forms of art. A number of works of European origin, either made in India by visiting artists or acquired by museums, also form part of our inheritance. There are several other museums and collections but in Baroda, Indologist and art historian Herman Goetz was instrumental in conceptualizing a unique art history museum of ‘world art’ with originals and replicas of art objects collected from various parts of the world. Most of the museums and libraries set up and administered by state or central governments or private trusts consist mostly of the historical art of the past. A few deal with rural and tribal traditions and still fewer with contemporary art. I am not aware of a museum solely devoted to popular visual cultures.
Among other repositories and centres of art and culture, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is meant to archive ‘inheritances’ of the historical heritage of pre-modern times, besides functioning as an active centre of arts. The multi-arts centre Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, established with state funds, was visualized as a blueprint for other Indian states to emulate. Serving as a bridge between the region (Madhya Pradesh) and the nation with an international outlook, its basic objectives were broadly in tune with our federal polity. It houses two museums: one showcasing the art of the rural-tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh and the other focusing on contemporary modern art of India, a poetry library of Indian languages, indoor and outdoor auditoria for performing arts, a documentation centre and workshop facilities for visiting artists. It sought to inculcate excellence in various disciplines of art at the national level and towards this objective published multiple journals on arts, cinema and literature in Hindi.
Besides these, there are the central and state Lalit Kala Akademis which cater to contemporary arts whereas the Indian Council for Cultural Relations is meant to be our window to the world. The seven Zonal Cultural Centres established in non-metropolitan sectors are meant to address cultural issues in the hinter-lands of the country.
From this account it may appear that with such a large number of art institutions we should have a vibrant cultural scene, but sadly it is not the case. Most of these institutions and organizations functioned well for a few decades after they were set up until about the late seventies, but have since experienced a severe decline coinciding with the period of globalization and liberalization. A majority of them suffer from lack of vision, professional expertise, sufficient staff and above all, funds (including poor salaries). Some have been victims of political interference and function as government departments. With the dullest possible displays, poor publications and scholarship, the museums often cut a sorry figure despite holding incredible treasures of art. It is not known whether the collections they house are looked after or whether they have been replaced with fakes. There are no updates on new acquisitions, if any.
The National Museum with its amazing collection (headed in the past by scholars like C. Sivaramamurti) has had no director for over two decades. The Mumbai and Bangalore branches of the National Gallery of Modern Art too have been functioning without directors. The Crafts Museum, so full of activity in the days of Jyotindra Jain, seems to have been spruced up of late and has a nice restaurant and shop, but the quality of the crafts on display in the demonstration area has considerably deteriorated. The Indian Museum in Kolkata was recently in the news because some of its precious works of art were untraceable. At home in Baroda, on a chance visit recently to the Museum and Picture Gallery, I discovered it is also operating with a staff of approximately eight people (down from a total of about forty), mostly attendants.
In most cases, such ‘headless’ institutions are administered through remote control by bureaucrats from other ‘departments’ who are given additional charge of museums. There is, however, heartening news that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is now professionally run. They are digitizing the catalogue, have installed better lighting, set up a conservation lab and bring out good publications. Another instance of change I observed in the wonderful exhibition ‘The Body in Indian Art’ by Naman P. Ahuja, originally curated for Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, but currently on view at the National Museum, seems to indicate that the institution seems, after years, to have come out of its deep slumber. It is likely that the new proactive bureaucrat Venu Vasudevan, who recently assumed charge of the museum as its director general, has initiated such a move. The question nevertheless remains whether this initiative is one of a kind or whether it would become a regular practice. The Bhau Daji Lad Museum in a suburb of Mumbai is another hopeful example. It has been renovated with utmost care and now hosts artists to create work reflecting upon the collection in the museum. Indeed, it could serve as a model for other state museums.
The display in several other museums has remained unchanged for decades, at times using lighting systems that can seriously imperil the existence of fragile objects. I remember Pupul Jayakar insisting on opening a glass cabinet lit with tube lights in the Baroda Museum to observe the condition of a faded Patola textile used as the base for objects. When the case – which must have remained closed for a number of years – was opened and the objects removed, parts of the Patola hidden under the objects revealed their glorious, original colours. Similarly exposed to the constant glare of tube lights trapped in a glass case, the pages of a sketchbook of the English artist George Romney in Baroda Museum have turned brown.
Not long ago, attendants used to flash spotlights of 500 watts or higher upon the murals of Ajanta, nearly touching them. There are many horror stories, each worse than the next. One shudders to think of the condition of some of our finest paintings, especially the miniatures, displayed in similar fashion in most of our museums for years. The advances in technology for lighting museum objects has evidently bypassed most of our museums. I noticed how the Shanghai Museum has deployed effective means of lighting the delicate Chinese paintings by installing sensors that enable lights to brighten when viewers come close and dim once they recede.
Among the ‘national’ institutions, the central Lalit Kala Akademi has been plagued by internal politics, giving rise to charges of corruption and poor standards of its exhibitions and publications. Serious artists have lost interest in participating in the national exhibition that used to be a benchmark of the art scene until the seventies. The ICCR is so opaque it is difficult to understand what its policies are and what it does in matters of projecting our art scene on the international horizon. Except for receiving a few, and for the most, nondescript exhibitions or sending similar ones abroad (along with dignitaries and official functionaries), it remains in slumber most of the time. The National Gallery of Modern Art too seems to be content in performing little beyond the tasks that officialdom deems necessary and permissible. Without a clear policy, it seems to change its advisory boards quite randomly. A number of recommendations to organize retrospective exhibitions of our major artists made by the previous boards seem to have been put aside, making one wonder what magic wand made the interesting shows of Anish Kapoor, Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta happen in recent years!
The seven zonal cultural centres are also generally administered by bureaucrats, not professionals. Established with laudable ideals during the Rajiv Gandhi era and provided with enormous corpus funds by the state governments, they so far do not seem to have created any impact on the cultural landscape of the country. Still more opaque has been the functioning of the citadel-like monolith of the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts for most of its existence. Fortunately, with the recent change of guard, it seems to have discovered transparency. In contrast Bharat Bhavan, our showpiece multi-arts centre, so vibrant and dynamic in the days of Ashok Vajpeyi and J. Swaminathan, has been withering away at a steady pace especially after the political scenario in the state changed colour. What is most glaring is the absence of worthy successors, leaving the institutions to bureaucrats who are trained to ‘manage’ regardless of whether they possess expertise in the disciplines or area the institution stands for. The malaise lies in the fact that no institution seems to have felt or realized the need to train a cadre of professionals. Typical of government bureaucracy, the juniors, whether efficient or not, get promoted on the basis of the number of years in service.
The story of the heritage sites of art is equally distressing. The ASI complains it does not have enough staff to guard the historic sites it is meant to protect. INTACH is dealing with as much as it can manage and has taken measures to protect, preserve and maintain some of the heritage sites. While sites and art belonging to ancient and medieval times get some attention, what exists outside these premises is often overlooked since literally every town possesses a heritage site or two, if not more. Not that efforts are not made by individuals, but these are rare and insufficient for the staggering number of heritage sites.
The efforts of Francis Wacziarg, Aman Nath and Ilay Cooper and others have brought to light the private mansions and palaces of the Shekhawati region, some of which have been preserved, yet leaving a vast number of monuments with murals uncared for. On a recent visit to Bikaner, I noticed several mansions of exquisite architectural merit. Not unlike Shekhawati, most of these are left locked up by the owners who live elsewhere. The town of Bundi with its curving and criss-cross lanes also has mansions of different periods in disrepair. One wonders how a terracotta temple in Ilam Bazaar in West Bengal has survived the onslaught of encroaching shops and the din of the daily bazaar. The stories are endless.
The reasons for this state of affairs are not far to seek. These rest in the social mindset and attitude towards art, inculcated and reinforced by an unbalanced system of education. Viewed as a soft discipline, art until recently was either equated with a hobby or entertainment (hence dispensable), rarely with vocation or profession. Little wonder that most schools, for instance in my hometown Baroda, offer no education in liberal arts, let alone in fine or performing arts. Respect for art as a prospective career for children that scientific disciplines, IT or management evoke is rare. Children are not exposed to the possibilities of art as tools of learning; visits to museums or exhibitions if ever, are not enhanced by informed information or appreciation. I recall an observation of a vice chancellor of the university where I taught. He was appalled that the status and salary of a mere musician (he said a tabalchi) was comparable to that of a scientist within the university.
The sense of culture an average individual gathers is either from cinema, media or from the streets, bazaars, festivals and family rituals, rarely from the educational system. It is not that only ‘decision makers’ are culturally ignorant; awareness of art remains outside the purview of most of our discourses. Most of the ‘educated’ class is brought up on verbal cultures, a few respond to performing arts and an even tinier fraction of it is visually literate. There is also a clear division between verbal and visible cultures, each guarding its independent entity. The museums are set up with a clear demarcation of traditional and modern art – a reflection of the professional discourses of art history. There is little interaction between those who work on historical art and those who belong to contemporary art, the two often seen as separate citadels of the traditional and modern.
Art is still not taught as a professional course in most schools (barring a few in metropolitan cities) in the country. There are no consistent policies governing art education. Many states have no art schools, but others have dozens. Set up and run by state governments or private entrepreneurs, a few are part of universities where they follow dated models of colonial times. Most have abysmal standards but they nevertheless offer degrees and diplomas! They produce teachers who are trained to perpetuate outdated practices.
The number of art schools offering professional courses is hardly half a dozen. With reservation for locals, most of these cater to students of the state. The M.S. University of Baroda introduced professional courses in art, art history, art criticism, art education and museology, besides offering degree courses in fine arts at the university level. It also initiated a programme of building an extensive visual archive as teaching aids in pre-digital days. The effort, especially in art history, suffered a serious setback after a moral brigade invaded its precincts in 2005. The professor of art history, also the dean, who stood up to the goons, was promptly suspended by the university. The university also discontinued the services of young scholars whom he had appointed as teachers, leaving the department of art history in shambles.
Misguided in its zeal to standardise rules of recruitment, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has of late stipulated that a professor in the fine arts requires a PhD, a qualification that dissuades serious artists from joining the teaching profession. (Now every professional painter or sculptor or a seasoned tabalchi or sitarist would require a doctorate!) Art history is taught in only three or four universities and qualifications in art history are often not recognized for jobs in most institutions, including museums. Unsurprisingly, art historical and museological scholarship has dwindled in the last two decades with the passing away of many veteran scholars, some of whom were associated with museums and universities.
There have been committees and commissions galore to look into the working of cultural bodies: the recommendations of the Khosla Committee in the 1970s helped bring about a sweeping change in the Akademis, but simultaneously gave a fillip to the entrenched culture of political intrigues in the functioning of the Lalit Kala Akademi. The Haksar Committee in the 1990s submitted detailed reports of its findings, suggesting a series of remedial measures – some of which were implemented but most have been ignored, even misunderstood. Recently when the Parliamentary Committee on Culture took up the issue, even a copy of the report was not traceable in the government departments (until it was made available through an external source!).
In 1984, the government invited an expert from one of the international auction houses to go around the country and report on the condition of European works of art. It was guided by the mistaken belief that these ‘foreign’ works could be sold off to obtain the works of Indian art in European collections. The report painted a horrid picture of the conditions in which the works were found, until a subsequent committee of experts, including scholars of Indian art like Robert Skelton and Mildred Archer, questioned both the findings and assumptions and rejected them. These scholars considered these works made in India as part of Indian history and recommended their upkeep and maintenance. Two committees were set up to draft a cultural policy in the early nineties and the Central Advisory Board on Culture (CABC) was constituted in 2008. It was generally felt that a cultural policy would be in place if only measures were taken (which it suggested) to run the institutions set up by the government rather than producing yet another document which would be filed.
The questions remain. Can we not revise our education policy to introduce options of art at every level in schools? Is it not possible to establish a National Archive of Art and Heritage to document public and private collections and make it available online? Is it not possible to set up a National School of Art and Art History with branches in several states and faculty drawn from the best practitioners? Can we not plan a time-bound programme of museum reforms? Can we set up a holistic museum combining various disciplines of arts? Can we not select students and scholars for advanced professional training in art history, art criticism, art curating, museology and art management in the best institutions of the world with the mandate of returning and working in our museums and other institutions, offering sufficient emoluments at par with other disciplines? Is it not possible to reframe rules of recruitment in line with the needs of the disciplines of fine arts?
Is it not possible to reform the functioning of zonal cultural centres and devise ways to activate them as centres of excellence? Can we not declare the best of our museums as national assets and grant them autonomy? Why can’t Bharat Bhavan be declared an autonomous institution and provided the necessary assistance and further initiate the process of setting up Bharat Bhavans in various states?