From prehistoric Bhimbetka cave paintings to works by contemporary art stars like Atul Dodiya and Shilpa Gupta, India has a rich cultural heritage dating back over 10,000 years.
So, it came as a surprise to one of the country’s leading collectors, the businessman and philanthropist Abhishek Poddar, that there was no single source of authoritative information on the subcontinent’s art history.
“I didn’t even realize that India didn’t have an encyclopedia for art. And it was quite shocking that, being one of the oldest cultures in the world, nobody had thought of doing it,” he said over the phone, adding: “Every kid knows about (Michelangelo’s) ‘David,’ the ‘Mona Lisa’ and Botticelli, but there are Indian masterpieces that even 1% of India doesn’t know about.”
Hoping to address this deficit, he has helped launch an encyclopedia of South Asian art with over 2,000 entries spanning famous artifacts, folk traditions, craft techniques and cultural institutions from the region.
Funded by Poddar’s Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), which opens later this year in the southern city of Bengaluru, the open-access resource was created by a group of around 20 researchers and editors. Content was internally peer-reviewed and overseen by a panel of expert scholars and writers.
The site is aimed at everyone from students and academics 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 using clear and concise language, said the project’s founder and director, Nathaniel Gaskell.
“A lot of the scholarship is in ridiculously verbose jargon,” he said in a phone interview, calling the encyclopedia “a response to that kind of writing, which people find quite alienating.”
The research team, which comprises largely of early-career Indian academics, also hoped to redress the various biases – including colonial narratives – that exist in historical arts literature, Gaskell said. This impacted both how the entries are written and what was included in the first place.
“The biases of Western institutions are that they’ve looked only at certain things, and neglected a lot of regional artwork,” said Gaskell, who is also author of the book “Photography in India: A Visual History From the 1850s to the Present.”
“By including regional, non-fine art stuff, we’re immediately starting to address that.”
The initial entries were curated to be representative of the subcontinent’s different religious, linguistic and local traditions, while featuring a broadly equal number of male and female artists. The encyclopedia is also intended to shine a light on the crafts and living traditions of marginalized communities, as well as lesser-studied facets of regional art history – from folk dramas and embroidery to the medieval Indian board game that is known in the US as Chutes and Ladders.
For Poddar, navigating the shortcomings of existing scholarship was primarily about sticking to the facts: “We’re not rewriting history, we are merely writing what’s happened and connecting it in interesting ways.”
Three years in the making, the encyclopedia has initially launched in English, which is widely spoken in India. 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 a year, with a growing focus on the wider region.
“We’re talking about things that are as much a part of Pakistan’s or Bangladesh’s history as they are India’s,” Gaskell said, noting that many of the featured topics predate modern borders.
‘This is global art’
India’s art sector remains heavily reliant on philanthropists like Poddar. The Ministry of Culture’s most recent annual budget was, at 26.9 billion rupees ($351 million), only about a fifth more than what the US’ largest museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spent in 2020.
Poddar, who donated thousands of items from his personal collection to his soon-to-open museum, believes that 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 basis in education – and one that is accessible and available freely, not just to museum visitors,” he said. “You have to start investing in things that you may or may not even see in the next five or 10 years – it may be a generation later.”
The businessman’s funding of projects like the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art is “to some extent” a matter of patriotism, he said.
“I just feel we have such great art,” he added. “And it’s not just for the Indian community in India to see, or the Indian diaspora outside. This is not anybody’s domain – this is global art.”
Top image: “Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch” (1779) by Sheikh Zain al-Din.
This article has been updated to clarify Abhishek Poddar’s title.