Online platform spans millennia of South Asian art

An ambitious new platform aims to centralize the history of art in India and South Asia, from prehistory to the present day, in a single digital resource. The MAP Academy Art Encyclopedia, launched last Thursday by the Bangalore Museum of Art and Photography, offers over 2,000 articles and definitions on topics spanning pre-modern art, photography, design , popular culture and architecture.

Nathaniel Gaskell, founder of the project, told Hyperallergic that he noticed “there was very little South Asian art history scholarship or material online”, with most writing on the subject being extremely academic and obtuse, and even then accessible only to those who had institutional affiliations.

While the subcontinent has long enjoyed a rich visual culture, represented by everything from lush manuscript paintings and long traditions of textile production to contemporary multimedia conceptual art, the process of classifying and studying this knowledge through the discipline of art history is more recent.

“Shah Jahan Hunting Blackbuck with Trained Cheetahs” (1710-15), ink, gold and opaque watercolor on paper (image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Most of the platform’s content is currently focused on Indian art, but the resource will expand to include “broader stories from South Asia”. Some items focus recurring motifs in South Asian art (see “Beetle Wing Embroidery”); others cover important publications or works (see the people of India, Volume 1-8). Some describe sophisticated craft techniques (see Varak); still, others summarize important artistic movements (see the school of Bengal). The interface encourages the curiosity of a generalist, who can digest various art history topics by endlessly scrolling from one article to another related one or by clicking on randomly generated topics in a bar lateral. Gaskell’s intention was to launch the encyclopedia with a starter pack of articles, and he expects it to grow over the next few years.

Anirudh Kanisetti, research editor at MAP Academy, spoke to Hyperallergic about the frustration he’s had in searching for “reliable information on various aspects of South Asian art history online.”

“It is difficult to learn more about Indian history through online resources; one of the things people i meet ask me most often is to recommend good books for them to read, because they can’t find more than two or three very dense academic papers online – in stark contrast to the how history is written and taught in the United States and the United Kingdom,” Kanisetti said.

“Indian art the story is even more misunderstood: it is very difficult to find objectively researched and accessible material on something as ubiquitous as, say, the Tanjore painting,” he continued.

Jyoti Bhatt, “A Lady and Children Gathered in Front of a Ritual Pithora Mural” (1992), gelatin silver print (image courtesy of MAP)

Gaskell doesn’t mind the site’s traffic being driven by users who google specific chapters of South Asian art history and briefly visit the platform before clicking. By compiling authoritative information, he also hopes that the MAP Encyclopedia will help improve the substance and rigor of Wikipedia pages on the same topics. Visitors can feel relatively safe about the integrity of the entries – a team of around 20 full-time researcher-writers drafted each one before it was submitted for review by a panel of scholars from seasoned researchers. Editor-in-chief Shrey Maurya, who studies subjects related to South Asian art including miniature painting, Buddhist art and jewelry, joined Gaskell two years ago as the second member of the team. ; Varun Nayar, a Delhi-based writer, editor and researcher, served as editor for a year before leaving for the Aperture Foundation.

The social context that prompted Gaskell to undertake this project, as he said, was the lack of a museum audience and general lack of interest in the discipline of art history in India.

“Even at the undergraduate level, there are hardly any courses,” Gaskell said, adding that despite some 1,600 art schools in the country, few offer art history.

“About three years ago, I realized that if we really wanted to create a wider audience and create more interest [in the museum], we needed to focus more on education. What was missing in education were the arts,” he said.

Thus was the impetus for MAP Academy, which in addition to housing a fledgling encyclopedia also publishes online courses such as “Visual Literacy: How to Read Images”, “Sculpture: Archeology & Architecture” and “Modern & Contemporary Indian Art “. The short version of each course, which lasts approximately four hours, will be launched soon; the long versions will be launched in 2023. These online courses are intended both to satisfy the interest of the self-study and to support teachers and schools who wish to build an art history curriculum.

“Woman riding two Brahman bulls” (1750 BC), bronze (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

While democratizing art history and broadening its field of action to counter its Eurocentrism is a noble project, it is not without pitfalls. As South Asian art historian Frederick Asher noted in an introduction to a collection of Indian art from prehistory to the present day, the very concepts of “art” and “the history of ‘art’ applied to South Asian expression implies the imposition of a western and extractive way. to watch.

“It was not until modern times, when the Western notion of art collecting was imposed on the visual culture of South Asia, that works took on a new meaning,” he writes. “To a large extent, South Asian art collections, public and private, were the result of European colonialism.” Aesthetic judgment systems such as shaved have long guided Indian sensibilities, but the enterprise of art history is one with colonial legacies.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Refugees exercising in a camp to expel lethargy and despair” (1947), gelatin silver print (courtesy MAP)

The history of South Asian art cannot avoid its colonial past, and entries such as that on a taxonomic ethnographic survey of Indian “tribes” or another on an essential photographic exhibition representing Indians but under-representing photographers Indians are vivid examples that what counts as art is synonymous with the exercise of violence and power. And while the online encyclopedia represents an egalitarian access point to art, a recent New York Times The article also highlighted how it could be a good resource for collectors and dealers, those who generally benefit from the potential of exploiting art history.

Gaskell said he hoped the encyclopedia would be used by “everyday people who want to be interested in the content”, people without access to official programs, or simply people with a keen interest in popular history. .

“The work we’re doing here has the potential to be one of the first things people will read when trying to find out more about Indian art in the future,” Kanisetti told Hyperallergic. “The fact that it is based on critical research and written for the general public will ensure that it is one of the most influential Indian public history resources to appear in this decade.”